Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Millennium Villages: the Great Experiment

The Millennium Villages is one of the most prestigious humanitarian aid projects that have been launched in Africa in the past years, and a lot has actually happened. Yet, the project’s central question remains unanswered – how do you eradicate extreme poverty?

By Ann-Helen Meyer von Bremen & Gunnar Rundgren

-          I have learned a lot through this project, and I have become much more self-confident. I have a plan for the future that I am already working towards, says Mama Sarah, while showing us her well-kept fields. 

            We are in Inonelwa, one of the fifteen villages of Mbola, outside Tabora, in Tanzania. Mbola is one of Africa’s Millennium Villages*, a high-status, ten-year humanitarian aid project that was launched by Jeffrey Sachs, in order to show that it is possible to reach the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. 
            Seven years into the project, Mama Sarah is undoubtedly one of the winners. She emanates strength, energy and stability. A brand-new brick-house has been built next to her old, much simpler home, and a new storage shed for harvested corn and peanuts has also been set up in the courtyard, which enables her to sell her products when prices are at the highest. Mama Sarah earns an income from her farming practices, which is not a given in Tabora, or in Tanzania, for that matter. A brand-new bicycle is also leaning against the wall. It was given to Mama Sarah by Tanzania’s president when he came to visit.
            According to Eliezer Kigaya, who is responsible for agriculture in the Millennium Villages’ local office in Tabora, the secret behind the project’s success resides in its focus on financing chemical fertilizers and seeds, which increases the amount of corn harvested. This is one way to look at it. Another explanation is that Mama Sarah is not any farmer, but one of 67 agriculturists who have been chosen as good examples, to inspire the remaining approximately 6,000 households living in the villages. Prior to the implementation of this project in this particular village, she already belonged to a leading group of farmers. 
            Ruth Kirunda picked the shorter end of the stick.  We met her in the neighbouring village, carrying her young boy on her shoulder. Here, the harvest has been poor, and there are large gaps between the corn plants. She is one of many farmers who have not had the means to pay back her part of the financed package of chemical fertilizers and modern hybrid seeds.
-          We entered the project when it started in 2006, but in 2011, we were unable to pay back the loan. My brother, who I manage the farm with, and I had to leave to care for our aunt who got sick. We therefore could not properly care for the weeds, the harvest was poor, and we were unable to pay back the loan, says Ruth Kirunda.
            When the project was launched, all farmers were included. The reason was simple – for the first two years, chemical fertilizers and seeds were given out for free. After that, farmers were meant to pay for parts of the cost themselves, an investment that they could take out a loan for. Only one per cent of the farmers paid their loan back. Yet, the project persisted and farmers were still asked to pay a certain portion of the invested money back, and today, more farmers are able to do so. However, the majority still cannot pay back, and around two thirds of the farmers are thus not receiving the subsidies.
As opposed to many other humanitarian aid projects that tend to focus solely on one particular area, the idea behind the Millennium Villages is to implement solutions in various different fields, such as health, schools and income-generating activities (more specifically, agriculture). According to the Millennium Villages’ coloured publications, poverty is decreasing, as is hunger and the number of illiterates, while health, food production and economic welfare are increasing. The closer we come to reality in Mbola, the more nuanced this picture becomes. The reports claim that corn production has increased three to four times, but during our visit, the Tanzanian government is distributing food to the villages of Mbola. 
When we visited one of the cooperatives that process corn and peanuts, we discovered a tragic, and all too common, scene in the humanitarian aid world – the machines have been broken for about a month, and all activities have been put on hold. We did not see any signs of the remaining market investments that were mentioned in the reports. The school meals have not worked out as planned.
-          The idea was that each parent should contribute with two bags of corn (about 440 Pounds) per year, but this has never been the case, says Katherine Mbando, director of Madaha Primary School.
            At the same time, a lot has actually happened. Prior to the project launch, there was barely any clean water in Mbola, whereas today, 64% of the inhabitants have access to it. Three health centres have been built, and as many have been renovated. Sixty health workers have been employed, schools have been restored, mosquito nets that prevent malaria have been distributed, toilets have been built, and electricity has been installed in schools and in health centres. Amongst the positive results, fatality rates have decreased, and so has the rate of undernourished children and the cases of malaria. Moreover, the number of children including girls, attending school has dramatically increased. Maternity care has been expanded, but the rate of mothers dying from childbirth is still high. 
Girl cycling to school in Tabora

            And yet, the two most important questions remain unanswered – are the poorest being reached, and is the agriculture intervention successful? Since the idea is that monetary gains obtained from agriculture should enable households to invest money into public or community services, without a striving agriculture, development will never be sustainable. 
            It is highly likely that the Millennium Villages will not meet the expected Millennium Development Goals, at least Mbola will not. Jeffrey Sachs, founder of the Millennium Villages, and heading the work of establishing the Millennium Development Goals, observes from New York that so far – seven years into the project – not all efforts have reached out to the poorest.
-          You chose to focus on rather expensive investments in agriculture, such as chemical fertilizers and seeds. Was that the right path to take?
-          In order to increase production, you need costlier means of investment. Mbola was also shockingly poor; it was one of the poorest areas that we chose. When we started the project, there was no market, people were hungry during the months leading up to harvest, and there was barely any real housing. This has become better, but it is not the case for everybody, not for the small farmers, and not for those who do not own land.

Tobacco is grown without any subsidies and provides most of the income in Mbola
On our way back from Tabora to Mwansa, we saw a group of women and children of different ages sitting crushing stones by hand with sledge-hammers, while the youngest children were playing in the piles of stones. Later, we drove past a gravel pit where a stone-breaker was used for the construction of a new road. The question is whether this new road will be the beginning of economic development, and the end of a market for labour-intensive hand-crushed stone? Or is the new road going to be as meaningless as the more than a hundred-year-old railway? Will it mostly be used to transport the young people of Tabora into cities, where they will sell telephone cards, bananas and lighters? – Third World Network Features.

*The Millennium Villages
The Millennium Villages is a ten-year-project that will last until 2015, and its aim is to reach the Millennium Development Goals. The villages that have been selected exist in ten countries: Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania and Uganda. According to project data, it reaches out to half a million people. The initiative was launched by Jeffrey Sachs at Earth Institute, Colombia University, and he is also heading the project. 

Published as a TWN Feature in July 2013


  1. For people with NO income any, but realy any input is taking food out of their families mouths. Being used to open seed and now having to buy seed are unthinkable. Loans are the worst way of helping them. The culture for ages were "the land will provide" and to change that is difficult. As the education level increase, so do the reluctance to farm which mean the one's who understand economics will not farm.

  2. "the one's who understand economics will not farm." That was a great comment. I am sure I will use it (if you send me your name at gunnar (at) grolink.se, I will know whom to credit....

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  4. I would wager that Millennium Village's preoccupation with germplasm and fertilizer (like the rest of the standard intl ag development/CG centre's preoccupation)to the neglect of sustainable small scale ag mechanization and agronomy, has led to this situation. The article alludes to lack of manual labor (brother gone) on the production side that the broken processing machinery doesn't address. And why is it that when germplasm based projects do think of machinery they always think of processing machinery? And the broken processing machines indicates again germplasm folks "doing mechanization".