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Nina Munk’s ‘The Idealist’ comes with a heavy dose of discomfort. In fact, it’s almost all uncomfortable, all the time. And that’s a good thing if you like ambiguous endings.

The book paints a vivid picture of economist Jeffrey Sachs’ ambitious Millennium Villages Project and highlights the tension that lies beneath not just this but arguably every “development” endeavour.

The ambivalence of it all is conveyed not in technical or academic terms but rather indirectly, through the voices of people living in and managing the experimental villages. By simply showing us, Munk lets us make up our minds.

The question of the sustainability of the entire project is, for most of us, a fait accompli, but even when you know where the book is going, it’s an uncomfortable feeling nonetheless.

This book focuses mainly on two Millennium Villages – Dertu, in Kenya’s Northeastern Province, and Ruhiira, in Uganda.

These villages are part of a multi-million dollar project involving dozens of villages across Africa, launched in 2006 with financial backing from the likes of George Soros and support from the United Nations.

The reporting that went into this book is tremendous, and it’s hardly a surprise – Munk is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair with previous writing and editorial positions at Forbes and Fortune magazines.

The New York-based journalist spent six years visiting and reporting on the Millennium villages, accompanying Sachs on official visits, sitting in on some very high-up conversations, and interviewing people on the ground.

Munk describes a tremendously bright but also very bullish man convinced the end of poverty in Africa would come by drastically upping aid flows and reshaping economies village-by-village.

What she makes evident from Page One is Sachs’ ambition and frantic sense of urgency to end poverty by reshaping the worlds’ economies. (And you might notice Sachs’ talk of “ladder of development” smacks of 1960s-style “stages of growth” theory.)

One passage reports a meeting between Sachs and Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, telling him his vision for installing water pumps in Ruhiira to save the residents the trek down steep paths to a contaminated water hole:

“Sachs circled back to the subject of the Millennium Villages Project: with the right interventions, success was almost guaranteed. ‘My impression, Mr. President, is that this will all happen within one year,’ he assured Museveni. ‘And it shows to me a pretty basic point, which is that when we’re talking about extreme world poverty, it shouldn’t take a lot of time to make a difference. Just a couple of years could make a huge difference – with the right targeted investments, starting with agriculture, getting inputs to the farmers, getting basic health care, getting school feeding programs, and – it’s a bigger budget item, but I’d say, you know – making sure there’s a graded road and electricity connection, that will change the whole landscape.’”

Along with extensive interviews, Munk also consulted all manner of documents, reports and correspondence relating to the project to help expose the cracks. And she will tell you in those cases where she was denied access, namely, the reports summing up the myriad problems encountered trying to distribute and manage loans to small-scale farmers in Ruhiira and other villages. (And that in itself is telling.)

At the same time, however, Sachs’ tremendous prowess and sheer personal commitment to the project is not lost on us through the book.

The ‘Idealist’ does offer that rare treat of hearing people speak as themselves, through direct quotations, rather than through academic prose.

David Siriri, the head of the project in Ruhiira, retells in very striking terms the challenge that came with trying to marry Sachs’ massive think-big ideas with the realities on the ground. A few years into the project, dwindling millions and some internal dissent, the official approach shifted from straight-up aid dollars and handouts for agriculture to low-interest loans.

“Drawing on his budget, Siriri was expected to extend credit to farmers for fertilizer and seeds, with the idea that after the harvest, once they’d sold their crops, they would pay back the cost of the inputs. To Siriri, this was not a realistic plan. ‘I said to him, ‘Jeff, to be honest, we are not ready for input credits. We need to keep subsidizing. These are peasants, living hand to mouth, and you are telling me to extend to them a one-million-dollar line of credit that must be paid back? That’s a very tall order indeed!’’”
Written like a very long and very engaging journalistic feature, ‘The Idealist’ shows that the people behind it all – the people on both sides of the debate around Sachs’ approach – are just as important as their ideas and theories.

Amid the commentary from opposing academics, policymakers and people on the ground, Munk also fairly raises the point that in some ways, lives were vastly improved in the first phase of the Millennium Villages Project – better nutrition, schooling and maternal health indicators.

But, we can only conclude after reading what’s there, is that aside from improvements in those fields, the experiment (can we really call it anything else?) is not delivering in the way Sachs so vividly imagined. Local economies are skewed, ways of life are seemingly illogically changed and there is a lot of confusion.

There’s an added dose of discomfort with this book which Douglas Bell insightfully raised in his review of The Idealist in Toronto’s The Globe and Mail earlier in October: Munk is the daughter of Canadian mining magnate Peter Munk, founder of Barrick Gold, a Toronto-based mining company with operations in Africa – Tanzania and Zambia, for example – and with a lousy environmental and human rights record.

“Not a word of these clear impediments to African development … appears anywhere in the book,” Bell writes in his review. Munk, though an excellent reporter, fails “in any significant way to address the promise which led her to the reporting in the first place.”

The book ends with the thorny question of just how the Millennium Villages will survive once the project winds down in 2015.

The book offers no solutions but in it, Munk does bring some of the tough questions directly to Sachs himself – whether it’s on the road between meetings or lectures or, finally, in the back yard of his $8 million New York townhouse. The economist answers them, even the toughest ones, albeit sometimes dismissively or even defensively.

“Where on earth would the money come from to complete the work in the Millennium Villages? (Munk) asked Sachs. ‘It is what it is,’ he replied. ‘And that’s not meant to be callous.’”

Nearer the end of the final chapter, Munk gives Sachs even more air time: “I believe in the contingency of life,” he tells the author one rainy afternoon after a two-hour interview where he appeared tired and, by the end of it, irritated. “When I say I have conviction, it’s the conviction that this is the best we can do. I’m not betting the planet on anything. This is isn’t one grand roll of the dice. The world is complicated, hard, and messy.”

It is quite a change from the full-steam-ahead Sachs of the earlier years.

The ‘Idealist’ is not a technical or academic read, although the notes at the back of the book are thorough and worth a browse, too. Rather, it’s a good place to start for someone new to development economics or a reader looking for the “big picture” in an engaging and colourfully-told story.

‘The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the quest to end poverty’, by Nina Munk, is published by Signal – McLelland & Stewart; 260 pages. CAD $32.95

* Beatrice Fantoni is a journalist in Canada.