Millennium Villages: Is this at last the solution to African poverty?

It sounds great. And the prime advocate of the programme, Jeffrey Sachs, tells a convincing story; sufficiently convincing indeed to have raised approaching US$20m from generous philanthropists, foundations, corporations and governments (notably the Japanese), and encouraged the participation at the highest level of 10 countries across Africa in the pilot action research phase. Reviewing the available documentation on the project, however, much of all this seems very familiar. Who, for instance, remembers the experiments in integrated rural development from the 1970s? Who recalls the numerous NGO projects that pumped in resources only to see things falter once the project funding dried up? Is this just old wine in new bottles as some have claimed or something important and new?

Of the 12 initial Millennium villages, across different agro-ecological zones, several are located in the same countries where the Future Agricultures Consortium is working. In Ethiopia, Korano village in the Tigray was chosen, while in Kenya two villages were selected – one in western Kenya (Sauri), the site of past work by Millennium Villages project director Pedro Sanchez, and one in the pastoral north-east (Dertu). In Malawi a ‘hunger hotspot’ area near Zomba was chosen (Mwandama) where, according to the project website, “Earth Institute experts and local farmers worked around the clock in the fall of 2005 to distribute improved seeds and fertilizers to thousands of people in southern Malawi before the November rains came”.

These are all unquestionably poor communities, where the challenge of getting agriculture moving is key to reducing poverty and hunger. But is a concentrated effort focused on a very limited set of villages, with an emphasis largely on technical fixes really the solution? Is not the challenge of improving rural livelihoods in Africa more complex than this? What about institutional issues, politics and governance questions? And what plans are there for coordination of wider infrastructure and market linkages, especially if these cases – as the project advocates repeatedly state – are not to be yet another outside-funded island of success?

As the IDS Bulletin ‘New Directions for African Agriculture’ argued – focusing on the ‘fix’ at the micro-scale is not enough. This may bring important gains for a limited number of people for a limited period, but it is the sustained, long-term benefits of growth spurred by agriculture that is the target. As all the IFPRI studies of success in African agriculture show policies are key – and to get policies right this means attention to the complex arena of African politics. Taking a long-run view these studies showed too that success can be quite ephemeral. Boosts in maize production, for example, occurred in different parts of sub-Saharan Africa for periods when the combination of climate, economics and policy was right, but then the gains, often very suddenly, were lost. And this was not because of the absence of good seed and fertilizer – these have been available for maize at least since the 1950s.

Jeffrey Sachs argues strongly in a recent IRIN news service interview that: “There are no ‘magic bullets’, no single solution that will put an end to global poverty”. So far so good. But Sachs goes on to identify what he calls “quick wins” targeted on “hot spots” which if applied will go a long way to meeting hunger “targets”. The technocratic impulse is, it seems, not far away. Lessons from the past repeatedly suggest that apparently simple technocratic solutions – no matter how integrated, low-cost etc. – do not work in the longer term.

It is for this reason that the Future Agricultures Consortium focuses on the wider policy and institutional conditions for pro-poor agricultural growth, seeing the important priorities of investment – in infrastructure, equipment, skills and expertise – within this broader architecture. What is strikingly absent in the presentation at least of the Millennium Villages project is this wider institutional, political and policy context. Over the coming years, consortium partners in Ethiopia, Kenya and Malawi will be hoping to generate a local policy dialogue about future agricultures and appropriate policy solutions at national and local scales. Hopefully this will be a good opportunity to examine the experiences of the Millennium villages and help shape future strategies.


Millennium Villages: Ian Scoones of Future Agricultures quoted in Nature

Ian Scoones and Robert Chambers quoted in Scientific American

ODI perspective on Millennium Villages.


Millennium Villages Project

MDG task force on hunger – ‘Halving hunger it can be done’ [Eldis Summary]

Video clip of talk by Jeffrey Sachs and some blog responses

Announcement of $10m of Japanese assistance

Economist – ‘The magnificent seven – how a few simple reforms can lift African villages out of poverty’ [27 April, 2006]

IRIN news report:‘No magic bullets to end poverty, says Jeffrey Sachs’ [22 March 2006]

IFPRI 2020 Focus: Building on Successes in African Agriculture

IDS bulletin/policy briefing: New Directions for African Agriculture