the idealist by nina munk book review

the idealist by nina munk book review

Overview of The Idealist – Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Global Poverty – by Nina Munk

The Idealist by Nina Munk is a fascinating account of Jeffrey Sach’s quest to end global poverty during the early years of this century. It was an audacious project, but one preceded by perceived success in some other audacious projects. The book follows the project as it develops, and as it adapts (or changes track completely, depending on your perspective). Mostly though, this is a book that catalogues the reasons why development in Africa (the focus of the book is mostly on Africa, although the project had an international scope) is hard. Hubris and money alone won’t solve this problem.

Jeffrey Sachs and the Millennium Villages Project

Jeffrey Sachs had an impressive track record before he turned his attention to tackling poverty in Africa. He had applied his patent ‘shock therapy’ to the Bolivian economy, and managed some impressive turnaround statistics. He applied a similar formula to post-Soviet Poland, also with some impressive results. He then applied the same formula to post-Soviet Russia, and got less impressive results. This was a man that liked to thing big though, and after fixing problems with entire economies, what to do next?

In 1995, when Jeffrey Sachs turned his attention to ending global poverty, he started with what he thought he’d learned from his economic turnarounds. You’ve got to think big, and you’ve got to apply lots of money and blitz everything at once. To make a turnaround happen you need to take an integrated approach – it’s no use tackling one part of the problem, you need to tackle all of the problems at once. His analogy is tackling a forest fire. There’s no sense tackling one area of the fire in isolation as the fire itself will keep burning and will simply return to the area you’ve extinguished as soon as you’ve left. Sachs wrote all of this down in a book, boldly named ‘The End of Poverty’, taking a cue, no doubt from Frances Fukuyama’s ‘The End of History’ – pop stars and actresses in the ‘end poverty’ camp loved him: Bono and Angelina Jolie to note two.

global poverty can be solved by 2025

Sachs was driven by the simple (although naive) observation that because the developed world is rich enough to prevent poverty – he quotes the low number of dollars needed, just one percent of the rich world’s income each year – and because the interventions needed are simple and cheap, this is project that will almost inevitably be successful if we simply put in enough money and target it in the right places. Just in case the rich countries push back on such a commitment, Sachs would remind them of the alternative – wars and mass migration. Global poverty can be solved by 2025, if we followed his formula. Other writers and Sachs both agree that the $700bn in aid that has been delivered to post-colonial Africa has failed to improve the situation of Africans. For most, the conclusion is that aid doesn’t work. For Sachs, the conclusion to be drawn from this is that there hasn’t been enough aid.

poverty trap

The problem to be solved was a poverty trap, in which there was ‘an overwhelming, interconnected burden of disease, illiteracy high fertility rates,dismal agricultural productivity, lack of capital, weak or non-existent infrastructure, debt,hunger, drought, malnutrition’ (Munk, p31) Sach’s approach was to target four main areas, all at once: agriculture, health, infrastructure and education. And the four are linked – healthier and better educated workers are more productive and thus better able to feed themselves and others. Better diet improves health…Better infrastructure supports better hospitals and makes it easier to link to the market economy. The project was activated through model villages – Millennium Villages, with the administration of the project being done using their own staff, to avoid government corruption.

After 5 years, Sachs changed direction. He no longer believed that a big push of lots of small simple interventions was going to be enough. He moved from the aid model to a venture capital model. What was needed was to treat development like an investment. The focus in agriculture would be on cash crops, not sustainability, and there would be more focus on (more expensive) infrastructure.

health issues in africa

Africa is riven with health issues that can be solved or contained relatively simply. AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis being the main issues. As Sachs is quoted in the book, ‘you can’t have development if everyone is sick all the time.’

In The Idealist by Nina Munk, three of the key pillars in Sach’s strategy to improve health, were:

  • an attempt to irradicate malaria. This could be done if 300 million sleeping sites in Africa were covered by insecticide-treated malaria nets – ‘Fever destroys the capacity to work, annihilates energy, and renders a people sluggish and indifferent’ – a Sicilian prefect quoted in Munk p93,  Mass immunisation would be cheap, and
  • in an area where there were none, a small number of health care professionals, and better hospitals could make a huge difference – access to electricity using generators was important to this end, and
  • secure sources of clean water and other simple hygiene improvements such as pit toilets.

solving hunger in africa

Hunger could be solved, in Sach’s mind, by using subsidised fertilisers and high-yield seeds, much along the lines of the Green Revolution in the Indian subcontinent. ‘With improved inputs, veterinary care, better breeding, a farmer’s cooperative, tapping the Tana river…’ the problems of agricultural productivity could be solved. After 5 years of experimentation with high-yield crops, Sachs changed track. ‘Staple crops and tomatoes and sweet potatoes and all that stuff is fine – but it ain’t going to make you rich. What we need is commercial agriculture.’ The model shifted from one of aid, to one looking for venture capital. Moving up the value chain, from subsistence to cash crops.

improving education in africa

Universal education could be achieved by eliminating primary school fees and establishing better schools. School attendance could be increased by offering children free meals, which also helped relieve malnutrition.

improving infrastructure in africa

The focus on infrastructure increased in the second phase of the project. In phase two, the venture capital phase, Sachs recognised the essential role of electricity. “I’m pretty much convinced that any kind of high-value crop.. depends on better water control than we have right now. We really can’t get to the next stage without drip irrigation and microcosm and refrigeration and storage and better clones and larger nurseries and paved roads. And we just need to get electricity into villages – I think the end of poverty definitely depends on universal access to electricity. Basically, we can’t get to the next stage without things that cost a lot of money’.

the problems with aid projects in africa

Sach’s project didn’t deliver the results it promised, and poverty in Africa is not going to be solved by 2025. Amongst the many barriers that development projects in Africa face are, in no particular order;

cultural issues in africa

In some areas of Africa, religious beliefs encourage confidence in ‘medicines’ that simply don’t work – camel’s urine is believed to be a cure for AIDS by some in Somalia. Similarly, some Somalis didn’t attend government schools for fear of being converted to Christianity. In one of the Millennium villages the project leader tried to convince the locals to make hay from their grass, to sustain their cattle over the next drought. ‘God has brought us this grass… it is not ours to cut’. he was told. p53.

Somali men refused to do certain types of work, and believed that project resources should be made available to them when they needed them – eg to take people to hospital or to transport goods. ‘Someone else wanted help paying his son’s school fees. Someone else wanted Idris to send the project’s pickup truck to find his lost camel. Another man pleaded to have water trucked to… a settlement.. where the reservoir had been dry…’ p192  Locals in Kenya wanted to protect their lifestyle and resisted the attempts of government agents to produce a land survey. But without this there could be no land titles or property rights, and without (these), nothing of permanence could be built in Dertu.’ p199

interventions assume rational actors

Many of the Africans in the Millennium Villages Project also did not conform to the standard rational economic man model that much aid is based on. Interventions often assume rational actors – for example the establishment of a local market. But for some Africans, time is not money. They have plenty of time, and will spend that time however they need to to get money. If that means walking four days to a more remote market, so be it. ‘Traditionally, nomadic pastoralists rely on smoke to keep mosquitos from attacking their livestock. However, using smoke … means that someone has to rekindle the fire every hour or so throughout the night. ‘It is easier to simply use the nets to protect the animals… and in a pastoral community, the livestock have more value than humans.’

environmental issues in africa

Droughts are common, and can destroy crops, people and livestock. When the rains come, they often flood, and whatever agricultural progress has been made gets washed away. In Dertu, the drought-resistant crop was devoured by a swam of ‘locust birds’.

Sudden outbreaks of disease, aside from the direct impact on people and livestock, can have an indirect impact when markets are temporarily closed, bringing a local economy to a grinding halt.

economic issues in africa

Lack of infrastructure – poor roads means that it takes a lot of time and money to get aid resources to the point where they are needed. Aid vehicles are written off as they are worked hard on poor roads. Lack of banks means that villagers hide money, and this can get washed away in floods. In one Millennium Village, switching to maize produced a large surplus, but there were no storage facilities to put the surplus, so it was eaten by rats. Lack of local demand for a crop that people didn’t like meant that most of the surplus that wasn’t eaten by rats was either dumped on the market, with consequent low prices, or was simply left to rot.

In African societies, the lack of legitimate means of keeping above water, or getting ahead encourages crime and corruption.

crime and corruption in africa

Despite the additional expense of needing to hire security guards and police escorts to protect the resources and people from attack, they still suffered. Solar panels are stolen. Loans are often not repaid – in one of the Kenyan villages the default rate was around 2/3, and in Tanzania they were higher than that.

In the midst of flood, disease and drought, Kenya’s government granted it’s own members huge pay increases. ‘In 2006…in a country where the per capita income was $770 a year, they were already earning about $100,000 a year..’ p51 In Uganda, Munk shows us the lack of interest the president had in trying to solve his country’s problems, and in Tanzania, one of the darlings of the aid donors, we see a president that effectively takes instruction from aid agencies, and is not willing to try something different that might upset his relationship with those agencies on which they are dependent. “Won’t they be angry? The thing is, they have the money, and they decide what is best for us’. p110 The aid agencies also contribute to Tanzania’s general budget, in addition to investing in particular projects.

issues with the development projects themselves

  • The form of the aid – and this speaks to much charity – donors often prefer to do something, it makes them feel better, rather than simply giving money, which would be more effective. One of the donors for the Millennium Villages Project provided PVC piping, much needed to bring water from where it was to where it was needed. However, by providing the pipes themselves they caused problems. The pipes were expensive to transport, and incompatible with local fixtures. It would have been better if they’d just donated cash so that local pipes could have been sourced.
  • Lack of adequate planning – when the focus moved to cash crops there wasn’t enough understanding of the economics. Pineapples were too expensive to transport,  and there wasn’t an economic market for ginger or banana flour.
  • Price escalation – ‘Everything in Dertu was proving more expensive that the Millennium Villages Project had planned for: fuel, staple foods, building supplies. The value of the US dollar had fallen and prices had soared since the project’s launch..’ This leads to the half-finished project syndrome. The boy’s dormitory at the school was finished, but there was no money left for mattresses. Locals demanded more money than originally agreed to finish projects or to work.
  • Lack of sustainability – In five years time the mosquito nets from Sach’s push would need replacing… where would the money come from then? At least with the traditional method there was a market and local production – it was sustainable, but it wasn’t getting coverage due to the prices being charged. “Broken water pumps, half-finished health care clinics, abandoned housing blocks, roads that lead nowhere, dams that have collapsed – Africa is strewn with the remains of well-meaning development projects..the problem is, when you walk away, what happens?’… who will buy fuel and supply spare parts for the generators?’ p135
  • Competing projects can undermine each other – Sachs proposed distributing 300 million insecticide-treated malaria nets. But giving these away free would destroy the private market that the donors had so carefully built up in Tanzania. Local factories would be shuttered. Retailers would go under.

conclusion – are aid projects in africa a lost cause?

Yes. Hundreds of billions of dollars have already been spent, and the gap between rich and poor countries has grown significantly. Many African countries are now less able to feed their populations, and are more unstable than they were during the colonial era. Aid projects have arguably saved lives, and reduced migration to the rich north, but they have not created sustainable development.

Sachs’ analogy of the forest fire is wrong. Sure you need to blitz it or poverty will creep back, but Sachs is addressing the symptoms, not the cause. The problem for Africa is the international system – it’s a more structural problem and not one that can be solved by treating the patient, no matter how much money and focus is poured in. That approach is akin to trying to solve unemployment by educating the unemployed.

the idealist by nina munk – book review

In summary – Nina Munk’s book is a fascinating read, well written and accessible. 10/10 from me.


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