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'Quest to end poverty' loses luster in Africa

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 4 2013 8:47 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this Sept. 13, 2010 file photo, women fetch water at the site of a borehole in the Millennium Project Village of Dertu, Kenya. The Millennium Villages, all 14 in Africa, are part of a global anti-poverty initiative launched under U.N. auspices in 2000. The goal is to bring people out of poverty with a big push of assistance that will wean them off aid after several years.

Khalil Senosi, File, Associated Press

Eight years ago, Jeffrey Sachs charted a bold course for eradicating global poverty that would begin with an Africa-based experiment called the Millennium Villages Project.

“The quest began in 2005, when Sachs, who directs the Earth Institute at Columbia University, started an ambitious program called the Millennium Villages Project,” columnist Joe Nocera wrote in Tuesday’s New York Times. “He and his team chose a handful of sub-Saharan African villages, where they imposed a series of ‘interventions’ in such areas as agriculture, health and education. The idea was that these villages would show Africa — and the world — how the continent could loosen the grip that extreme poverty had on so many of its people.”

Foreign Policy’s Paul Starobin reported earlier this year, “(Sachs) vowed to attack the root causes of poverty by establishing a series of model villages across Africa that would demonstrate the efficacy of targeted measures to address the corrosive lack of health care, education and employment that keep so many people around the world in a pernicious ‘poverty trap,’ ”

But according to Nocera and Starobin, Sachs and his Millennium Villages Project have yet to find favor with academics and economic experts because of an inability to produce meaningful data points.

“From the start, the Millennium Villages Project has been controversial,” Nocera added for the Times. “It has soaked up large sums of money — the original seed money was $120 million — which its critics believe could have been better used on more targeted, less grandiose forms of aid. Because Sachs, for years, refused — on ethical grounds, he said — to rigorously compare the results at his villages with villages that didn’t get the same kind of help, development experts complained that there was no way of knowing if the project was making a difference.”

Starobin’s article for Foreign Policy continued, “These days, though, Sachs is increasingly on the defensive, assailed by a growing number of critics for what they say are fundamental methodological errors that have arguably rendered his Millennium Villages Project — now consisting of 14 village clusters scattered across Africa and covering half a million people — worthless as a showcase for what can lift the poorest of the poor out of their misery.”

In the new book “The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty,” the journalist and author Nina Munk chronicled six years of intermittent immersion in Millennium villages. Per the Booklist review of “The Idealist,” Munk’s “accounts of the experiences of programs in Somalia and Uganda highlight the ebb and flow of enthusiasm, disappointment, resentment, and frustration among camel herders, farmers, and villagers as they struggled to survive while theories on poverty relief confronted harsh realities.”

“The Idealist” — which served as the catalyst for Nocera’s column — will be published on Sept. 10. On Tuesday, Munk published an excerpt from the book on the Huffington Post that speaks to how the Millennium Villages Project sought to implement meaningful change in Dertu, Kenya.

“Step by step, intervention by intervention, an official Millennium Villages Handbook prescribed the course of action to be followed by ‘change agents’ assigned to each village,” Munk wrote. “A 147-page, single-spaced document written by 29 academics, mostly from Columbia University, the handbook features dozens of flow charts, protocols, organizational tables, benchmarks, timelines, and hopeful objectives. As Dertu's designated change agent, (MVP employee Ahmed Mohamed) set out to eradicate extreme poverty by following the Millennium Villages Handbook to the letter ….

“Ahmed faced challenges, one after another, that the authors of the Millennium Villages Handbook hadn't anticipated. … Whatever headway Ahmed made in his first few months on the job was washed away (in October 2006) by the floods.”

Email: jaskar@desnews.com

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