In “Fighting Poverty, and Critics” Mr. Nocera says Jeffrey Sachs is trying to help villages in Africa, but is his work making a difference? If you have $25 and want to make a difference make a loan at Kiva. Mr. Bruni, in “Traveling Without Seeing,” says in our digital cocoons, we go everywhere and nowhere. Here’s Mr. Nocera:
Nina Munk’s new book, “The Idealist,” is about the well-known economist Jeffrey Sachs and his “quest to end poverty,” as the subtitle puts it. I know: That subtitle sounds like classic book-industry hyperbole, but, in this case, it’s not. That really is what Sachs has been trying to do. The question of whether or not he is succeeding is where things get tricky.
The quest began in 2005, when Sachs, who directs the Earth Institute at Columbia University, started an ambitious program called the Millennium Villages Project. He and his team chose a handful of sub-Saharan African villages, where they imposed a series of “interventions” in such areas as agriculture, health and education. The idea was that these villages would show Africa — and the world — how the continent could loosen the grip that extreme poverty had on so many of its people.
From the start, the Millennium Villages Project has been controversial. It has soaked up large sums of money — the original seed money was $120 million — which its critics believe could have been better used on more targeted, less grandiose forms of aid. Because Sachs, for years, refused — on ethical grounds, he said — to rigorously compare the results at his villages with villages that didn’t get the same kind of help, development experts complained that there was no way of knowing if the project was making a difference.
“There is zero scientific evidence that the Millennium Villages Project is meetings its goals,” says Michael Clemens, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and a leading Sachs critic. Sachs, for his part, insists that the Millennium Villages Project has been a roaring success, so much so that its interventions are now being imitated — “scaled up” — in nations like Uganda, with full government support.
It is not quite right to say that Nina Munk has sidestepped the dispute between Sachs and his critics. Mainly, though, she has looked at the Millennium Villages Project through a different lens. She has spent the last half-dozen years traveling back and forth to Africa, to see for herself how the Sachs experiment was unfolding. She focused in particular on two villages: Dertu, Kenya, and Ruhiira, Uganda.
“Jeff is a charismatic man, and I wanted to believe in him,” Munk told me recently. (She and I overlapped at Fortune for several years.) She is quick to give him credit where it is due: for instance, his passionate advocacy for free distribution of insecticide-coated bed nets, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, is an important reason that the scourge of malaria is being reduced. But her reporting also caused her to become disillusioned, and humbled, by the difficulties that any Western aid effort is likely to encounter.
With almost every intervention, she documents the chasm that exists between the villagers and those running the project. At one point, the Millennium Villages Project persuades the farmers in Ruhiira to grow maize instead of their traditional crop, called matoke. “The results were fantastic,” she reports, a bumper crop. Except there were no buyers for the maize, so most of it wound up being eaten by rats. In Dertu, Sachs’s staff decided it should set up a livestock market. It flopped. Efforts to convince villagers to start small businesses largely failed. The critical problem of getting clean water to the villages was enormously expensive.
Ultimately, reports Munk, Dertu was abandoned by the Millennium Villages Project while Ruhiira is today lauded as one of the project’s most successful villages. “There is no question the lives of people in Ruhiira have been improved,” Munk told me. “I’ve seen it.” But she is dubious about what that means — other than the fact that if you pump millions of dollars into an isolated African village, the villagers’ lives will be better. (Sachs’s defenders say that most of her reporting was done before the project really found its footing.)
And there’s the rub. Sachs has always aimed higher than helping a handful of villages. He wants to put his imprint on all of Africa. When I spoke to him recently, he claimed that is exactly what has been happening, thanks to more than $100 million in loans from the Islamic Development Bank. But when I looked at the press release announcing the “scale up” in Uganda, the money involved was less than $10 million — a pittance, really, and unlikely to transform the country.
That things in Africa are getting better is undeniable. Child mortality is down, as is the number of people living in extreme poverty. In his book, “Emerging Africa,” Steve Radalet, the former chief economist for the United States Agency for International Development, gives credit to such factors as more democratic governments, a new class of civil servants and businesspeople, and sounder economic policies. Sachs, on the other hand, wants us to believe that the main driver has been the Millennium Villages Project, which has shown the way.
“The Idealist” makes it tough to believe it’s the latter.
Next up we have Mr. Bruni, writing from Shanghai:
I’m half a world from home, in a city I’ve never explored, with fresh sights and sounds around every corner. And what am I doing?
I’m watching exactly the kind of television program I might watch in my Manhattan apartment.
Before I left New York, I downloaded a season of “The Wire,” in case I wanted to binge, in case I needed the comfort. It’s on my iPad with a slew of books I’m sure to find gripping, a bunch of the music I like best, issues of favorite magazines: a portable trove of the tried and true, guaranteed to insulate me from the strange and new.
I force myself to quit “The Wire” after about 20 minutes and I venture into the streets, because Baltimore’s drug dealers will wait and Shanghai’s soup dumplings won’t. But I’m haunted by how tempting it was to stay put, by how easily a person these days can travel the globe, and travel through life, in a thoroughly customized cocoon.
I’m not talking about the chain hotels or chain restaurants that we’ve long had and that somehow manage to be identical from time zone to time zone, language to language: carbon-copy refuges for unadventurous souls and stomachs.
I’m talking about our hard drives, our wired ways, “the cloud” and all of that. I’m talking about our unprecedented ability to tote around and dwell in a snugly tailored reality of our own creation, a monochromatic gallery of our own curation.
This coddling involves more than earphones, touch pads, palm-sized screens and gigabytes of memory. It’s a function of how so many of us use this technology and how we let it use us. We tune out by tucking ourselves into virtual enclaves in which our ingrained tastes are mirrored and our established opinions reflected back at us.
In theory the Internet, along with its kindred advances, should expand our horizons, speeding us to aesthetic and intellectual territories we haven’t charted before. Often it does.
But at our instigation and with our assent, it also herds us into tribes of common thought and shared temperament, amplifying the timeless human tropism toward cliques. Cyberspace, like suburbia, has gated communities.
Our Web bookmarks and our chosen social-media feeds help us retreat deeper into our partisan camps. (Cable-television news lends its own mighty hand.) “It’s the great irony of the Internet era: people have more access than ever to an array of viewpoints, but also the technological ability to screen out anything that doesn’t reinforce their views,” Jonathan Martin wrote in Politico last year, explaining how so many strategists and analysts on the right convinced themselves, in defiance of polls, that Mitt Romney was about to win the presidency.
But this sort of echo chamber also exists on cultural fronts, where we’re exhorted toward sameness and sorted into categories. The helpful video-store clerk or bookstore owner has been replaced, refined, automated: we now have Netflix suggestions for what we should watch next, based on what we’ve watched before, and we’re given Amazon prods for purchasing novels that have been shown to please readers just like us. We’re profiled, then clustered accordingly.
By joining particular threads on Facebook and Twitter, we can linger interminably on the one or two television shows that obsess us. Through music-streaming services and their formulas for our sweet spots, we meet new bands that might as well be reconfigurations of the old ones. Algorithms lead us to anagrams.
I keep thinking about a widely circulated speech that the movie director Steven Soderbergh gave earlier this year. He recounted a flight he’d taken from New York to California and the way a nearby passenger had been using an iPad. “I begin to realize that what he’s done is he’s loaded in half a dozen sort of action extravaganzas and he’s watching each of the action sequences,” Soderbergh said. “This guy’s flight is going to be five and a half hours of just mayhem porn.”
Soderbergh was mainly lamenting the endangered appreciation of real storytelling and character development. But there’s an additional moral to his story. As his fellow flier traversed an entire continent, he used a device capable of putting a galaxy of information within reach to collapse the universe into one redundant experience, one sustained note, a well-worn groove also known as a rut. There he happily spun his wheels.
I say that as someone who has too frequently spun his own, clutching my smartphone, looking down instead of up, tap-tap-tapping, maintaining unbroken contact with the usual suspects and entertainment and ideas. But I try to resist, because trading serendipity for safety is a raw deal in the end. There’s a skyline in Shanghai unlike any I’ve seen. Who knows what other discoveries are in store?