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Critical Book Review Sample

Nina Munk’s book The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty is the final result of approximately six years work on describing and reporting about the Millennium Villages Project. The latter is known to be a specific experiment created in order to implement the economist Jeffrey Sachs’s disputed and polemical theory regarding ending poverty. Sachs, the author of the bestselling book The End of Poverty, claims that utilization of appropriate interferences, sufficient dedication and an adequate amount of money can actually help wipe out extreme poverty. Thus, being supported by $120 million received from George Soros together with other donors, Jeffrey Sachs established the Millennium Villages Project in 2006. It appeared in the form of twelve prototypical villages in ten sub-Saharan countries. Generally speaking, if this approach was approved, it would be extended to cover the entire continent. This is the general idea of the project. On the other hand, the book written by Munk demonstrates what occurs when abstract theories of an intelligent, gifted and stimulated man encounter the disorderly and chaotic reality of human life. The current paper will provide a critical analysis and review of the book and demonstrate general critics’ evaluation of the literary text.

The primary and the most significant objective of Munk’s book is to demonstrate how Sachs launched the Millennium Villages Project in 2006 and the outcomes of this project, particularly in Dertu. The significance of the book lies in a deep analysis of the implementation of abstract theories in a highly chaotic environment selected for the experiment. On the one hand, the author vividly depicts that the abstract theory of Sachs has been actually tested in the primary Millennium village known as Sauri. It is a remote congestion of farming communities in western Kenya. Due to the fact that the primary results of the experiment appeared to be encouraging, it stimulated Sachs to continue the work in ten sub-Saharan countries. On the other hand, Munk’s book reveals that the African environment and setting are too complicated to believe that one location can be a fundamental basis for hasty conclusions and decisions. The author depicts that the Millennium Villages Project is a specific laboratory necessary for testing Sachs’s theories. Munk reveals that Sachs spent more than $120 million on this experiment while neglecting a simple analysis of the complex shifting reality in the villages. Munk’s book successfully accomplishes the goal of providing a reader with a vivid understanding that Africa cannot be perceived as a laboratory because it is chaotic, messy and unpredictable in its nature. Despite the fact that the project’s objective concerned an audacious attempt to prove Sachs’s well-intentioned but ultimately naïve theories, Munk’s objective lies in artful observation and demonstration of how Sachs’s infectious enthusiasm and optimism bring attention together with required funding to the fledgling organization at home and abroad.

The main strength of the book lies in the fact that it is based on personal experience and provides information within the actual experiment. Munk accompanied Sachs during his official trips to Africa, reporting everything about the project, listening to everything that was happening during the project. Munk’s immersion in the lives of people in two Millennium villages, including Ruhiira and Dertu, became the fundamental ground for the book. The author’s attempts to survive helped Munk to formulate the primary idea of the book, which states that real-life problems pose a serious and invincible challenge to Sachs’s formula for ending global poverty. The book demonstrated Munk’s experience while communicating with Sachs. She revealed that despite the fact that in 2006 Sachs set an objective to eradicate extreme poverty, in 2012 he corrected Munk and stated that his objective was to help eradicate extreme poverty. This quest appears more modest, more realistic and less ambitious. When Munk stated that the Millennium Villages Project was not a definitive answer to poverty, Sachs named it merely a ‘working model’. Despite the fact that Sachs desired to make models as self-sustainable as possible and supported by governments, he was reluctant to carry out his ongoing African experiment. Munk demonstrates that Sachs changed his focus and suddenly realized that global issues were so deeply interconnected that it was no longer appropriate to concentrate merely on poverty, hunger and disease in Africa. Munk demonstrates how he spent two hours speaking with Sachs after his project was neglected and vividly depicted his change of mind regarding the project through his words that “there are no certainties in life and nothing can be predicted”. Murphy states that Munk’s experience is highly important for understanding the theoretical nature of the project, especially in revealing how the project headquarters in New York insisted on farmers’ planting drought-resistant maize, even though the villagers merely did not like the taste.

The second strength of the book lies in the fact that Munk traces the current flow of aid money. The book reveals that Dertu region appeared the most challenging among Millennium villages. Mohamed was accountable for costs utilization. He constantly faced challenge after challenge as the theoretical part of the project neglected numerous problems of the region. According to Munk, Mohamed spent $1,500 of the budget in order to get 9,000-liter tanker to deliver water to Dertu. However, even this amount of money was not sufficient for the thousands of thirsty people and animals. Later in 2008, the region suffered famine that resulted from a combination of drought, poor harvests and soaring food prices. Stimulated by the situation, Mohamed requested buying a new pump, costing from $5,000 to $6,000. Despite the fact that Nairobi office was sympathetic to the Millennium Project, it claimed that repairing was a mere short-range solution to Dertu’s water issues. The initial project concluded that Dertu’s population could be sustained only if multiple water sources were accessible, incorporating shallow wells, roof catchment systems and huge water-pan reservoirs created for harvesting. Despite the fact that the project was allocated $23,000 in an attempt of empowering the local community to manage the above-mentioned water resources, no long-range solution had materialized, except for water trucks delivering water to schools and clinics. Thus, Munk demonstrates that the project development in Dertu appeared more expensive than planned. Moreover, Munk reveals that the value of the U.S. dollar had fallen, while the prices had increased, resulting in the fact that Mohamed was practically out of money. On the one hand, he faced budget reductions in the following year. On the other hand, the Dertu population felt cheated. Therefore, Mohamed dedicated more time to pleading for additional funding from the Millennium Villages Project and devoted less time to performing practical operations. Munk demonstrates that despite the fact that the construction of the boys’ dormitory at Dertu’s school had been completed, there was no money left in order to acquire mattresses. Moreover, in regard with the health clinic, the new maternity ward was two-thirds complete when the contractors refused to finish the job unless they were paid more than the amount which they initially agreed to get. Munk demonstrates that the laboratory technician required an increase of 10,000 Ksh a month (which stands for approximately $120) and quit after his demand was rejected. Thus, there was no laboratory technician in the region for almost a year, while the clinic’s microscope donated by the Millennium Project in order to diagnose malaria appeared useless. Moreover, one schoolteacher had to work with 392 students, and the budget did not allow hiring another one.

The third strength is the vivid demonstration of evidence of Sachs’s project failure. The evidence part of the book is really strong. Munk demonstrates how many problems and issues were practically neglected by the authors of the Millennium Villages Handbook. Despite the fact that numerous chapters had been dedicated to the enhancement of agriculture yields, stimulation of school enrollment and motivation of gender equality, there were no chapters dedicated to crime reduction. She explains that Mohamed (the main regional coordinator of the project) had to hire police escorts in order to secure his team from various banditry and tribal clashes. Moreover, he hired security guards in order to protect the Millennium Project’s compound. This problem was purely neglected by the project, resulting in death of Mohamed’s health coordinator during a fight between two Somali sub-clans.

Moreover, Munk demonstrates that the project’s handbook did not address the issue of natural disasters. Munk’s work is very strong in regards with evidence. For instance, Munk reveals that simple obtainment of basic supplies from Nairobi, which was theoretically easy, required weeks or even months in practice. The author also demonstrates that one had to wait for four months till a mechanical detail required for repairing well’s generators arrived. Moreover, when the part did arrive, there was no person in the region who knew what to do with it due to the fact that there was almost no skilled labor among camel herders. The author demonstrates the region’s situation during the dry season was severely challenged by the fact that both generator-powered pumps broke down again. This meant that Mohamed had to ask for additional costs as the situation could not be addressed by the theoretical part of the Sachs’s project. In addition, even before Mohamed accepted his job in the project, the water well in Dertu had dried up. Starting from 2002, the whole Horn of Africa had been suffering from drought. Munk reveals that the situation is Dertu was so critical that Oxfam had to deliver water once or twice a week with the help of special tanker trucks. They supplied each household with merely twenty liters of water, which was obviously not enough, provoking people to walk for hours and days in the search of water. Thus, the book stimulates readers to speculate why the problem was so poorly addressed by the theoretical part of the project. The book reveals that this was the main reason why Mohamed asked for an approval for using a part of the budget on water importing, which was neglected and unplanned by the project. The project failed in the region’s food diversification as despite the fact that sorghum, a specific cereal crop (more tolerant to drought than corn) survived the drought, it did not manage to withstand red-billed quelea birds. The “kitchen gardening” program that had to stimulate Dertu women to grow kale and tomatoes crashed as well due to high saline content in the region’s groundwater. Moreover, Munk demonstrates that the project did not provide appropriate training and overlooked the fact that Dertu people did not like kale. Thus, Munk vividly demonstrates that all agricultural experiments failed. Despite the fact that five thousand seedlings were planted, there were no trees, which was significant to nurture the culture of tree plantings. Munk demonstrates that this was the time when Mohamed was discouraged. In addition, Munk vividly depicts that Dertu people were discouraged as well as the project set many objectives but did not accomplish any of them. Murphy states that evidence-based nature of the book is very valuable, especially taking into account the fact that it is impossible to say how much progress in the region is attributable to the MVPs and how much to the general Africa progress as Sachs was uninterested in supporting rigorous and independent evaluations such as randomized control trials.

The fourths strength regards an in-depth analysis of one particular region from the beginning of the project to its actual neglecting. The author showed the problems of the region before the beginning of the project, during its implementation and the final result of the project. If Munk analyzed all regions, the analysis would seem shallow and would not reveal all complications, ineffectiveness and mere theoretical nature of the project itself. The analysis of this particular region is highly necessary for the project analysis as Sacks believed that if his theories regarding ending poverty could operate in this location, which can be easily regarded as one of the most deprived regions on the planet, then they could be implemented almost anywhere. The author demonstrates all problems of the region, particularly water, transportation and distance issues. She notes that the way to the closest “so-called’ city, which is the chaotic frontier town of Garissa merely sixty miles south of Dertu, required four hours and more (in a good weather). The rain season practically turned roads into ‘soup’, making driving almost impossible or taking the whole day. Munk notes that the development of appropriate roads was practically useless due to the possibility of dissemination of nomadic population on 750 square kilometers.

The book is highly important as it vividly depicts the role Ahmed Mohamed applied to the project. The man was accountable for elevating Dertu people out of extreme poverty and implementing “the Great Professor’s Ideas” (meaning Jeffrey Sachs’s). Mohamed recruited a team of five educated Somalis at the beginning of 2006. Munk reveals that the man did not have experience or practice in the sphere of economy. This appears a highly important feature of the book in regards with the analysis of the project implementation as optimism is not enough to change such a chaotic environment. Even huge amounts of money coming directly from New York into Dertu, theoretically allowing it to succeed in a great deal, could not solve the existing problems to a full extend. Munk demonstrates that Sachs was the main stimulus of Mohamed’s optimism as he explained that a limited amount of interferences, incorporating ambulances, mobile clinics and cell networks, could lead to a serious difference. Murphy notes that it is specifically admirable that Munk spent time in two of the project locations and concentrated on them. It allowed showing how and about what Munk talked exclusively with project managers and other people living in these villages. A deep analysis of one location allowed her to compare Sachs’s grand design to the realities on the ground. The setbacks were legion: rainfalls, limited economic opportunities, soaring fertilizer prices and rising expectations and resentment.

Shefa Siegel’s article can be used as the major demonstration of the weakness of Munk’s book. The critic believes that the major weakness lies in the fact that the economist is depicted in the book as an artist rather than a scientist. The second weakness concerns the fact that despite the fact that the project operates in 12 African countries with numerous spinoffs and the author visited numerous locations on the continent, the report narrowly focuses on two districts, Ruhiira and Dertu. Shefa Siegel notes that the author depends on portraits of the project’s coordinators and villagers from these sites, thus criticizing Sachs. He believes that it would be much better to demonstrate the entire panorama of the project. Shefa Siegel reveals that readers endure verbatim retreads taken from Munk’s original 2007 article regarding Sachs’s shaving. The third weakness concerns the fact that despite Munk’s aspiration to tell the stories of Africans who live in extreme poverty is admirable, the book, as judged from the title, should be more about Sachs than Africans. Finally, the author states that Munk’s major weakness concerns little effort to demonstrate and render the architecture of Sachs’s organizations. The institutional politics is obviously important for the entire panorama together with organizational chaos, mismanagement of budgets, high turnover, nepotism and inconsistent priorities, which deserve meticulous tracking.

Generally speaking, I liked the book, especially due to the fact that it is based on practical experience and vividly demonstrates a challenging chaotic environment, which should be addressed practically, not theoretically. Moreover, I like the fact that Nina Munk does not impose her personal attitude to the situation, thus allowing readers to make their own conclusions on the basis of their understanding of the objective facts. Her personal ideas and evaluations appear at the end of the book, when the reader has already made his/her own conclusions regarding the situation. I agree with the author that Sachs’s ambitions have been too high as when I first encountered his belief that poverty in Africa can be combated in five years, I understood that the project will fail. In addition, I like the fact that book concentrates on one particular region as it allows observing the general scope of the problem appearing in the most challenging setting. Moreover, it helped to observe the major problems of the theoretical approach, which failed to address fighting in the region, complicacy of water issues, incomprehension of population necessities and desires. The vivid description of Mohamed’s role is highly important for me as I still do not understand how Sachs could employ a person without experience or practice in economy in such a complicated and chaotic region. This may be the main reason why practically none of the projects have been completed. Moreover, I believe that this may have resulted in so many challenges and complications with cost issues. Furthermore, I like the fact that Munk does not criticize a man; she rather demonstrates that it was not his fault. This is a main reason why the book reveals information about the absence of Mohamed’s experience at the beginning. It allows understanding that his pure optimism and dedication helped him to achieve a lot regardless of his numerous failures. Finally, I like the fact that book is concentrated more on the project implementation and not on the Sachs’s figure. I believe that projects and ideas should be analyzed through outcomes rather than theoretical thoughts. Sachs did not dedicate a lot of time to visiting the region or living there. He appears as a theoretical person and not a practical activist. If he dedicated more time to living in the region, the project might ultimately achieved success. Nevertheless, he actually betrayed his dream, his convictions and even renounced his words. I am grateful to Munk for providing this information as it helped in formulating my final opinion regarding Sachs. I agree with Cheney that Munk’s work is a measured immense study of a remarkable but all-too-human man.

The book written by Nina Munk is a solid detailed work demonstrating the work, implementation, challenges and failures of the Millennium Villages Project, which focuses on one specific location. Despite the fact that Shefa Siegel claims it to be a drawback as the whole panorama of the project is not visible, Edward Murphy and Elyse Cheney believe it to be an obvious advantage as it vividly demonstrates the project’s incapability of making sufficient changes, wasting huge sums of money and providing people with needless hope. The focus on one location assists in deep understanding that although all project’s constructions and frameworks were started, they have been never been completed. The analysis of all locations under the project might have expanded the scope of work but would have tired the reader with numerous details. The approach applied by Munk immerses the reader in one situation, showing everything from the beginning to the end, allowing reliving all emotions of people living in Dertu. The paper provides numerous details both about Jeffrey Sachs and Africans experiencing his approach. This approach is successful as the analysis of Jeffrey Sachs’s work would be insufficient without a deep study of the actual problems and challenges faced by the region.

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