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

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]

Subscribe to our Newsletter

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please see our .

We use MailChimp as our marketing platform. By subscribing, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to MailChimp for processing. Learn more about MailChimp's privacy practices here.


28 Responses to “The Idealist: a brilliant, gripping, disturbing portrait of Jeffrey Sachs”
  1. i dealt with sach’s pa heidi late 2006 over fraud proof voting. over 6 weeks. 6 phone calls. no interest from.sachs unless you have money to grease his machine. yet one more aid and development industry parasite who perpetuates poverty by frauding the recipients and western taxpayers.

  2. Milford Bateman

    The brilliant development economist Erik Reinert refers to Sachs as the world champion of ‘palliative economics’, of giving aid to soothe the poverty and suffering directly created by his own (neoliberal) economic policies…

  3. Sachs, along with the other Harvard wunderkinder of Larry Summers and Andrei Shleifer, had even more disastrous consequences in their role as elite champions of shock therapy in the transition debate about the post-socialist countries.
    Russia basically took their advice and China didn’t, and the difference in results is obvious for all to see.
    See my guest blog about Summers where the remarks apply equally well to Sachs:

  4. max

    I find the the reaction of the development ‘practioner community’just as psychologically revealing. I think there is equally a real arrogance in the army of well paid technocrats who are incentivised to find things complex and require the need for further research. The same donor community who have no sense of urgency in the fight against poverty. The arrogance of those in your example who for all those years told us that malaria bednets must be sold, or else they would be misused. How many lives has that cost? Who is held accountable for that? I certainly think we should take aim at others and take a much stronger look at ourselves.

    • Duncan

      Thanks Max, but I find your comment a bit confusing. Surely you’re not saying that the level of arrogance is equal between saying ‘I have all the answers’ and ‘the world is complicated – we need to know more’?! And as far as I remember from my brief time at DFID, no-one was ever rewarded for ‘finding things complex’ – quite the contrary. I suspect the opposition to free bednets was based on market ideology, not on a desire for complexity, or for more knowledge.

  5. max

    Hey duncan sorry if my comment was confusing. My point was only that there is a lot of money and a lot of de facto sinecures in finding things complicated and in need of further research- and that often this further research is further undermined by acting in fact within an ideological straightjacket. You rightly rage at the tyranny of the logical framwework but perhaps even more dangerous I think is the highly lucrative unaccountable and deeply hegemonic tinkering which is the development research business.

    • Duncan

      Interesting Max, so where wd you say are the best sources of counter-hegemonic research? Or is the alternative to ‘thinking within an ideological straitjacket’ no research at all?

  6. Dear me… On the one hand, it seems safe to say that nobody would look good under a microscope, so this feels almost unfair. But – there is a broader phenomenon that we should perhaps think more about.

    Two strands:
    i. Rise of ‘celebrity’ development thinkers/actors.
    ii. Use of this group’s support/disagreement as proxy weapons, in place of a more full intellectual engagement.

    Under (i), you could think of the quite narrow spectrum of leading academics-cum-actors, that US universities in particular have done much to create through personal chairs and well-funded centres with a focus on policy change rather than research. Sachs and Stiglitz probably top the list (Collier in the UK? Is this a particularly Anglo-Saxon phenomenon?), but each of these had long and varied research and policy-sphere careers behind them first; increasing you can see similar dynamics start rather sooner around (important) popular themes such as RCTs.

    I don’t mean to imply that anyone on the list you could think of here does anything bad; the phenomenon is one of substantial, perhaps disproportionate power attaching to the stated positions of individuals – sometimes at least, outside of areas in which their research is well thought of. Some of them at least seem to use that power to great effect.

    The phenomenon itself is worrying though. Gabriel Palma’s cracking takedown on the economics ‘Nobel’ says something about this much more directly:
    The first paragraph under the heading ‘Einstein junto a Mickey Mouse’ is especially striking.

    You could also think of a broader group under (i) that would include some less media-focused but equally or more celebrated thinkers (e.g. Amartya Sen), some development actors (e.g. Ngozi Nkonjo-Iweala), and perhaps some from the celebrity rather than research end of the spectrum (Bono, say).

    My sense is that if we’re going to worry about something, it’s probably not whether we like or agree with Sachs, or anyone else you might put on this list, but what this trend may be doing to development – and in particular, to development policy debates. So here’s point (ii): a process of growing power in which a great deal of development policy advocacy is focused on getting one or more champions from within this group, like Captain Caveman choosing a club with which to beat up the opposition. A handful of associated names can make a policy proposal ‘safe’ for a policymaker with limited knowledge of the area, and can raise the profile in international debates (short-circuiting the need to build popular support in a given constituency?).

    It makes complete sense for an individual advocacy organisation to go this way for a given policy proposal. The effect that should worry us is the cumulative, aggregate one. How real is the risk of compounding this frame over others – so that it might be growing progressively more difficult to win policy debates with the strength of the evidence base, for example? Would the sector – and NGOs in particular – be comfortable with the idea that decisions over whether the evidence stacks up (enough to warrant a given policy change) are increasingly delegated to this small number of individuals? Or to their junior staff, because let’s face it, it’s hard for a celebrity thinker to find time to think…

    And yet anyone with the urge to promote policy change faces this temptation. Let me say now that I have enormous respect for anyone I’ve mentioned here, and also for all those who may think they are included in any of the groups discussed, and I look forward to working with you on .

    I’m not sure this is entirely healthy though…

  7. Silke

    Thanks for the review!
    Without wanting to defend ontological gender difference – it does appear to me that dominant notions of masculinity shouldn’t be left out when looking at a character like Sachs.

  8. Lant Pritchett

    Glad someone has finally had the courage to portray Sachs as he is rather than the usual media adulation (e.g. last NYT coverage telling us that Sachs shops at Zabar’s on the weekend–what a scoop).

    That said, the issues go deeper than JS and his personality into the “at a stroke” kinds of reforms that advocates love (of either “neo-liberal” (liberalize rtade) or “progressive” (jubilee) types) to the hard slog that development really is of getting things done in large organizations over long periods.

  9. Andrew Ward

    I read the book with great interest and concern. If you take away the Sachs component, you could have a scenario in which what appear to be really well qualified indigenes try to implement development (albeit with an external driven plan) in a single community with plenty of resources and with the vision of influencing others so that the approach is replicated/ policy is influenced to bring about impact at scale. But how often does bringing benefits to a few communities lead to a scaling up by policy makers, there is a big misconception about this and if the MVP at least makes people look at this assumption and consider what really are the drivers of change at scale then there will be some lasting benefit!

  10. As a non-expert and journalist, I am fascinated and slightly concerned by the emotional tenor of the criticism of Sachs.
    While I think many of the critiques are valid, the ad hominem nature of all this seems a bit over-the-top. I’ve written about this here and there – e.g., – because I think some in the aid/dev community may be at risk of burning down the forest in their attack on one tall tree.
    Holding the powerful to account and pushing for better metrics is a good thing. But the personal attacks on Sachs are probably not helpful to the overall cause that everyone here (including Sachs, I would argue) believes in.

  11. Theo Horesh

    Development debates remind me of that old joke about the leftist firing squad: they stand in a circle and shoot. When groups of people take on the impossible, they will tend to grow frustrated and seek someone or something to blame. Hence, the attacks on one another.

    The attacks on Jeffrey Sachs have come to appear to me a classic case of shooting the messanger. To get the concerns of the poor heard by the wealthiest donors, it seems inevitably that Jeffrey Sachs would have to be somewhat insufferrable. I count this as admirable. And his overly optimistic standpoint has led to massive dollars and attention for the work of groups like Oxfam. Even the criticisms of his work lead to more learning about what does and doesn’t work in development. Without Jeffrey Sachs, I wonder if we would be having any public development debate at all.

    This leads me to the sense that the criticisms are somewhat immature, Munk’s most of all. Here we have someone writing cheap tripe for a living, demonstrating no sense of care for the problems of the poor in her professional writing career, who then comes along and writes a best selling hit piece, and yes it was a very hard hit piece, on the top development advocate, and the development community eats it up. This just appears pathetic.

    And it all looks very psychologically pathological, like a bunch of ego-centric kids rebelling from their father. And then to see folks like David Ellerman and Lant Pritchett, serious thinkers who have incredibly deep analyses to add, come on here and add their petty attacks – well, it all looks unbelievably egocentric. Contextualize his work. That is helpful. Attack him as a person and you lose my respect and I would bet many more.

    Here is someone who has dedicated everything in his life to eliminating poverty in the world, and then he gets torn down by the people whose work he has brought so much attention to: no wonder the development community is so disrespected. This community can do so much better than what Inhave seen on this thread.

  12. JoeCo85

    I don’t believe the comments (most of them at least) constitute an attack on Sachs; they are an expression of the frustration felt by people that the honest work of development can be hijacked by i) zealous believers in doing nothing or doing everything, and ii) celebrity culture. Sachs would have less enemies if he didn’t embrace so readily the aura of the Hollywood star and have Bono write his prefaces. As for his policies, it is easy to tear down of course, but the problem is Sachs work is so blinkered to any other perspective. Certainly not the only one out there, but with his influence in development discourse perhaps the most obvious..

  13. Ms Chimiste

    As someone just transitioning into the field of “development practice” from a completely different field of academia, I find Munk’s portrayal of Sachs somewhat troublesome (but not surprising). While Sachs’ drive has resulted in many successful projects, it’s unfortunate that the arrogance resulting from his “celebrity” status is affecting a humanitarian and influential career of this magnitude.

    I’ve been told by some prominent development practitioners that the field of international development is slowly transitioning into one where smaller local organizations will play increasingly influential roles over large multilateral organizations/donors. Given that local officials seem to be confidently rejecting certain opinions of prominent figures like Sachs (i.e., President Museveni), I am interested to see if this transition will be expedited and if it will deliver positive results.

  14. Theo Horesh

    Hi Joe, the assumptions and methods of Sachs deserve careful criticism, as do all assumptions and methods in development. And they have recieved this in a great debate, which has played out between Easterly and Collier and Sachs and Sen. There was little need for a take down piece to bring balance to this debate.

    But it seems that what you are suggesting is that serious development workers dispense with the people most capable of funding their work. Where would we be without the celebrities? And I must say, I have always been a little sickened by the mockery that greets these celebrities as soon as they step out of their moronic world of gossip and try to do some good. Why do we reward them for their badness and punish them for their good?

    The simple fact is that most people could care not a wit for this work and they are moved to act by people like Bono and Sachs. Roger Thurow’s account of Bono’s work suggests that he has been deeply dedicated to the cause for decades now, and he attached himself to the smartest economist he could find. Why in the world would you criticize such work without also throwing in some praise for the sake of balance? Moreover, given the stature of writers commenting on this post, it would not surprise me if you are a great development thinker yourself. But nevertheless, I can still ask, have done as much as Sachs to end poverty amongst the poorest of the poor? Probably not. I just wish we would acknowledge the efforts before trying to tear people down.

  15. JoeCo85

    Hi Theo, thanks for the response. It seems I need to be a bit clearer in saying exactly what I mean, not exactly what I can in 2 minutes as I run out of the office on a Friday!
    First up I am NO expert or ‘great’ of any type, but I would say that blogs are a great neutraliser and since we are all expressing opinions I shall continue to, cautiously, deposit my two pennies worth.
    This book fundamentally is not ‘to bring balance to the debate’ but to sell books- just like Sachs use of Bono was. I didnt say it was valuable for bringing harmony I would merely suggest that as Sachs IS such a pivotal figure a profile of him is both interesting and (I believe) worthwhile.
    Secondly I was not aware that celebrities fund DEVELOPMENT- ‘where would we be without celebrities’ seems to suggest that major donors like the World Bank and the bilateral agencies sit around until an A-lister tells them where to deposit their millions. The real work of development funding is done behind closed doors where billions are allocated. Again we have to separate development and humanitarian aid here- but since Sachs has the admirable goal of eradicating poverty one-off shots of money are not going to achieve his target.
    I did not attack Bono or other celebrities per-se. Again I needed to chose my words with more precision. I am probably a bit too sceptical of celebrity involvement in projects so I will say no more on that side of the argument- I was instead referring to Sachs’ celebrity. I do not criticise Bono for writing the preface, I would however question why Bono is deemed the most appropriate person to write it by Sachs. Again, being rather sceptical, it seems like a book-selling tactic rather than a genuine belief that Bono has more valuable insight than anyone else.
    Lastly- have I done as much. Simple answer is no. Again I think I presented my ideas fairly poorly in the last post. I do not dislike Sachs, think he is bad, immoral, stupid or any other insult. I disagree with his ideas at a fundamental level. I do not believe he has the answer, and I believe that if the world follows his prescriptions then poverty will not be ‘solved’.
    It is not a case of who has done more, it is a case of everyone having a legitimate voice. Sachs certainly has pre-eminence but for that very reason his work needs to be held to account all the more, while as you rightly point out praising the good he does. Sachs IS trying to do the right thing, but I believe in the wrong way, and as a result I read this blog and commented.

  16. Theo Horesh

    Hey Joe, thanks for clarifying your views. I should clarify my own experience. I am concerned the sort of vigorous criticism now being applied to Sachs will result in his burn-out, along with the fragmentation and collapse of the movement to eradicate poverty. I am sensitive to this because I have experienced it personally on a far smaller scale as a community organizer. Great leaders are human beings who often give up when the are being attacked from all sides, especially if they have no official responsibilities or constituencies to whom they must answer.

    I think better listening will yield better targeted projects and the trend toward measuring the effectiveness of development projects will yield greater dividends. But I also find Sach’s macro-level analysis extemely valuable for its comprehensive clarity. And his ethical drive will push everyone to higher standards. Further, I think the Millennium Villages Project is a great idea, but will require lots more tinkering and would probably be yielding greater dividends already if so much funding had not dried up with the recession.

    And of course, comment away. I was not suggesting you shouldn’t comment or that to do so you should have done a lot of development work. I have been studying the field backwards and forwardness and dedicated a large portion of my upcoming book to the question of moral duties to the poorest of the poorest, but I consider myself laregly an outsider to the community. For that reason, though, I am particularly sensitive to the need to honor those like Sachs that have done so much, and I think this applies equally to someone who has done 10 years of work in the field and written a book on development.

  17. William Hayes

    “There was little need for a take down piece to bring balance to this debate.” “The result is more subtle than a simple hatchet job.” More subtle, perhaps, but little more.