International Development

Published on February 17th, 2014 | by Brian O'Donnell

Special Interview: Nina Munk on Jeffrey Sachs and the Millennium Villages Project

Stay in policy school long enough and you’ll notice the growing tendency to treat every problem as a four-dimensional Rubik’s cube just waiting for the right solution. Development studies, in particular, can often fall into the trap of trying to solve a macro phenomenon before fully understanding local economic and political conditions.

This is a central theme behind Nina Munk’s new book, The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty. Ms. Munk, a reporter for Vanity Fair magazine, spent six years following the brilliant economist Jeffrey Sachs as he directed his brain-child, the Millennium Villages Project (MVP), an all-in approach to “end” amendemic rural poverty in Africa. The MVP tested Sachs’s “shock therapy” economic concept by flooding 15 villages with an annual $25 million in direct aid (see map below for village locations). And yet for all the exertion and promises of progress, most development economists agree that much of the program’s positive impact can be explained through broader long-term trends across Africa.

Luckily, Ms. Munk’s book is not an esoteric academic take-down, nor is it a sentimental tribute to tragic idealism. By examining the characters who implemented the program, the Idealist is an accessible introduction to the local human impact of one the grandest failures in development economics. (Think less Three Cups of Tea, and more The Big Short.) With her unprecedented access, Ms. Munk chronicles the Project’s profoundly unfulfilled promises born from Sachs’s hubris, yet the reader can still sense her compassion and respect for Sachs’s tireless advocacy. In so doing, the Idealist testifies to the hard-learned lessons of poverty alleviation policy anywhere: that development is a long-term process, that there are always unintended consequences, and that cultural context matters more than you think.

Locations of Current Millennium Villages
Click on a marker to view village information

Marker colors relate to Village Country’s Life Expectancy at Birth, in years
  • Red: 50 to 55
  • Yellow: 55 to 60
  • Green: 60 to 65

The Baines Report sat down with Ms. Munk before she spoke to LBJ students in Bass Auditorium on Monday.

BR: So after you wrote for Vanity Fair for many years, what made you want to start writing about international development, and Jeffrey Sachs in particular?

NM: My background is in writing about business, as you know—I worked for Forbes and I worked for Fortune—and at Vanity Fair I tended to write about the very rich. And at some point in 2006 it occurred to me that this issue we care so much about, income disparity—now what we now call “the 1%”. And it occurred to me that these were issues of vital importance… In particular after reading Jeffrey Sachs’s book The End of Poverty, it just struck me that this was vital and very important issue, an issue of consequence, deserving our attention. So I began looking into it. And I knew nothing at the time about international development, very little about Africa (I had been there just once before). I can’t say as an educated, relatively affluent North American that I knew much about poverty, thank God, and I decided to try to find a way to write about it, and to raise other people’s cognizance of it. I started out writing a profile just of Jeffrey Sachs for Vanity Fair magazine, and then after spending five or so months following him around and working on that story, I realized that this was clearly something that deserved much greater attention than a single magazine story, and those six months on the magazine turned into six years on the book.

BR: It seemed to me that the MVP created its own set of challenges by insisting on building from the ground up. So, it would establish villages that lacked access to resources—you talked about the one [water] borehole in Dertu, and the pipe system that was needed to transport water in Ruhiira—and this created a huge selection bias problem. Do you think if the Millennium Village Project had focused on towns that were already more established, then the Project would have been more successful?

NM: I think in some ways that question is a moot point. Because it’s like saying if they had tried to help “less poor people” they would have been more successful. In some ways the whole underpinning of the project was to find the poorest of the poor, and those in the most destitute places, with resources that are so lacking, and to try to find a solution for those people. Because those are the people for whom the situation is most dire. Because if you could find a way to lift these people in these terrible, terrible, “godforsaken” places out of poverty, presumably you could also do it in slightly lesser degrees of poverty.

BR: So to follow up on that, you talk in your book about the population booms in these towns, and that migrants were actually attracted to the relative wealth and prosperity of these towns. So in your interactions with them, who were these people, and what did they think about the Millennium Villages Project?

NM: The locals in the village?

BR: Yes, and the migrants who came the village as well.

NM: Well, one of the things I think is so important when you’re working on aid projects…as an outsider, is that, you know, any help is welcome help. And almost by definition, locals in villages welcome, encourage, want more of whatever money is being reported. No one, I don’t even think you or I, is likely to turn our nose up at someone giving us $100,000, or pouring a million dollars into our village. You or I might say, as I say this in my book, that eventually the long-term prognosis is not good. In fact in many ways arguably the villagers were worse off after the fact than they were before, but… no one’s going to tell you that up front. There were problems. One of the things that I observed again and again was the villagers would themselves lobby to try to get more money and more help from the MVP, even though some of it was going missing, buildings weren’t complete, projects were going to hell. But it’s part of human survival.

BR: Right, they had to campaign for what was working right?

NM: Exactly.

BR: Getting back to your point that some might have been worse off. You also briefly mention in the book the data collection process to inform future decisions for the MVP. But there lots of challenges just with collecting honest responses from people [depending on aid], and also even identifying a cause and effect relationship without a control group. Just how valuable do you think these data collected actually were?

NM: Right, it’s a problem that everyone faces in poor countries, and those of us trying to do research in poor countries. Everyone widely acknowledges that the data is very, very poor quality. The local data is crummy, the government data is crummy… The most basic data is very difficult to gather, and it’s very problematic. And we do the best we can with the data were given because it’s all we have. But you have to acknowledge that, and that when you’re in an isolated African village and someone drops dead on a Monday morning, there may be no one who knows why that person dropped dead. We’re not doing an autopsy; he or she wasn’t in the hospital to be administered to by doctors and given MRIs… and people would just come say in the village and say: well he died! Well… what did he die of? Did he die of malaria? Did he die of just old age? Tropical disease?

BR: Something preventable or unpreventable.

NM: Right! And it’s very hard to know. And I think the problem is that it can be difficult without metrics and without good data to make good policy recommendations, and that’s part of what makes our jobs so difficult.

BR: Yeah, and that’s an interesting point too about making policy decisions based on those data. I saw you mentioned on Twitter the other day that it’s hard to tell when Jeff Sachs is trying to be a scientist and when he’s trying to be an advocate. And it seems to me that we as policy students are faced with that dilemma a lot.

NM: Right yes, and the role of advocacy is so important. And we recognize that, we know that many issues in the international arena do not advance unless they have advocacy—unless you get people out there to protest, unless you get celebrities to talk and tweet about it. And at the same time we’re also aware that the downside of the kind of advocacy that doesn’t have a scientific underpinning is that resources can get misspent. Things get spent on one cause when in fact there’s something else that makes imminently more sense to spend money on. You know if you talk in a very crass way, what’s the best bang for the buck? And this is what scientists can try to figure out.  We know that there is only a limited amount of foreign aid—we know there isn’t going to be more, even though we can pretend and plan and wish that the US government will spend more on aid, but truthfully, we know… we have to make do. And lives are at stake! So what is the best way and most efficient way to save lives? That’s where you really cross over from just being an advocate and constantly yelling and pounding the pavement and say, “Ok, let’s sit down, let’s look at the fact that we have limited resources and that literally a billion lives or more hang in the balance. Let’s appreciate how enormous these decisions are and make the best decisions we can with our limited resources and with the most accountability possible.”

Photo Credit: Michelle Toussaint, The Daily Texan

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About the Author

Brian O'Donnell

is a second-year Masters of Public Affairs student at the LBJ School, specializing in global development applications for technology and information policy. You can follow him on Twitter at @1ambodo.

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