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The Idealist review: Road paved with good intentions is very, very long

Nina Munk’s Governor-General’s Award-nominated book The Idealist was described by one critic as “an excellent and moving tribute to the vision and commitment of Jeffrey Sachs” and by another as “a powerful exposé of (Sachs’s) hubris run amok.”

The Idealist is a journalistic eyewitness account of the director of the Earth Institute’s journey so far, his relentless efforts to end extreme poverty in sub-Saharan Africa and its consequences. It is also an encounter with people in isolated areas of Africa living lives that people in developed countries cannot truly grasp.

“I am not an ideologue,” Munk said in a telephone interview. “My book does not attempt to prescribe a solution to world poverty. What it tries to do is to shed light on the horrifying burden of poverty and to give readers a sense of how truly difficult it is to lift people out of poverty.”

Sachs is an American economist affiliated with Columbia University who has worked as an adviser to several governments during their transition from communism to a free-market system. He advised the United Nations secretary-general on the UN’s Millennium Development goals, an international pledge to end extreme poverty by 2015. In that capacity, he founded the Millennium Villages Project—model villages in several African countries in which the ideas are being applied were outlined in his bestselling book The End of Poverty. The idea was that if the interventions brought the desired results, they would be used on a grander scale. Campaigning tirelessly, Sachs raised $120 million to launch his experiment in 10 countries.

Early in the book, Munk quotes George Soros, one of Sachs’s main funders: “There’s a certain messianic quality about him, and it needs to be kept under critical control.”

Though skeptical, Soros contributed $50 million because “As a humanitarian action, it was a good investment on its own. But if it succeeded, then of course you’d get a reward that would be way out of proportion to the investment made.”

The Idealist reveals the unpredictable obstacles foreign aid workers face, despite a sweeping and noble vision and stunning amounts of money at work. It’s very hard to argue with Sachs’s reasoning that each problem has a solution, that compared with what we spend on military defence, foreign aid represents very little of our budget, or that for the price of a Starbucks coffee a day we can save a life or that insecticide-coated mosquito nets should be given free in areas devastated by malaria. But then you find out that sometimes people fished with the nets or protected their goats instead of themselves, because “in a pastoral community, the livestock have more value than humans.” In another incident, rats ate a bumper harvest of corn that no one had wanted to plant in the first place.

It is easy to believe that Sachs is a driven, passionate and compassionate man. But though his stated intentions are beyond reproach, he is fallible, and his project so far did not deliver the promised results, according to Munk. Through Sachs’s story the reader is moved to question the concept of foreign aid. Though $700 billion has been donated to Africa since 1960, many say little progress has been made. Child mortality claims one out of nine children in sub-Saharan Africa, with a third of that caused by malnutrition, according to a recent report by Unicef.

“It’s really important to understand that ending poverty on an economic level is complicated, full of pitfalls. Theories developed in university labs can’t anticipate the complexities of the real world and the unpredictability of human beings,” Munk says. “Far too often we try to impose our ideas and view of the world to faraway places. It’s arrogant and dangerous.” She stresses that she is not, as some say, against foreign aid. “I really believe foreign aid is essential. If anything, it should be increased. What I argue for vociferously is that foreign aid spending be as good as it possibly can be and that people be aware and demand accountability from non-profits and NGOs. All of us want to end poverty but there is a limited amount of donations to fund that work. The key is that the money is well spent.”

The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty by Nina Munk, is published by McClelland & Stewart (Random House of Canada).

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