There are many obstacles to achieving the Millenium Development Goals, pessimism, inadequate financing, corruption, armed conflict, political and social instability, and global warming among them. But a recent Nature editorial on Jeffrey Sachs' Millenium Village project highlights the lack of data, analysis, and learning that has plagued development efforts. The Millenium Village project hopes to overcome that obstacle. The Nature editorial underscores the significance of the MVP data collection and analysis effort:
issues that hinder development in sub-Saharan Africa are many and
complex, but one factor that stands out for scientists is the dearth of
reliable data on the decades of development projects there. A
lack of information on what has worked and what hasn't has contributed
to a lack of accountability among donor nations, host nations and even
development professionals. Donors in particular have learnt little from
past mistakes, and are impatient. When a project fails, as so many do,
the tendency has been to move straight on to the next idea.
When a project fails, the tendency has been to move straight on to the next idea.
Development specialists know this, and today data and analysis are prized. In this issue
we examine the early progress of one notable experiment in Africa. It
involves the support of 12 African Millennium Research Villages, which
are receiving a package of interventions, at a maximum cost of US$110
per person per year, tailored to lift them out of poverty and onto a
sustainable path. The approach has won support from
the African governments involved and from private philanthropists, who
have pledged $100 million to a charity, called Millennium Promise, that
aims to expand the programme to an additional 78 villages in the next
year. The administrators of the village projects
intend to measure 27 important indicators of project performance,
mainly by closely monitoring the progress of some 300 households in
each village. They hope to learn three things:
whether each intervention works, whether the links between various
interventions can be exploited, and whether the community is ultimately
better placed to manage its own future. This last involves 'softer'
measures of capacity and sustainability, and will be the hardest both
to monitor and to achieve. It is early days yet —
the longest-running project, at Sauri in Kenya, is just two years old —
and few hard data are available so far. But it is crucial that the
schemes deliver on their research goals and that they absorb lessons,
positive or negative, from the data.
Hyacinthe Mukaritaganda of Kagenge village helped build a communal water tank, as part of the Millennium Villages project.
Ndahayo smiles broadly at me from below the corn (maize) that towers a
metre or more above him, his daughter Annalita clutching his hand. This
is the first corn harvest he has seen here in almost ten years. There
was a smaller harvest of beans and sorghum in 2001; last year there was
nothing. In the years without good rains, the people of Kagenge
(sometimes called Mayange) in Rwanda survive the best they can. Some
walk four nights and three days to reach a more productive region.
Ndahayo sometimes takes construction jobs to support his wife and four
Hyacinthe Mukaritaganda's husband is one
of those currently working elsewhere, leaving her to manage their land
and look after three children on her own. This season she planted corn
on one-fifth of their land, a short walk from Ndahayo's homestead.
Thanks to the rains, she is expecting a good harvest, which should
provide enough seeds to plant all 2.5 hectares next year. Then, she
hopes, her husband will stay at home to help.
rains, though, are not the only things bringing hope to Kagenge. In
2005, the village was chosen to take part in the Millennium Villages
project. Led by the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York,
the project is applying a range of poverty-slashing interventions to 12
sites across Africa (see map). The idea is not just to show that
interventions in a number of different areas, properly coordinated and
financed, can make a sustainable change to the lives of the world's
poorest communities. It is to show how that can be done quickly in a
way that can be replicated easily.
an agronomist trained in Uganda, is the project's agriculture
coordinator for Rwanda. He says that when he arrived in Kagenge late
last year conditions were desperate. "The villagers were emaciated."
They wanted food aid more than they wanted the agricultural advice,
drought-resistant seeds, fertilizer and new techniques that the project
was offering. "They thought we were making fun of them," Ndahiro says.
"We were telling them how to plant, how to harvest, but they were
saying they were never getting any good rains. We told them to get
seeds and advice are being given to 12 villages in Africa, to
demonstrate how properly coordinated interventions can make a
sustainable difference to people's lives.
months later and the villagers are getting organized. Ndahayo is a
member of the agriculture committee that will decide what to do with
the surplus from this year's corn harvest. Mukaritaganda is helping to
clear land for a tree nursery (villagers sometimes walk ten kilometres
to gather firewood) and was part of the team that just built a communal
tank to collect rainwater. She invites me with pride to a ceremony in
which certificates are awarded to her and the 25 other villagers who
worked on the tank.
Leading the way
Millennium Villages project aims to provide improved resources and
techniques not only in agriculture, but also in health, education,
transport, energy and water provision, and financial management. The
plan is to achieve the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals
for the 5,000 or so people in Kagenge, and for the tens of thousands of
people in the 11 villages elsewhere within 5 years — 5 years ahead of
the UN target date.
eight goals, committed to by 189 heads of state in 2000, include
halving the number of people living on less than US$1 a day and
controlling malaria by 2015. Progress so far has been limited,
especially in Africa — far too slow for the impatient economist Jeffrey
Sachs, head of the UN Millennium Project and the Earth Institute. Sachs
wants the 'research villages' and the data that they provide to offer
ways of picking up the pace: "The idea is to demonstrate a practical
path and to mobilize governments."
The man in charge
of making such a demonstration is Josh Ruxin, a Columbia University
public-health expert and the project's director in Rwanda. Ruxin,
imbued with an impressive energy and passion, was initially sceptical
of the village-by-village approach: he wanted to target a millennium
country not an isolated village. But Ruxin is encouraged by the Rwandan
government's own ambitious poverty-reduction strategy, known as Vision
The idea is to demonstrate a practical path and to mobilize governments.
Karenzi, the Rwandan health ministry's secretary general says "We
believe it's possible, especially with the focused leadership we have
and the commitment of our people, to make Rwanda a mid-level income
country by 2020." In the context of that commitment, Ruxin is confident
that with the help of the Millennium Villages project, Rwandans can
succeed in not just turning round one village, but in transforming life
for poor farmers across the country.
of Ruxin's confidence comes from an assessment of the government. In
the aftermath of the genocide of 1994 and the resettlement of some two
million returnees from neighbouring countries, 64% of Rwanda's
population was living in poverty (on less than US$1 a day) in 2000. But
despite its internationally criticized role in the Congo war, the
government of Paul Kagame is widely seen as committed to poverty
reduction, and as embodying principles of good governance from the top
down (for example, all ministers are required to declare their annual
Ruxin believes that good governance will be
an important factor in the long-term success of the millennium
villages. Those running the project have deliberately avoided what they
see as the worst African regimes. But they say that even in
corruption-prone nations, such as Ethiopia and Kenya, the research
villages so far remain free of corruption. Sachs points out that if you
focus on supplying commodities, such as seeds, fertilizer and nets for
protection against malaria, "there's very little money that changes
hands". That said, Sachs is less worried than many about corruption; he
knows people criticize this lack of concern, but doesn't care.
"Corruption is way down the list of practical issues," he argues,
Africa's miserable roads, poor soil and endemic disease burden are at
Indeed, the road from Kigali, Rwanda's
capital, to Kagenge in the Nyamata district, throws up choking red dust
in the dry season and can be impassable in the rainy season. Although
the land looks green from the air, the rains can be infrequent and
Ndahiro confirms that the soils are poor. Some 70% of the patients at
the village's clinic have malaria and the district has one of the
country's highest levels of HIV, at about 13%.
well as suffering from Sachs's top three problems, Kagenge has its own
particular sadnesses. The local mayor, Gaspard Musonera, lost
three-quarters of his family in the 1994 genocide. "Nyamata district
lost more than half of its population," he says. "The implications and
consequences of that you can imagine for yourself."
Angelique Kanyange is one of a handful of doctors working in rural Rwanda.
Kagenge itself is a community created since the genocide. Half the households live in settlement housing — or umudugudu
— built by the government for survivors and returnees. Ndahiro is
himself a returnee, living in Nyamata near the church where 10,000
people were murdered in 1994 — the blood stains on the walls and altar
cloth remain as a memorial. He recalls how lifeless the town was when
he arrived in 1997. People were bitter, he says; some didn't want to
sees the Millennium Villages project as a sign of hope for the most
vulnerable people in his district, and a big test for poverty-reduction
measures. "If it can be done here, it means it can be done elsewhere,"
he says — and that indeed is the point. The project is not just about
breaking the cycle of poverty in 12 villages, but about learning how to
do it in 1,200 or 12,000. Sachs's plan is to show that with a five-year
investment of about US$550 per person — $50 a year from the project,
$30 from government, $20 from other donors and $10 from the villagers —
an integrated package of low-cost interventions can produce long-term
financial sustainability in a way that not only can be repeated but can
also be scaled up. The project plans to grow to 78 villages this year
by creating clusters around the 12 original research villages. The
expansion is being funded by the US Millennium Promise charity, which
has so far raised $100 million to support Sachs's vision.
everyone is convinced that the Millennium Villages project will
succeed. Ecologist Ian Scoones at the Institute of Development Studies
at the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK, is a member of the Future
Agricultures Consortium, which was put together by the UK Department
for International Development to focus on African agriculture and
development. Scoones points to the Integrated Rural Development and
'villagization' schemes that tried to boost African agriculture in the
1970s and 1980s. "They created little islands of success but when
donors pulled the plug they all collapsed." Scoones says he is very
pleased that the millennium villages are putting African agriculture
back on the map, but he is afraid of old mistakes being repeated, and
worried about things moving too quickly. "India launched its green
revolution in the mid-1960s on the back of decades of solid investment
and research," he points out. "It didn't happen overnight."
his part, Sachs sees patience, like a well-developed sensitivity to the
issue of corruption, as an overrated virtue. He has no worries about
moving too fast. "It happens to be an emergency," he says. And he has
no illusions about the projects working as examples simply by word of
mouth. "This is not viral. You can't do it without resources," Sachs
notes — as ambitions grow, so must spending. The biggest risk, he says,
is for official donors to sit on their hands.
goal is not to do without large transfers of money to Africa, it is to
work out how to make those transfers more effective. After all, the
individual interventions used in the Millennium Villages project are
tried and tested methods, even if they haven't been applied all
together in one location before. Asked about the target of reaching the
millennium goals in five years, Celina Schocken, an
international-affairs fellow at the US Council on Foreign Relations,
says "I absolutely believe they will succeed. I don't see how they
But she's less convinced about how scale up
will be achieved. "What good is an island of prosperity anyway?" she
asks. Scoones agrees that the big question is: "How, without that
external support, do you replicate?"
Ndahiro, an agronomist working for the Millennium Villages project, has
helped to transform conditions in Kagenge in just five months.
is the question Sachs, Ruxin and their colleagues are trying to answer.
By documenting all the inputs and outputs for each research village
they hope to tease out the synergies between overlapping interventions.
Measuring 35 indicators for the 8 goals across several hundred
households in 12 villages is time consuming and costly, but it is
necessary to show not just that the investments work, but also how they
work, and how they can work better. Only then can they be scaled up to
the truly monumental level envisioned by Sachs, who wants to see
development aid change the course of history. "I think the biggest
challenge is the defeatist attitude of the official donor community,"
says Sachs. Such rhetoric reinforces the suspicion that Sachs is
unwilling to learn from lessons of the past. "People in the development
community see some benefit in the publicity Jeff Sachs gets," says
Schocken, who used to work with Ruxin in Rwanda, "but they've seen
these ideas before."
Kagenge, the villagers assembled for the water-tank certificate
ceremony are briefly reminded of the international debate over their
future. "This is an important day for the project," Ruxin tells them
during a short address, "You are now the teachers for us and for the
world." Some of the farmers I met in the fields yesterday have donned
suits and ties for the occasion. Each villager who received training
from visiting Kenyan water specialists receives a signed certificate —
the expectation is that they will take the skills they have learned and
pass them on to others. After many more speeches by village leaders,
the villagers distribute soft drinks and, for those who can stomach it,
fermented sorghum, the local brew.
In the weeks
before the corn is harvested, the contrast between Kagenge and the
surrounding area is already striking. An emergency feeding centre
supported by the UN Children's Fund UNICEF and the World Food Programme
was set up in Kagenge in early March, in response to reports of serious
malnutrition following last year's drought. Four hundred people from
the wider local population are still receiving weekly rations, but not
those of Kagenge. The bean crop and corn picked straight from the
fields before the harvest mean that they have enough to eat.
also have a functioning health centre, which serves Kagenge and four
neighbouring communities of similar size. The centre now has its own
doctor, Angelique Kanyange, known to everyone as Dr Angelique, and its
nursing staff has doubled in number. Dr Angelique is zealously
improving the nurses' cleaning procedures with demonstrations of the
use of a broom and disinfectant. Today, the clinic is seeing more than
35 patients a day, as well as some 50 mothers bringing children for
immunization. One of the new patients is Musabyimana, an 8-year-old boy
who is blind and in pain because of severe cataracts. His mother
noticed his poor sight when he was three months old, but this is his
first visit to the clinic. Dr Angelique is not sure what caused the
cataracts, but there is hope, she says, because Musabyimana seems to be
able to detect some light and colour. She will refer him to a
specialist for treatment. For now, the project will fund it; the
mother, a widow, could never afford it.
of Rwanda have community medical insurance schemes, but only 12% of
families in Kagenge have cover. The goal of the Millennium Villages
project is to get 100% coverage, with the hope that as the clinic
becomes more useful to patients, more will join the scheme.
From village to province
is here, though, that scaling up looks harder than it does in
agriculture. Buying more fertilizers is easier than making more
doctors. "Angeliques are hard to come by," admits Ruxin. Indeed, Dr
Angelique is the first government-appointed doctor in a rural health
centre, demonstrating the government's commitment to the Millennium
Project but also, perhaps, the project's weakness. "The president of
Rwanda says 'I want this village to work', so they are going to get the
best," says Schocken. There are currently about 200 doctors in the
country. The medical schools may be able to produce 60 or 80 a year,
but the country has a long way to go to reach the World Health
Organization's minimum recommended level of one doctor per 5,000 people.
claims recruitment problems can be overcome with decent salaries.
Although the project is mostly about spending money on physical
resources, he is in favour of top-up payments for doctors. But even
with targeted salary increases, a country such as Rwanda suffers skill
shortages in every sector.
currently has a team of ten dedicated people who work long hours to
motivate the villagers and document their progress. Detailed accounts
were not made available to Nature, but in its first year the
Kagenge project will spend as much on personnel as on materials. The
budget for the cluster villages being set up in addition to the
original 12 is smaller, and they will have much fewer support staff.
"Research on top is extremely expensive," notes Ruxin, explaining that
in future, and in villages that aren't research focused, costs should
be much lower. But Sachs's claim that "the science behind this is
broadly transferable without needing large teams" has yet to be put to
The budgets matter to Theoneste
Mutsindashyaka, a former mayor of Kigali and the governor of Rwanda's
eastern province, which includes Nyamata and covers a quarter of
Rwanda's population. He is a great fan of the Kagenge project, in part
because it fits so well with the government's Vision 2020. He wants the
figures so that he can roll out projects informed by the experience
more widely. "The documentation is very important to me because I have
to negotiate with partners," he says. He is impatient to get moving on
the next stage of the project: "We want a millennium province, not just
a millennium village," he says.
We want a Millennium province, not just a Millennium village.
Within the next year,
Mutsindashyaka wants to set up a Kagenge-like village in each of his
provinces' seven districts. "We are going to move village to sector,
sector to district, but you have to have money," he says. And he is
certain he can sell the idea to his friends all over the world, from
Quincy Jones to Donald Kaberuka, the president of the African
Development Bank. And although scaling up to 3,600 villages is
daunting, the governor says he only needs the numbers from Kagenge to
get started: "I am total 100% confident that the project will succeed."
Sachs to the president to the governor to the mayor, the ambitions for
transforming the country are vast. But in Kagenge, despite the good
rains, the villagers themselves remain wary. They are not as confident
that they will achieve rapid progress as the project leaders. Anxiety
about what to do with the harvest surplus is high. Celestin Ndahayo and
other farmers worry about whether they can really afford both to sell
corn and store enough for food security; they are not sure they believe
Ndahiro's forecasts for the yields of their smallholdings. And what if
the rains don't come next year? In his experience, says one umudugudu
farmer, when a project is here, then the rains come. Back in 2001, an
organization helped them to plant cassava and sweet potato and the
rains came. But when they left the rains stopped. So as long as the
Millennium Villages project is here he believes it will rain again. He
doesn't believe, yet, that his village can learn to flourish in the