The perils of hubris: review of “The Idealist” by Nina Munk

A masterful character study and window into the human experiences of the development enterprise.

In “The Idealist”, author Nina Munk, has done a masterful character study of Jeffrey Sachs; her narrative captures his brilliance and passion, as well as his hubris and hyper-sensitivity to criticism. Her book also portrays, at a human level, some of the persistent challenges and characteristic failings of the development enterprise.

Anyone with even a passing interest in the efforts outsiders make to “develop” poor countries and poor people will want to read this book. It should be required reading for development students and professionals.

The early section conveys Sachs’ impressive intellectual gifts and achievements (tenured Harvard professor at 28). Most of Munk’s narrative, however, focuses on his efforts to help developing countries. He starts out providing advice to Bolivia and Poland – on macroeconomics and stabilization – topics close to his research, and, on which he is an acknowledged expert. These early contributions are viewed positively. He provides similar support to Russia’s more problematic reforms in the 90s. Discussing Russia’s disappointing results, Sachs blames Robert Rubin, Dick Cheney and Larry Summers (p 22). This is the first manifestation of his delusions about the primacy of influence outsiders have on how a country or society evolves; it is far from the last.

Despite the Russian disappointments, Sachs had acquired a taste for engaging in real world events, and especially helping to fix other countries. In the early 2000s, he broadens his activities well beyond his professional expertise, and sets his sights on ending poverty in the developing world.

Sachs determines the world’s poor are stuck in a “poverty trap” and an intense package of coordinated support (a “big push”) is what is needed to get them out. He contrasts this with traditional development assistance which he perceives to be too piecemeal and fragmented. Eventually, this led him to launch the Millenium Village initiative. Sachs passion and advocacy skills allowed him to mobilize millions of dollars to demonstrate the transformative power of this new, and improved, development strategy. In researching her book , Nina Munk spent considerable time over 6 years in two “Millenium Villages” supported by the Sachs-led project. The effort pays off; this part of the book really shines. Munk tells the story of implementing Sachs’ vision in a Kenyan village (Dertu) and a Ugandan one (Ruhiira). She captures essential elements of the complex relationship between “the helpers” and those whom they wish to help. Her portrayal of individual aid recipients and implementers is compelling and compassionate. She conveys much of what is involved, on the ground, up close and personal, with implementing aid. And, she captures something of what it feels like to be a recipient of development assistance. In doing so, she captures, at a human level, some of the persistent challenges and characteristic failings of the development enterprise.

Munk shows how important a compelling vision is to mobilizing attention and funding. And she shows the mechanics of how this vision can break down when it meets reality and real people. She shows just how it is that “top down” approaches to helping far-away people fail.

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