Book Review: The Idealist by Nina Munk

I heard about this book from Marginal Revolution. Here are some excerpts. It’s a concise and interesting book, great for anyone interested in economic development and foreign aid in Africa.

Journalist and author Nina Munk presented a vivid narrative of how Professor Jeffrey Sachs at Columbia University initiated the Millennium Village Project, a large-scale development program aimed at eliminating extreme poverty and creating opportunities of economic development in Africa. The project has been subject to wide scrutiny especially from development economists like Esther Duflo ever since its birth. It is criticized as untransparent, poorly enforced, and sloppily evaluated.

Sachs expected the project to eradicate extreme poverty and provide a pathway for sustainable economic development among the ultra poor in Africa. This can be seen in his speech in Ruhiira, Uganda:

In five years we are going to end hunger in this community. In five years we are going to bring malaria completely under control. In five years we will have hospitals and clinics through the whole community. In five years you will have beautiful crops. Step by step, poverty will become something of the past!

He probably still holds this aspiration now. But from what I have read in this book, there are four main reasons why this project is unlikely to achieve its goals.

First, it is fundamentally hard to teach people how to be self-reliant, and simply giving them money is not a solution. Many African countries have been receiving aid for as long as they can remember, and their incentive to be self-dependent is low. As Ahmed Mohamed, the former director of MVP’s Dertu project, puts it:

Our people have refugee syndrome. There are so many handouts here. Free food, free medications, free water, free education. And now we come in and talk to them about empowerment.

Second, development projects initiated by foreigners but without the supporting local infrastructure is doomed to fail.

Third, development programs that are not aligned with preexisting market conditions are likely to fail. David Siriri, the person in charge of MVP’s Ruhiira office, once encouraged farmers to grow maize using effective farming methods, hoping that increased yields will lead to higher incomes for them. While the farmers did enjoy a big harvest, they were unable to sell their surplus maize because of the limited demand for maize. To increase the incomes of the poor, development agencies need to consider the dynamics of local markets as well.

Last but not least, cultural conventions and religious beliefs sometimes prevent program beneficiaries from making the most out of development projects. Believing that “everything is written” gives an individual little incentive to work hard because anything can be taken by a supernatural power at anytime. Traditions can also make people economically irrational. For example, Somalis hoard camels even when it makes no economic sense to do so, only because camels symbolize wealth in their culture.

It is a bit poignant for me to see villagers not appreciating the efforts of the MVP staff but asking for more. Common complaints about MVP include lack of transparency, inadequate community participation in decision-making, vaguely defined ownership, etc. Well, all the benefits brought by MVP are essentially a windfall for them, so I guess their high hopes for follow-up work is warranted.


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