Millennium Villages & Scalability

I’ve received a good amount of feedback from yesterday’s blog post about the Millennium Villages, their impact, and whether or not it’s a model that can be scaled up to the African continent as a whole.  Professor Sachs and one of his colleagues from the Earth Institute even weighed in, and I really appreciate it.

I must say, this debate has made me further question the feasibility of scaling up this model. It’s not completely out of the question.  As I did state yesterday, it is in fact being scaled up, although not yet to any large scale.  I still won’t say it’s the right way to go for large-scale development — it’s just too costly and lacks evidence of sustainability — but passing the whole project off as unscalable is unjust.

Let me shine a little light on the financial difficulties of scaling up this model.

Again, here’s the financing model, from MillenniumVillage.org:

“Funding and implementing a Millennium Village is a shared effort among the Millennium Villages project, donors, NGOs, local and national governments, and the village community itself. Each Millennium Village budgets an investment of $120 per person per year. Half of this is mobilized directly through the MVP initiative, and the other half comes from partners, including the community itself ($10), the national government ($30), and NGO partners ($20).”

In 2011, the net ODA per capita in Africa was $49.1.  11.5% of this was debt relief.  Sadly, most of this aid doesn’t reach the people who actually need it, often ending up in large development projects using suppliers and materials from the donor country.  Donors usually aren’t making these contributions purely for the betterment of recipients, there’s economic incentives in it for them as well.  To think that even half of ODA disbursements could be channeled into the Millennium Village model is a long-shot.  Yes, there’s non-governmental donors as well, but to expect them to fill the gap is also unreasonable.  If we assume that even half of ODA contributions could be channeled into the model, the remaining gap on the donor side would be over $35 billion [0.5($49.1) * 1 billion people].

Sachs is always quick to point out the developed world’s ridiculous amount of military spending and how fractions of that could dramatically improve the lives of those most in need. Of course I completely agree.  But the reality is that governments just aren’t willing to spend even close to that amount on foreign aid.  That’s a reality that needs to change, and I think it is, but incredibly slowly.

I hope the Millennium Village model proves successful.  I hope today’s Villages can be scaled up, benefit more people, and serve as examples of successful development for the rest of the continent, and others.  But the costs of the project and the lack of sizeable aid flowing to Africa leave me with hesitation.  Please see my post from yesterday, though, because despite these funding difficulties, this project should be seen from more than only a cost/benefit perspective. The publicity generated by this project and the lessons learned from its shortcomings are especially valuable to African development.

Jeffrey Sachs’ Millennium Villages don’t work, or do they?

If you’ve been in the international development field for a few days you’ve heard the debate around Jeffrey Sachs’ Millennium Villages project in Sub-Saharan Africa.  Meant to serve as models of successful development that could be scaled to larger regions, countries, and eventually the continent as a whole, these projects are exceedingly expensive and generally fail to show returns proportionate to the funding poured into them.

I just finished Nina Munk’s latest book, The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty, in which she tells the story of the incredibly ambitious Sachs setting out to end extreme poverty and the development of the Millennium Villages project.  There was no especially new information in the book, nothing to necessitate a drastic change in my opinion of Sachs, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), or the Millennium Villages, despite her sharp critique of Sachs and the Villages.  But it did leave me with some vague questions about development in general.  Mainly: are the huge sums of money poured into these villages worth it?  That’s quite vague.  More precisely: if the projects failed to return livelihood improvements proportionate to the amount invested in them, is that failure?

Progress has been made in these Villages – life for many has greatly improved.  As Munk states, “Yes, in Sachs’s villages, the prevalence of malaria had dropped, more women were giving birth with the help of trained birth attendants, child mortality was down, and generally speaking, people were better nourished.”  Sachs and his team made great gains and improved livelihoods of many in most of the Villages.  This really is awesome.  But with an average of $10 million being thrown into each, at $60 per capita per year from international donors, and another $60 per capita per year sourced locally, this isn’t a scalable model.*

Millennium Village financing model, from MillenniumVillage.org:

“Funding and implementing a Millennium Village is a shared effort among the Millennium Villages project, donors, NGOs, local and national governments, and the village community itself. Each Millennium Village budgets an investment of $120 per person per year. Half of this is mobilized directly through the MVP initiative, and the other half comes from partners, including the community itself ($10), the national government ($30), and NGO partners ($20).” *

So it’s not a scalable model, at least not in my opinion, and that of a great number of development experts, including the economists Bill Easterly, Esther Duflo, and others.  But does the publicity garnered for eradicating poverty and the momentum Sachs has funneled to this cause justify the costs?  I’m not sure, but I think too many critics are too quick to look simply at the cost/benefit ratios and immediately claim the Villages a failed project.

The math doesn’t make sense for throwing more money into the project, yet it continues to receive a great deal of contributions.  In August 2013 the Islamic Development Bank announced $104 million in interest-free loans for the project.  Villages are being scaled up in Uganda, Rwanda and Nigeria, and countries are now incorporating the model in their national development plans.  Despite the high cost/benefit ratio, George Soros contributed another $47 million in 2011, in addition to the $50 million he invested in 2006.  Sachs has ruthlessly pushed the Millennium Villages into the limelight, forcing leaders to recognize their successes, and inadvertently, their failures.  From failure comes learning, and together with the publicity generated by this project, I believe there may be great value in the Millennium Villages.

In a recent Development Drums podcast interview with Munk, she describes Sachs’ straddling the line between development economist and development advocate as problematic, leading people to question his extremely ambitious goals and also for Sachs to be even more ambitious in the effort to attract more attention.  As a development practitioner, I understand her position, but I think this fight against poverty might need exactly what Sachs provides: insanely ambitious goals thrown in the face of global leaders – goals that may not be accomplished, but that leaders and development experts will learn from which will lead to more successful models for eliminating extreme poverty.

We must learn from Sach’s opponents as well.  I feel that sustainable solutions to ending poverty lie more in the teachings of Easterly – a focus on locally engineered human-centered solutions – but Sachs’ contributions have benefitted the cause greatly.  Yes, the costs of the Millennium Villages are too high to be scalable, yet somehow funding keeps coming, and the pressure on world leaders to end extreme poverty has never been greater.


The Idealist by Nina Munk
As for Munk’s book, The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty, it is a great read, regardless of where you stand on Jeffrey Sachs and his work. She does a wonderful job of detailing the struggles of development work, working with government leaders, and the passions that bring people to this field.

 

* Updated March 26, 2014 to include per capita costs and financing model.

Blogging … freshly

Here I am, finally.  I’m blogging.  I dabble, professionally and for fun, in the world of international affairs in general, and more specifically in post-conflict development.  I have fun while I do it, and while I intend to post on pressing issues in international development I won’t claim to be exhaustive in doing so.  Often I’ll just try to incite my readers, whoever you may be, with some interesting information, my opinions, and push you to seek a better understanding of your own … and share.  Yes, let us share.