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But what would Nina do?

  • April 4th, 2014

In "The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty" Nina Munk skewers the clerical economist.

Deceptively simple descriptions of the gaps between rhetoric and reality do all the heavy lifting along with her charitable balance in describing him. It contrasts with his vilification of  people who disagree with him. Though his failure is tragic, sympathy for those he lifted with hope then failed, release us from feeling too sorry for the man who sacrificed intellectual integrity to indulge his poster child left-activism.

But I can't give this book five stars. It tells an extended sick joke but finishes without a punch-line.  I started waiting for it half-way through. The slow darkening of the bright pictures waken a niggling hope that Munk's perspicacity will identify elements worth preserving from Sach's presumptuous prescriptions. But she leaves a lot hanging.

For example, she describes Sachs' torpedoing of years of development agency work to create in Tanzania a self-sustaining domestic market in insecticide mosquito nets, when his vituperation badgered the world into a big bang distribution of free nets to everyone. We hear that they get used for fishing, and fencing goats, but we do not learn whether there was a dramatic reduction in malaria. Nor do we learn the fate of the local businesses that will be needed to replace the nets when the free ones wear out after five years.

But we do see enough for it to be clear that Sachs simply dressed up conventional modern 'non-judgmental'  charity in overwhelming optimism. This was in turn a thin disguise for the common left rejection of cultural explanations of persistent poverty.  There is enough commentary in the book to suspect that Munk was lead by her experience to respect our Western forebears' Christian capitalist virtues (thrift, diligence, honesty, rationality, freedom). Without a critical mass of those virtues our forebears could not have lifted us from the normal Malthusian cycles of famine, disease and tyranny.

Munk leaves Sachs with the dignity of some learning from his failure, though he appears not to admit it as such. After summarizing his decline into wild Occupy Movement fulmination against  the world and humans as they are, she quotes him qualifying his previous conviction that he knew exactly what should be done and that everyone who opposed him were stupid or venal.

"I believe in the contingency of life. This isn't one grand roll of the dice. The world is complicated, hard and messy".
But I really want to know what she would prescribe after her years of experience. I'll have to listen to this podcast.

Comments

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Stephen, now that our culture has substantially moved on from our ‘Christian forebear’s capitalist virtues’, do you think what remains is sufficient to prevent us from sliding back into tyranny?

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You ask what would Nina do.
Answer = Follow around Sachs and write drivel.
I may make a career around saying Whale Oil is an idiot and I have already proved it, and Stephen Franks is the major intellect in New Zealand, see here I have proved it already, he sailed down the Clarence River.

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