The Idealist: a brilliant, gripping, disturbing portrait of Jeffrey Sachs

October 31, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

For The Idealist, Nina Munk, a Vanity Fair journothe-idealist cover, stalked Jeffrey Sachs for six years, focusing on his controversial Millennium Villages Project (MVP). She interviewed the man, sat in on his meetings with bigwigs, and hung around the Millennium Villages to find out what happened when the Prof’s entourage moved on.

The result is more subtle than a simple hatchet job. She portrays Sachs as a man of almost pathological drive and egotism, which both leads to big successes (massive victories on distribution of free anti-malarial bednets for example) and to a refusal to listen or learn from criticism. He comes across as a kind of uber-campaigner, devoid of doubt, absolutely refusing to take no for an answer, dismissive (often in highly personal terms) of anyone who disagrees with him.

There are some memorable vignettes, captured by Munk’s unblinking observation. Sachs lecturing Uganda’s bored President Museveni about boosting farm yields with free fertilizer, when all the President wants is his cup of tea, concluding (as he leaves) ‘This is not India or China, Professor. There are no markets. There is no network. No rails. No roads. We have no political cohesion.’

Where next?

Where next?

Or a horrendous confrontation with aid donors in a posh Tanzanian hotel. Sachs asks to ‘speak briefly’ and launches into a lecture on how to end Tanzania’s poverty and the case for distributing bednets. Any questions? Silence for a full minute, then this from USAID head Pamela White: ‘I don’t want to argue with you Jeff, because I don’t want to be called ignorant or unprofessional. I have worked in Africa for 30 years. My colleagues combined have worked in the field for one hundred plus years . We don’t like your tone. We don’t like you preaching to us. We are not your students. We do not work for you.’

Completely undeterred, Sachs goes off to his next meeting and persuades Tanzania’s president of the case (against donor opposition) for free bednets.

To which an activist  might say ‘see what a great campaigner he is? He thinks big; he brooks no opposition. He gets it that ‘they always say no until they say yes’. He’s a role model!’

And they’d be partly right – think Jubilee 2000, or access to medicines, or the Arms Trade Treaty – all of them were opposed by sensible experts with ‘years in the field’ saying it was impossible. Until people said yes.

But what if Sachs is wrong? Where does he get his cosmically forceful opinions and recommendations from? It certainly doesn’t seem to be from listening to poor people (listening clearly isn’t his thing). The bednet hero is also the guy behind disastrous structural adjustment programmes in Russia and Bolivia.

And whenever he moves beyond simply lobbying for more aid cash, he seems to come unstuck. Nowhere more so than the MVPs. Munk steps smartly between the global Sachs bandwagon and the slow grind of the village projects. She gets to know both villagers and African MVP staffers, charting their hopes, initial successes and (eventually) disillusion as the money runs out and/or things go wrong. The MVPs follow the arc of previous ‘big push’ efforts such as Integrated Rural Development – new crops rot in the absence of roads or markets; stuff gets stolen; governments fail to allocate cash to fill new schools and hospitals with staff and equipment. Technical fixes founder because there is no understanding of (or interest in) power, politics or how stuff happens (or doesn’t).

By the end of the book, Munk portrays Sachs as a slightly tragic figure, bored by the albatross of the MVPs, whose bubble has been burst by failure and a refusal to acknowledge the crescendo of criticism over its lack of independent evaluation of its $120m spending. Sachs is now ‘like a sawed-off shotgun, scattering ammunition in all directions’, in tweets on the Eurocrisis, climate change, Robin Hood Tax, energy, News Corporation corruption. Sachs’ even becomes a bit of a joke when he nominates himself for World Bank president.

Mind you, I don’t think Sachs sees it that way. Here he is today, making the case for more aid for the Global Fund.

The book ends quoting Sachs: ‘You can have a firm conviction even in an uncertain world – it’s the best you can do, actually – and that is the nature of

So where's the millennium village?

So where's the millennium village?

my conviction.’

But for me this also shows the limits to conviction, unless it is accompanied by lots of other stuff – humility, listening deeply to the people you are trying to help, not dismissing your critics, admitting and learning from failure. Even a steamroller (especially a steamroller) needs to be pointed in the right direction.

Absent all those, Sachs reminds me of some literary figure, a tragic hero battling to change the world for the better (in his eyes), brought low by his own arrogance, the machinations of lesser beings and the messiness of reality.

I asked people via Twitter for suggestions for who that literary character might be. A Russian – Pierre in War and Peace? Maybe Depardieu’s character  in Jean de Florette? I can’t believe Shakespeare hasn’t got such a figure – any nominations?

For other reviews see here.

[Update: most extraordinary suggestion yet on literary comparisons? Klaus Kinski/Fitzcarraldo – thanks to Hauke Maas for that one]

October 31, 2013
Duncan Green