Are the Millennium Villages an Answer to Accountable and Sustainable Development Policy?

James Tay and Naomi Shuman

In August 2012, the British government announced that it was committing 18.1 million dollars of aid funding to a new five-year development program in northern Ghana, one of the poorest regions in West Africa. The program will be a joint partnership between Britain’s Department for International Development, the Government of Ghana, and the Millennium Villages Project (MVP).

In what is undoubtedly MVP’s biggest triumph to date, the funding will go towards not only lifting 30,000 people out of poverty in Ghana, but also towards achieving targets set by the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to reduce poverty by 2015. Established by Jeffrey Sachs, the goal of MVP is to help individuals escape the poverty trap. It utilizes a holistic approach to development by targeting the root causes of poverty. Aid includes interventions for agriculture, health, rural infrastructure and education.

The MVP is distinct from other types of aid initiatives in that it provides a sudden, huge infusion of cash to each poor village over a five-year term. Ultimately, the Millennium Villages are not only designed to provide people with the assistance and resources to enable them to escape poverty, but more importantly to reduce their dependence on aid. Altogether, there are now 14 MVPs worldwide that provide the integrated rural development model.

Despite decades of huge investments in aid, millions continue to live in poverty. Moreover, while there have been a few success stories, substantiating empirical evidence has been lacking. In addition, aid organizations have often been criticized for wastefulness, short-sightedness, and for producing Band-Aid solutions that inevitably result in deepening poverty and dependence. In the field of international development, this raises important questions around the sustainability and accountability of development projects. In particular, to whom are aid agencies and non-profit organizations accountable? What are the accountability mechanisms? Ultimately, are these projects sustainable and can they help us reach the MDGs? The MVP can be seen as a case study for examining the importance of accountability and sustainability.

In looking at aid agencies it is important to consider the motivations and incentives that underlie their work and decision making process. While aid agencies should be held accountable to the people they are trying to help, this is often not the case. Instead, aid agencies and projects are often accountable to their large donors. This is because donors often have conditions tied to the funding. For example, private donors often prioritize big visible results from their funding such as the building of a new hospital rather than funding for essential medicines, which is less likely to make media headlines. The result is that what may be best for the project and the villages in the long-term may not be what the donor wants.

The British government’s funding commitment is a vote of confidence for the MVPs and underscores their belief that it can deliver results. However, Britain’s funding comes with strings attached. As part of the deal, Britain will fund and conduct an independent evaluation of the project specifically focusing on impact, value for money, and sustainability of the Millennium Villages. Britain intends to build on the anecdotal evidence with systematic research and more importantly, evaluation mechanisms.

Large development projects by non-profits can also be viewed as being accountable to the larger development community through academic journals and the publication of results. For instance, the MVP has published a number of journal articles and circulated midpoint reports among the development community. Development scholars have criticized articles by the Millennium team. For example, Bump, Clemens, Demombynes and Haddad have published their concerns with the project in The Lancet journal in a response to the MVP team article. This article and others like it highlight mistakes and inconsistencies in findings such as child mortality improvement rates.

Furthermore, questions have been asked of the project’s methodology such as the conspicuous lack of control groups when the project was initiated in 2005. In response to this criticism, control groups were added in 2007, which allowed researchers to better determine the specific role of the project’s interventions over time, given that other improvements have occurred concurrently as a result of improved access to technology. Sachs has indicated that randomized control trials are not necessary since all interventions have previously been proven scientifically; nevertheless, an accurate methodology is needed to determine efficacy. While Sachs might have explanations for the inconsistencies reported, constant criticism and project reporting inaccuracies can ultimately undermine the project. Accountability is needed to demonstrate legitimacy and responsibility.

Another key issue surrounding aid development projects is their long-term sustainability. Time and time again, organizations start economic development projects only to leave a few years later before the change is embedded and the village self-sufficient. Sustainability is important because development and the eradication of poverty is not a short-term exercise but one that requires prolonged commitment.

Questions about the sustainability of the MVP and its intervention remain and have yet to be answered empirically. To address this, Sachs has set out to prove the sustainability of the MVPs by applying a concept that is sound in theory but not yet fully proven. Sachs has used a business approach to all aspects of development. For example, villagers in the MVP project will have access to upfront loans for fertilizer, ploughs and seeds, which they would then repay after harvest. The loan can be returned the following year to the farmers. The intention is that these resources will assist the farmers to increase their productivity and will allow them to escape from subsistence farming.

This idea is similar to the concept of microfinance where a very small loan is given to assist the poor in purchasing resources. While widely used, it has produced mixed results. When used correctly microfinance can provide the needed resources to create a new business. On the flip side, microfinance involves risk, which in some instances has increased dependence on outside interventions and led to further indebtedness. It is highly likely that once the MVPs are complete, farmers may need to turn to microfinance to continue in this lifestyle.

A lack of accountability and proof of sustainability raises questions about the MVPs and whether aid in general makes a difference. Despite this, what remains clear is that accountability and sustainability are vital for the future of development aid. Hopefully, the British study will shed some light on the effectiveness of these types of projects, and will ultimately provide lessons that will shape the future of international aid for development.

James Tay is a 2013 Masters of Public Policy Candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Toronto and a Junior Fellow at Massey College. His policy interests include open data, open government and cyber security policy. He holds a a BA (Hons.) in Political Science from the University of Toronto and is a research associate at the Citizen Lab (Munk School of Global Affairs) where he undertakes advanced research and development at the intersection of digital media, global security, and human rights.

Naomi Shuman is a 2013 Masters of Public Policy Candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance. She holds a MSc. Biomedicine, Bioscience and Society from London School of Economics. She also has an Honours BSc. Biology Co-op with a specialization in genetics and a minor in psychology from McMaster University. Her policy interests include science and health policy as well as policies to improve diversity in large organizations.

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