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.
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.