Global Civil Society Speaker Series: Nina Munk and the Quest to End Global Poverty

The RGK Center, the MGPS Program and Innovations for Peace and Development present a talk with Nina Munk.

Vanity Fair editor and author Nina Munk came to UT on February 10, 2014, to talk about her book, The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty. In 2006, Sachs, an American economist and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, launched the Millennium Villages Project to test his theories for alleviating poverty through integrated rural development projects in a dozen villages in sub-Saharan Africa. 

For six years, Nina Munk traveled around the world with Sachs and spent considerable time in two Millennium Village sites. Based on her research, she concluded that the idea was too ambitious and over-reaching with “too many moving parts.” She described how some project efforts, even successes, actually created new problems for the villagers. For example, harvests of high-yield crops in one village led to the excess rotting in the town square and causing a rat infestation because there were no mechanisms for trade—no roads, no transportation, no communication. Because the project model was imposed by outsiders with no practical understanding of the extremity of the isolation of the communities, Munk said, the villagers were “set up for failure in a dangerous way.” Issues with the data collected on the project was another area of significant challenge, she reported.

While Munk had initially signed on to the project hoping that it would be successful, she concluded that there was still some good news, with sub-Saharan Africa seeing gains in the last decade on some economic metrics. She also cited the success of global health initiatives as holding promise for international development efforts.

The talk was sponsored by the RGK Center, the MGPS Program, and Innovations for Peace and Development. Nina Munk is a journalist and the author of Fools Rush In: Steve Case, Jerry Levin, and the Unmaking of AOL Time Warner. She was previously a senior writer at Fortune, and, before that, a senior editor at Forbes. Her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, the New York Times Magazine, the New YorkerFortune, and the New York Times. She lives in New York.

About the Book

"The poor you will always have with you," to cite the Gospel of Matthew 26:11. Jeffrey Sachs—celebrated economist, special advisor to the Secretary General of the United Nations, and author of the influential bestseller The End of Poverty—disagrees.  In his view, poverty is a problem that can be solved. With single-minded determination he has attempted to put into practice his theories about ending extreme poverty, to prove that the world's most destitute people can be lifted onto "the ladder of development."

In 2006, Sachs launched the Millennium Villages Project, a daring five-year experiment designed to test his theories in Africa. The first Millennium village was in Sauri, a remote cluster of farming communities in western Kenya. The initial results were encouraging. With his first taste of success, and backed by $120 million from George Soros and other likeminded donors, Sachs rolled out a dozen model villages in ten sub-Saharan countries. Once his approach was validated it would be scaled up across the entire continent. At least that was the idea.
For the past six years, Nina Munk has reported deeply on the Millennium Villages Project, accompanying Sachs on his official trips to Africa and listening in on conversations with heads-of-state, humanitarian organizations, rival economists, and development experts. She has immersed herself in the lives of people in two Millennium villages: Ruhiira, in southwest Uganda, and Dertu, in the arid borderland between Kenya and Somalia. Accepting the hospitality of camel herders and small-hold farmers, and witnessing their struggle to survive, Munk came to understand the real-life issues that challenge Sachs's formula for ending global poverty. The Idealist is the profound and moving story of what happens when the abstract theories of a brilliant, driven man meet the reality of human life.