A journalist’s probing account of renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs’ Utopian experiment in ending global poverty.
In 2005, Sachs, a “guru” to celebrity activists like Bono and Angelina Jolie, published a best-selling book, The End of Poverty, which claimed that poverty could be eliminated by 2025. His proposal was simple. Developed nations and private donors would pool together massive amounts of foreign aid to invest in forms of self-help that included fertilizer and high-yield grain to improve agricultural output and mosquito nets to prevent malaria. Starting in 2006, Vanity Fair contributor Munk (Fools Rush In: Steve Case, Jerry Levin, and the Unmaking of AOL Time Warner, 2004) followed Sachs on his quixotic quest. She traveled with him on several occasions to Africa, where she watched as he and his team of development experts worked on the Millennium Villages Project, a five-year experiment designed to improve the economic and social well-being of 12 sub-Saharan villages. Sachs’ success with the first Millennium Village in rural Kenya gave him the validation he needed to approach philanthropists like billionaire George Soros and ask for the funds he needed to implement his larger project. However, Sachs underestimated the difficulties he would encounter. Drought, political violence, aging infrastructure, traditional cultural values and resistance to change all undermined the goals of the project—as did the presence of other forms of foreign aid. In some areas, U.N. assistance programs fostered a dependency on outside sources that served as a deterrent to self-empowerment and created what one of Sachs’ colleagues called “refugee syndrome.” Munk is most effective in her depiction of the dangers inherent in imposing theories on the complex and ever-changing lives of real human beings. Radical new ideas are necessary to facilitate change, but no matter how brilliant, they will always and invariably have their limits.
Trenchant and thought-provoking.