"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


Arrogance and the Idealist: a review & giveaway of Nina Munk's new Jeff Sachs bio

It's hard to come up with anything to say about Nina Munk's magnificent new book that hasn't already been said.  The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty takes as its task trying to understand Sachs and his Millennium Villages Project (MVP). Munk, who had a high level of access to Sachs and his staff for about six years, details the MVP as the realities of development, culture, and community preferences slam up against Sachs' expertise and view that the solutions to global poverty are primarily technical.

Others have written about how Munk beautifully portrays Sachs' hubris in the face of overwhelming evidence that some of his ideas are not working, pushback from experts and local leaders, and signals of distress from MVP field staff. This will no doubt be very satisfactory to Sachs' most stringent critics, who have long puzzled over why he was initially so resistant to having the MVP rigorously evaluated using the gold standard of impact evaluation methods, randomized control trials.

Munk's narrative is damning on these and many other accounts. It is an absolute must-read for anyone who is interested in doing good for those in need. Far from writing a cheerleader's account about someone who "just wants to help," Munk raises questions about whether poverty actually has technical solutions, or whether cultural norms and behaviors can derail even the most well-funded and planned activities. For example, Sachs' purpose-built livestock market in the Dertu, Kenya MVP now sits mostly unused. The reason? Somali-Kenyans living in the area don't want to sell their livestock in Dertu. Camels and goats are a sign of a family's wealth and serve as a kind of savings account for difficult times. In ordinary times, nobody wants to sell those animals - it would be like an American selling off her house to cash in on equity when he or she has no reason to want to move.

Technical solutions to the problems of poverty are all the rage in the era of randomized control trials and other well-designed studies of the impacts (or lack thereof) of particular interventions. There are good reasons for this; we need to have evidence as to whether some interventions work, and when we have such evidence, we can direct resources so they have the maximum impact to improve people's lives. But RCTs and other rigorous impact evaluations often lack a key element in their research designs: understanding the why's and how's behind program success or failure. The lack of contextual understanding is particularly important in understanding why interventions fail. For example, the excellent Tuungane I evaluation by a group of Columbia University scholars led by Macartan Humphreys showed clearly that an International Rescue Committee program on community-level reconstruction did not change participant behaviors. The study was as well designed as an RCT can be, and its conclusions are very convincing. But as the authors note, we don't actually know why the intervention failed. To find that out, we need the kind of thick descriptive qualitative data that only a mixed methods study can provide. (Full disclosure: I'll be leading an evaluation of a later phase of the Tuungane project to learn if anything has changed. More on that later.) A well-designed RCT makes it easier to ask those questions by providing clues and bases for hypothesizing on what went wrong.

I suspect that if Sachs had been willing to submit to rigorous, independent evaluation from the beginning of the MVPs, we might have a basis on which to test questions about why and how the MVP interventions succeeded and failed. As it is, we don't have that data. But Nina Munk has done a great service in her detailed description of the process by which the MVPs and Sachs got to where they are today. While I'm not hopeful that this will actually happen, an honest, independent evaluation of the project's failures might be the best thing that could happen for the MVPs and the field of development studies.

What do you think? Have you read Munk's book?

I have a free copy of Nina Munk's The Idealist to give away. If you'd like a chance to win, please leave a comment below. I'll use a random number generator to choose a winner. Comments will close at 5pm EST on Thursday, November 7. Please note that I can only ship the book to addresses in the US and Canada - deepest apologies to those of you living further afield.


Blogger Maria said...

my husband would love this book. i might be able to wade through some of it myself:)

Monday, November 04, 2013 10:17:00 AM

Blogger Ben said...

I would love to read this book!

Monday, November 04, 2013 10:33:00 AM

Blogger Unknown said...

It was interesting to read Easterly's review of Munk's book -- he's obviously a bit weary of being the anti-Sachs. It's very gratifying to see the needle swing toward more evidence-based approaches.

Monday, November 04, 2013 10:39:00 AM

Blogger christinap said...

Would love a copy of the book. Thank you!

Monday, November 04, 2013 11:36:00 AM

Anonymous Akhila said...

Have been wanting to read this book- would love a copy. Thank you!

Monday, November 04, 2013 12:05:00 PM

Blogger Sambieni said...

Maybe there's no free lunch but i guess there's such a thing as a free book. Every review of Sachs' MVP work seems to fail to mention that the vast majority of development projects are never evaluated - perhaps more than 90%. Of course this is no defense of the MVP failures but it speaks to the larger purpose of development projects, which have only recently come under broad scrutiny for their impacts. Why aren't they evaluated? is a big question. It is easy to conclude that maybe all development projects fail, some more than others. Then we're back to, well maybe we shouldn't do anything. I think this might be why people like Sachs go out and do something anyhow, whether it helps or not (how many times have I heard a poverty advocate say, "well we can't simply stand by!"?). Maybe this says more about the people who do development than the projects themselves.

Monday, November 04, 2013 12:52:00 PM

Blogger Ben said...

I'm a different Ben, and would love to read it, too!

Monday, November 04, 2013 1:27:00 PM

Blogger Awa said...

I would love to read! Woot!

Monday, November 04, 2013 2:21:00 PM

Blogger zomgplz said...

This sounds great, I'd love to read it. Count me in! Thanks.

Monday, November 04, 2013 2:23:00 PM

Blogger Bee said...

Refreshing analysis. Would love to read this book. Always been curious how these programs are evaluated. While I'm not a development expert, the issues brought up are nevertheless important for those interested in Africa and African issues- especially on how billions of dollars in aid money is spent on projects that fail to address the continent's poverty challenges.

Monday, November 04, 2013 2:34:00 PM

Blogger rebekah said...

I would love to read this. Thanks for reviewing!

Monday, November 04, 2013 3:13:00 PM

Blogger galactictides said...

I'd love a copy!

Monday, November 04, 2013 3:26:00 PM

Blogger gleegs said...

Oooh, I would definitely like a free copy of this! During the fourth year of my undergrad there was a guy in an African development seminar who was a loyal disciple of Sachs...it was through arguing with him that I first discovered my passion for (and ability to think critically about) such things. Thanks for an interesting review and a chance to win!

Monday, November 04, 2013 3:30:00 PM

Blogger Unknown said...

Would love to win and read the book!

Monday, November 04, 2013 9:03:00 PM

Anonymous Kim Yi Dionne said...

do you think this book would be a good fit for a class on interventions in Africa?

Monday, November 04, 2013 9:31:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review! I would love to read this book!

Tuesday, November 05, 2013 10:57:00 AM

Anonymous Jon said...

I want to win

Tuesday, November 05, 2013 1:18:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Hi Kim,

I think it would work if you're doing a general unit on development as a form of intervention. I'm planning to use it in my African development course next year; it's very accessible, an easy read, and tells a compelling story.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013 6:01:00 PM

Blogger Unknown said...

I'm really interested in reading this book.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013 9:09:00 PM

Blogger Jason Kerwin said...

I see getting more at why programs work as the next frontier for RCTs, which are already huge and growing in the aid world. Measuring "why" within an RCT is actually a pretty tough statistical problem - the intermediate measures of program fidelity, implementation issues, etc. are hard to causally identify. Qualitative work will always be important in this area, but I think we can do better in terms of the statistics as well.

Thursday, November 07, 2013 1:50:00 AM

Blogger jenndb said...

Looking forward to a great read on this important thinker and extremely important topic.

Thursday, November 07, 2013 6:18:00 AM

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Thursday, November 07, 2013 11:30:00 AM

Anonymous ascon said...

Nice share, visit back my web, thanks

Thursday, November 07, 2013 11:31:00 AM

Blogger Jfrankens said...

Sounds great. Put me in! Thanks for the free book offer.

Thursday, November 07, 2013 2:32:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

me too!

Thursday, November 07, 2013 2:39:00 PM

Blogger Kelsey said...

I've heard the author speak on the radio and this sounds like a really interesting read!! I'd love to get my hands on it!

Thursday, November 07, 2013 2:50:00 PM


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