One of the major highlights of the 2016 International Forum was, without a doubt, a conference given by Nina Munk. Her thought-provoking talk was a topic of much discussion at the event! Here is a recap.
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A little more than two years after the publication of her book on economist Jeffrey Sach’s crusade to eradicate extreme poverty in Africa, Canadian journalist Nina Munk, keynote speaker at the International Forum, addressed a large audience to share her thoughts on international assistance.
Bountiful harvests that could not be sold due to a lack of outlets, water pumps that could not be repaired locally, rusted tractors and abandoned generators with no gas to run them, and brand new schools awaiting some hypothetical teacher. The picture Nina Munk paints of Millennium Villages Project initiatives is one wrought with failure and setbacks. Launched in 2006 by Jeffrey Sachs, this five-year, US$120 million program planned multi-sectoral interventions in Sub-Saharan African villages with the sole objective of lifting these communities up to the level of economically developed countries. Over the course of six years, Munk made multiple trips to these remote villages. She wrote about her findings in her book The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty, wherein she describes the project’s failures and the stark gap between well-intentioned Western theories and the endlessly complex realities on the ground.
In Ottawa, Munk called upon actors at the Forum to “do things differently”—with humility. Quoting Daniel J. Boorstin, she asserted that “the greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the Earth is not ignorance (…), but the illusion of knowledge.” Munk believes that the illusion of knowledge is the greatest obstacle in the fight against poverty today. The journalist deplores the ethnocentrism still so prevalent in the development world today and laments that she has never encountered an NGO that has admitted just how difficult it is to do good work. She says that good intentions are not enough, that we must listen to and hear what these people we want to help are saying, and let them take the lead in our discussions. Munk encourages development actors to guard against oversimplification and stereotyping.
Munk also cautions against a sort of forced optimism that certain actors adopt out of fear of losing funding, causing them not to report failures, or to be too easily convinced of their project’s success. She gave the example of a young Ugandan woman who, speaking to a social worker, claimed that she did not wish to have more than three children, citing reasons previously learnt in workshops. Yet the woman already had five children. Munk asserts that we are comforted by our illusion of knowledge, and that we must stop fooling ourselves. She says that we must go a step further—admit what we do not understand, and be humble. She believes that a good dose of humility will help us provide the best type of assistance we can offer.
Nina is a prize-winning Canadian-American journalist whose work has appeared in Vanity Fair, The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Fortune. She is the author of three books, the most recent of which – The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty – is a riveting narrative that reveals the hopes and pitfalls of foreign aid and development.