The Millennium Village Project is an effort led by Jeffrey Sachs to test the approaches he believes will best meet the Millennium Development Goals in Africa. As the NYT reports, it's a critical experiment:
Eventually there will be 10 such test villages, scattered across the world's poorest continent. [T]he project aims to fight poverty in all its aspects - from health and education to agriculture and energy in one focused area - to prove that conditions for millions of people like Ms. Odera and her neighbors can be improved in just five years.
It is an important and uncertain gambit. If it fails, initiatives like that pushed recently by Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain to greatly increase foreign aid to Africa may seem foolhardy. If a single village cannot be turned around with focused attention, how can whole communities and even countries be revitalized?
Sachs is contraversial, to say the least. In a new interview, Sachs argues that what Africa needs more than anything is a major infusion of aid and investment:
Right now the rich countries are handling emergencies in Africa every year but we are not solving the problem. In fact, the objective evidence is that African living standards have declined on average in the last 20 years. So giving food aid or giving emergency medical relief is very expensive without solving the underlying problems. On the other hand if we helped Africa to invest strongly in improving agricultural activity, in public health institutions for prevention and treatment of disease, for environmental management then these emergencies would be abated.
If you have a block of blazing buildings on fire and you send one fireman and he sprays the hose and the fire continues, you shouldnt make the conclusion, "We did the best we could, (we have) no more use for firemen, they are not effective". Maybe we should conclude that we should have made more of an effort to stop this fire from spreading.
We have sent dribs and drabs of help (to Africa) over the years. ... We havent made the effort commensurate with the task yet. We have found that only about 40 per cent of overall official development assistance to Africa has actually been the kind of budget support that could enable African societies to increase their investments in critical areas. The rest has been technical assistance or forgiving debt that wasnt being paid anyway or administrative costs of donors, or emergency food aid.
Others argue that the whole approach is wrong -- some conservatives argue that any aid distorts local economies, while some leftists argue that all aid programs inevitably become the tools of oppressive economic systems (still others argue that aid is a good thing, but that we must be more innovative in how we apply it, or turn more spending authority over to local participants, or... well, you get the idea).
But the fact of the matter is that huge swathes of Africa need triage, not rhetoric. The Millennium Villages may prove disasters. They may prove nothing. But the may also prove that Africa is not a lost cause, but a neglected opportunity for worldchanging.
I wonder, What do Africans say? What are the success stories (with and without external intervention)? Time for some "Appreciative Inquiry" here? We could do more as ants do: Share What Works!