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Development economists aren't usually compared to rock stars. Then there's Jeffrey Sachs. The wildly influential author of The End of Poverty is an international celebrity, like his friend Bono. He is consulted by heads of state, and advises the UN. He has helped inspire a generation of bright young people to go forth and save the world.

Nina Munk admired him, too. In 2006, she was commissioned by Vanity Fair to write a profile of him. She shadowed him for months as he launched the Millennium Villages Project, a bold experiment that would use a handful of African villages as his test cases. She was so inspired that she even thought of giving up journalism to join the cause. Instead she decided to write a book. "I wanted to write about Africans who live in extreme poverty," she explains. "I wanted their stories to be heard." Above all, she told her publisher, she wanted to write a story of hope.

The story she wound up writing is quite different. The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty is a devastating takedown of Mr. Sachs's technocratic fantasies. It is essential reading for anyone who thinks that brilliant people with the right interventions can save the world.

The Millennium Villages Project was pitched as the most promising idea to come along in years. The aim was to smother the selected villages with help and jump-start them into self-sufficiency. The villages wouldn't get just schools and health clinics. They'd get schools, health clinics, fertilizer, bed nets, water, food, roads, and instruction in agriculture and entrepreneurship. Mr. Sachs hoped to have 1,000 villages by 2009. He was convinced the models would be so successful that the world would be morally forced to fund the expansion of his plan throughout Africa. He was fuelled by the profound conviction that the world can be changed for the better – and that he was right and everybody else was wrong.

What he forgot was the human factor. It turns out that people are not always rational. They don't always do what's in their own best interests, even when the benefits are completely clear to a development economist.

Take bed nets. The greatest plague in Africa is malaria, which is spread by mosquitoes, and bed nets treated with insecticide are a great way to tackle the scourge of malaria – theoretically. But there are big logistical problems, including distribution, looting, and costs. And even if you solve those, there's no guarantee that people will use them for the purposes intended. Sometimes they use them to protect their goats, or to catch fish. The trouble is that malaria is so prevalent that a lot of people treat it as an inevitable fact of life. Years of social marketing campaigns to promote the use of bed nets have scarcely made a difference.

At every turn, Mr. Sachs's master plan was undermined by culture. In the remote Kenyan village of Dertu, which is located in a vast and arid borderland dominated by Somali camel-herders, the planners decided to set up a local livestock market so that the herders wouldn't have to travel to a far more distant market. The market flopped. Why? Because Somali nomadic pastoralists don't think like us. To them, time isn't money, and spending three or four days trekking to the distant market was no big deal. Also, as Ms. Munk writes, the whole concept of selling their livestock is antithetical to Somali values. The more camels they have, the richer they feel. "Somalis hoard camels, even when it makes no good economic sense to do so."

In Dertu, Jeffrey Sachs was revered as the Great Professor. But gradually it became clear that even he didn't have all the answers. As Ahmed Mohamed, the local Millennium Fund project manager, sighed, "What can we do? We cannot enforce. We try to explain. We want to empower. But no one can come and change them if they do not want to change themselves."

In other ways, the project did change Dertu. The population exploded from hundreds to thousands. People were attracted to the town by the free food, water and medicine. They gave up their pastoralist ways and built shantytowns. And then the money ran out. The doctor left, and the project manager was fired, and the good times came to an end.

But Mr. Sachs remained relentlessly upbeat. According to the Millennium Villages Project's 2011 annual report, his experiment had led to "a stunning transformation of 500,000 lives."

Nina Munk isn't the only skeptic. Other economists have been skeptical for quite some time. They argue that the data showing results are far from rigorous, and that the design of the project makes proper evaluation impossible. What makes Ms. Munk's critique so compelling is the legwork she put in on the ground. In Dertu and other villages, she got to know the people that Mr. Sachs set out to help. He is famous for being combative and ill-tempered, and has ferociously attacked her book. But as she points out in an interview, "I've spent more time in these places than he ever has or will."

Recent history is littered with the wreckage of grand plans to save Africa. So why should we care about another? Because, Ms. Munk argues, "Oversimplification is terribly dangerous." Promises that can't be kept invariably result in disappointment, cynicism and donor fatigue. Western taxpayers are increasingly reluctant to fund foreign aid without some assurance that it works.

As for Africa, Ms. Munk energetically rejects the notion that there's nothing that can be done. The good news is that things are gradually improving. And Africans themselves are increasingly taking the lead. The moral of her story is that the last thing Africa needs is more Great Professors. As she says, "I think we'd all be a lot better off if we were a little more humble."