Jeffrey Sachs has twice been named among TIME Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World”. The New York Times Magazine once described him as “probably the most important economist in the world”.

Sachs has devoted much of his career to figuring out how to end extreme poverty across the globe. He says if you give even the poorest communities enough money and resources, extreme poverty can actually be eradicated.

In 2006, Sachs set out to prove his theory with something of a test case. It’s called The Millennium Villages Project. Sachs chose a dozen sites around Africa, all of them places that faced severe economic hardship. Each village was given an infusion of cash and resources.

Author Nina Munk decided to document Jeffrey Sachs’ project. Her new book, The Idealist – Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty, is a first-hand account of Sachs’ multimillion dollar effort to end poverty in Africa.  In our latest podcast, Munk tells us about the six years she spent reporting the story.

Author Nina Munk is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair

Munk, a former Fortune magazine writer and Forbes editor, followed Sachs on his official trips to Africa. She visited and revisited two of the Millennium Villages sites, living among the people there, to see how the project was panning out on the ground. “I thought to myself, if one of the most admired, most respected macro economists in the world believes that we can end poverty in our lifetime, I’m willing to follow him and watch what happens.”

At first Munk saw real progress as the cash began flowing in to the villages. But later, she says all kinds of problems began to emerge. “In some ways, everything that could go wrong, did go wrong.”

In her book, Munk describes failed projects, disenchanted villagers, and a host of unintended consequences.  She comes to realize that there is a chasm between theoretical ideas dreamed up in the United States and the harsh realities at the Millennium Villages sites.  Munk tells us that the people who had put together the concept were “mostly a bunch of academics back in New York City; well-intentioned academics but academics nonetheless, with little direct connection to Africa.”

I invited Jeffrey Sachs to an interview to respond to Munk’s book but Sachs’ representative declined, explaining that Sachs has a very busy schedule at this time of year. His representative provided this written statement:

The Millennium Villages Project is working successfully across the continent to help meet the Millennium Development Goals. Today, 23 countries have either started, or will soon be starting, projects based on the Millennium Village model. The project has contributed to global and national policy changes contributing to a massive reduction of deaths and disease from malaria, AIDS, and unsafe childbirth, and to many other improvements in daily life.

Recently, eight African national governments requested and received over $100 million in financing from the Islamic Development Bank to build or scale Millennium Village programs.

Africa is indeed succeeding in cutting poverty and fighting disease. The evidence is strong. We at Millennium Promise, together with governments across Africa, keep our eye on the prize of slashing extreme poverty.

For those who would like to learn more about the project, we encourage you to go to the project’s website, where you can listen to voices of African leaders and members of the Millennium Village communities themselves.

Photo of Jeffrey Sachs, courtesy Kevin Tsui, Flickr