Global Policy Forum

It Takes a Village to Save the MDGs


By Juliana Lara Resende

Inter Press Service
May 5, 2006

It may be simpler to fight and even end extreme poverty over the next decade than is commonly understood by powerful global policymakers like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Take the accomplishments of the "Millennium Villages", an initiative of the U.N. Millennium Project, which over the last five years has demonstrated how relatively small amounts of money spent on health, education, fertiliser and other essential services can dramatically accelerate progress towards the faltering Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

The eight MDGs are to halve extreme poverty and hunger, achieve universal primary education, promote gender equality and maternal health, reduce child mortality, combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, ensure environmental sustainability, and develop a global partnership for development.

The MDGs were adopted by 189 world leaders in 2000, and reaffirmed at the World Bank-International Monetary Fund spring meetings late last month. "With just a decade to achieve the goals, it's urgent for both developing countries and the donor community to improve governance to ensure we get the results we seek," said World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz.

But many eminent development activists question the wisdom of this approach. "Most of the discussion in Africa has been about corruption, governance and markets, and that is most of what we talk about in other places in the world. It strikes me as a very unrealistic misunderstanding of the main challenges and the main drivers," Jeffrey Sachs, director of the U.N. Millennium Project, said at a recent event hosted by the Washington-based Centre for Global Development.

The Millennium Villages project, developed by experts at Columbia University's Earth Institute and the U.N. Millennium Project, but led and driven by community members, seeks to end extreme poverty based on the idea that villages can meet the MDGs if they are empowered with proven, powerful, practical technologies. "These interventions could be implemented by mobilising the community themselves, and ensuring full community leadership, backed up by government delivery mechanisms in a comprehensive community sense," Guido Schmidt-Traub, associate director of the U.N. Millennium Project, told IPS.

The project costs an average of just 140 dollars per person per year, with 50 dollars coming from the project's budget, 20 dollars from partners and only 70 dollars needed in external aid. For example, in one year, from June 2004 to July 2005, "the lives of thousands were completely transformed in (the Kenyan village of) Sauri", said Schmidt-Traub. "Food output has more than doubled, malaria incidence has fallen 50 percent through the use of insecticide-treated bed nets, and there is a clinic that gives the community access to critical, life-saving medicines," he added.

According to the Millennium Promise, a non-profit group guided by prominent scientists and development campaigners that supports the Millennium Villages, in five years, "not only will extreme poverty be wiped out, but Sauri will be on a self-sustaining path to economic growth". The project invests in health, food production, education, access to clean water, and essential infrastructure by working directly with the poorest of the poor. It focuses on simple solutions, from preventing and treating malaria to teaching improved farming methods.

According to Sachs, a huge part of Africa is devoted to rain-fed savannah agriculture with tremendous water risk, worsened further by the looming threat of climate change. There also is very little fertiliser use in Africa. "It is 200 kilos per hectare in China and in South Asia it is 100 kilos per hectare, (but) in Africa it is zero on staple crops," Sachs said. "It is not even 10 kilos because that is what goes on coffee or cotton. Not on maize or casaba. So the soils are utterly depleted," he explained, adding that this not only hinders the continent from agricultural production, but also lowers the nutritional level of the whole population.

As a simple solution, the Millennium Villages are being provided with modest technologies of water management, improved seed varieties and fertiliser. This year in Sauri, for example, crop production went up 3.6 times compared to the year before, according to Schmidt-Traub, after farmers were given bags of urea to enrich the nitrogen-depleted soil. "What this means is that the people now have enough to eat. More than that, there has been a diversification of crops, which they can now sell in the markets," he said.

Despite these accomplishments, however, most developing countries are not making sufficient headway to reach the MDG targets, and the crisis is a very basic one. There are 78 so-called Millennium Villages, but in the estimated 100,000 other villages throughout Africa, many people continue to live on less than a dollar a day.

"We're still expecting and hoping this approach of the Millennium Villages will be taken to scale as part of national programmes backed up by increased development assistance," which is a core necessity, Schmidt-Traub said. According to Sachs, "People are too sick, too hungry, and too isolated to achieve economic development and if we simply treat this situation as another stabilisation, liberalisation, privatisation episode, as has been done for 20 years, we will continue to have more disasters and more failures."

The 2005 Millennium Development Goals Report warned that the decline in hunger is slowing; the number of poor in Africa is rising; AIDS is taking a harsh toll on education; gender disparities are not being diminished; and progress in reducing child mortality has slowed.

In the most affected countries, the number of women dying during childbirth has not been reduced; HIV prevalence is still high in sub-Saharan Africa and has increased in all other regions of the planet, and tuberculosis has re-emerged; loss of species and habitats continues; and development aid remains at a historically low level as a share of donor country income.

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