How not to save the world

Nina Munk is the author of The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest To End Poverty, her new book on Columbia Professor Jeffrey Sachs. Sachs is the renowned author of The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities For Our Time (foreword by Bono).

Sachs is the man with a plan to end poverty and it has made him a celebrity. He starred in the MTV movie The Diary of Angelina Jolie and Dr. Jeffrey Sachs in Africa. (Jolie and Sachs are pictured together in the photo at the left.) In the movie Jolie calls Sachs “one of the smartest people in the world,” but he apparently couldn’t figure out how to get billing over Jolie in the title. Sachs describes himself in part as follows in his Columbia bio:

Jeffrey D. Sachs is the Director of The Earth Institute, Quetelet Professor of Sustainable Development, and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University. He is Special Advisor to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the Millennium Development Goals, having held the same position under former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. He is Director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

Message: He’s an important and influential guy. Sachs has rounded up a lot of money to establish Millennium Villages demonstrating his theories of economic development in sub-Saharan Africa.

Munk first profiled Sachs for Vanity Fair in the 2007 article “Jeffrey Sachs’s $200 billion dream.” She proceed to spend some six years visiting Sachs’s villages to see how things worked out. She says she has spent much more time in the villages than Sachs himself, who has taken to attacking Munk personally for the findings on offer in her book.

Sachs has characterized Munk as cynical. She is a non-believer. Munk’s findings, however, are not entirely negative. She observes in a Vanity Fair interview that the money can and has been put to some good uses.

Nevertheless, Munk also exposes the comic consequences of liberal fantasy at work and play in poorest Africa. See, for example, James Traub’s Wall Street Journal review and Margaret Wente’s Globe and Mail column. Also of interest is Howard French’s Pacific Standard article “The Not-So-Great Professor: Jeffrey Sachs’ Incredible Failure to Eradicate Poverty in Africa.”

Munk herself talks about the book on C-SPAN Book TV in remarks posted here. Munk’s remarks are prefaced and elicited by the skillful prodding by Barron’s columnist Gene Epstein, followed by questions and answers from the audience. (Epstein quotes from a then forthcoming review of the book in Barron’s by NYU economist/development expert William Easterly; I’d love to add the link to this post if it is available.) I want to emphasize that the fast-moving 47-minute C-SPAN video is worth your time all the way to the end, but if you have any interest in the issues raised, you will find all of the linked items of interest.