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Is the Millennium Villages Project the magic bullet against extreme poverty?

Written by Eva Ludi

By Kent Buse and Eva Ludi

"It’s ridiculous how simple it is" Angelina Jolie tells MTV viewers on YouTube after hearing Professor Jeffrey Sachs explain how an insecticide-treated bed net controls malaria on a visit to Sauri, a ‘Millennium Village’ in Kenya. Angelina is right in one way but, as so often in development, the apparent simplicity belies tremendous complexity.

The Millennium Villages Project (MVP) is headed by Professor Jeffrey Sachs of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. The MVP is similar to a number of other new village-based initiatives (1, 2) – born, in part, out of frustration with limited progress toward the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). But are these initiatives just a replay of the unsuccessful Integrated Rural Development (IRD) programmes of the 1970s and 1980s – or can they make poverty history?

The MVP, launched in June 2006, covers approximately half a million people in 80 villages across 14 sites representing major agro-ecological zones in ten African countries. What is important about the experiment is that it prioritises integrated village focused investments in agriculture and nutrition, health, education, infrastructure and water, sanitation and environment over investments in rural-urban linkages and institutional reforms, at least in its first phase.

The MVP distinguishes itself from other village-oriented initiatives, and particularly from IRDs, on a number of grounds including its:

  • commitment to implement science-based, low-cost interventions linked to the MDGs and recommended by the UN Millennium Project;
  • intensive investments of $120 per inhabitant per year across a range of sectors over five years; and
  • the use of new technologies.

This approach has captured the imagination of high profile backers, from both showbiz and the political establishment, including Bono, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and President John Agyekum Kufuor of Ghana.

Convinced that the MVP model is the right formula and that these villages can escape extreme poverty traps, Sachs exhorts us ‘to roll up our sleeves and get the job done.’ He points to the leaders of many countries who now want to replicate the MVP and the involvement of many companies, philanthropists and NGOs that already support the effort.

Based on a four country review of the MVP, sponsored by the Open Society Institute, a major donor to the MVP, we agree with the need for ramped up rural investments and are impressed with the early results achieved by MVP’s hard working staff. Indeed, significant improvements in yields were reported in all sites ranging from 85 to 350% in only two years, mainly owing to the provision of subsidised improved seeds and chemical fertilisers. The free distribution of bed nets is reported to have reduced the incidence of malaria by more than 50%.

The challenge lies in scaling up and we identify five key issues:

First, experience from previous integrated rural projects suggests that sustainability often requires the involvement of a local champion over 2 to 3 decades.

Second, flexibility in the allocation of resources between sectors and interventions to accommodate site-specific needs speaks for itself.

Third, in moving the MVP forward, we recommend that a greater proportion of resources is committed at levels higher than the village, e.g. for the provision of infrastructure at district and national levels, rural-urban linkages such as functioning markets or the establishment of training facilities to produce all the nurses, doctors, teachers or agricultural extension agents that are needed in the approximately 110,000 villages across rural Africa.

It is clear that scaling up will depend on whether there are sufficient human resources across all the sectors. WHO estimates a shortage of 4.2 million health workers in 57 countries, most of them in Africa and Asia. Trained workers and innovations in task shifting are priorities upon which all village projects rely (although most poach staff instead of producing them).Civil service reforms, including the provision decent salaries and incentives to encourage staff to serve in remote villages, are necessary if village projects are to thrive.

Fourth, the Paris Declaration on aid effectiveness commits donors to using government systems – something that the MVP and other projects like it should aim for.

Fifth, political commitment at district and higher levels has to be won if inter-sectoral collaboration and coordination are to be achieved in lasting ways – these are not simply technical challenges but political ones.

The MVP focuses most, but not all, of its attention on rural investments. We agree that these are necessary but only one part of the development puzzle. Ongoing support for institutional reforms and improved governance are as important as improvements in the business environment, including markets, and the support for the emergence of a vibrant private sector. Long-term challenges such as addressing property rights to support pro-poor growth or addressing gender inequality are equally fundamental to complement investments in villages.

If these challenges are to be met, it will be essential to mobilise the necessary funding – from both donors and national governments despite the credit crunch and looming fears of a recession. Many donors are not on track to meeting the commitments they made in 2005 to double aid to Africa by 2010 (a proposition upon which the scaling of the MVP rests). Donors ought to live up to these obligations.

Angelia Jolie’s concern for poor people in Africa is admirable, as are the numerous other efforts to lift Africans out of poverty through village-based projects. These global problems demand a greater awareness among the global public. What is important now is to scale up in the right way, and address the wider constraints to development, so that these villages do not become islands of relative prosperity in wider seas of poverty.