I had the great privilege of seeing writer and journalist Nina Munk deliver a keynote address at the recent International Forum, put on by WUSC and CECI. I’d read her book – The Idealist – last year and found it very thought provoking, and – perhaps surprisingly, for a book on foreign aid – a genuine page-turner.
Nina Munk delivers keynote address at the WUSC - CECI International Forum
She describes Columbia University economics professor Jeffrey Sachs’s Millennium Villages Project in Sub Saharan Africa, based on his potentially game-changing vision of how development should be delivered. In a very simplified form, Sachs’s theory was that rather than spreading development interventions ‘thinly’ over a broad geographic area, practitioners should focus on specific villages and ‘crowd in’ a wide range of services, including health and sanitation, education, improved agricultural practices and increased access to markets. As the lives of these villagers improved, those living in nearby areas would see the benefits of these changes and adopt ‘better’ practices.
Nina Munk’s book describes the ways in which this vision – bold though it was – fell short. Lives were certainly changed, with improved health, income levels and agricultural outputs. But Sachs’s bold and sweeping vision didn’t account for a whole host of factors, including the complexity of local conditions and the seemingly irrational nature of human behaviour. The Idealist gives detailed and depressing accounts of the limited and sometimes negative impact of this project on the inhabitants of the villages.
At this point, a less skilled writer might have directed her criticism at the Millennium Villages Project, or the brain behind the project, or the admittedly flawed world of international development. However, after spending six years researching this book, extended periods of which were spent living in two of the 12 Millennium Villages, Munk cares a great deal about the people she has met. She resists the temptation to vilify Sachs, too, and her portrait of him is delicately nuanced: brilliant, committed and tireless on one hand, he was also short-sighted, dismissive and utterly devoid of doubt.
Being wrong has consequences. When you are working with vulnerable people, these consequences can be devastating. In the book and speaking at the International Forum, Munk calls for us to go about our work with a degree of humility. No one knows all the answers – not Ivy League professors, not experienced development professionals – but those who live with challenges every day are much more likely to understand the problems.