OPINION: Exploring the Millennium Villages Project: has it improved lives in Africa?
Tuesday, June 3, 2014
Passion blinded him to the realities on the ground
Idealistic ‘Field of Dreams’ approach was doomed to failure, according to Bill Gates.
BONO calls economist Jeffrey Sachs “the squeaky wheel that roars”.
To me, Jeffrey Sachs is the Bono of economics — a guy with impressive intelligence, passion, and powers of persuasion who is devoting his gifts to speaking up for the world’s poorest.
So I was not surprised that a journalist would find Sachs to be a compelling central character for a book — and a good way to draw readers into the potentially dry subject of international development.
In The Idealist, Vanity Fair writer Nina Munk draws a nuanced portrait of Sachs and his Millennium Villages Project — a $120m (€88m) demonstration project intended to show the world that it’s possible to lift African villages out of poverty through a massive infusion of targeted assistance. It would have been easy, and perhaps more marketable, for Munk to draw a caricature, overly accentuating Sachs’s negative qualities at the expense of his great gifts. But she doesn’t.
Munk spent six years researching for the book, getting to know Sachs well and living for extended periods in two of the 15 Millennium Villages. Unlike most books about international development, Munk’s book is very readable. It’s a valuable — and, at times, heartbreaking — cautionary tale. While some of the Millennium Villages succeeded in helping families improve their health and incomes, the two villages that Munk spent the most time studying — Dertu, Kenya, and Ruhiira, Uganda — did not come close to realising Sachs’s vision.
When Sachs first started planning the project, he came to our foundation for support. We were already a big supporter of his efforts at Columbia University’s Earth Institute and felt it was invaluable to have him focused on the needs of poor countries. His pitch was intriguing. He was picking a handful of villages to be the focus of intense interventions in health, education, and agriculture — all at once.