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The curious case of the Millennium Villages: Arguing why we get better

How many Americans know and/or care about the “Greatest Promise Ever Made” — the Millennium Development Goals?

I haven’t seen a survey, but I suspect the numbers are low. That’s unfortunate because most economists and foreign policy experts say that reducing global poverty and improving people’s lives makes the world a better, safer, healthier and more prosperous place for all of us.

That’s what the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) aim to achieve by 2015. The MDGs represent the international communities’ basic yardstick for measuring whether things are getting better out there. Whether the MDGs represent the best way to measure things getting better is another issue.

Here are the MDGs in rapid fire order: End poverty and hunger, educate all kids, give women equal rights, keep kids alive, prevent maternal deaths, stop AIDS, save the planet and make global finance fair.

Some of the MDGs are on track to be achieved in some poor countries, but the odds aren’t too good for reaching all of the goals overall – such as getting all kids in school, cutting in half all those in hunger or reducing the rate of global biodiversity loss.

In an effort to demonstrate the impact of implementing the MDGs, economist Jeffrey Sachs (who was in Seattle yesterday talking about his new book and how to make the US economy better), UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and others in 2006 launched the Millennium Development Villages project.

The project involves half a million people in 14 rural African communities. Each community has received financial support to make critical and measurable improvements in five main areas: agriculture, education, health, infrastructure (such was roads, water) and business development.

Some say the projects prove the strategy is working. Others contend the evidence is ambiguous.

As this report in notes, the project is now entering its second phase and has attracted $72 million in new financial support.

The Millennium Villages Project has launched its second phase, alongside a report stating that it is on track to enable people living in impoverished communities in Sub-Saharan Africa achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). But experts tracking the initiative’s progress have questioned whether the project will be financially viable in the long term.

Sachs, in an editorial for the Guardian, said the Villages project is showing that progress can be achieved with targeted, evidence-based improvements in key areas:

The millennium villages are making rapid progress towards the MDGs, much faster than in the countries at large, and in a manner that is leading to massive imitation, replication and scaling.

Others aren’t so sure. While they acknowledge progress made in some of the select communities, critics of the Villages project say it is impossible to attribute these improvements just to the changes made by this project. As Madeline Bunting of the Guardian wrote earlier in a column asking the question if the MVP’s ‘big bang approach’ works:

Backers of the Millennium Villages Project say their model is successful, and can be replicated across Africa. But critics of their development strategy beg to differ.

If you really want to get into the weeds of this debate, go read the arguments against Sachs and the MVP by Michael Clemens and Gabriel Demombynes at the Center for Global Development.



About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.