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Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute of Columbia University, spoke yesterday at CGD (video clip available) to describe his Millennium Villages Project. Sachs’s argument is generally that countries like India developed not by ineffectual, small amounts of foreign aid – as he argues the US delivers today – but by creating a Green Revolution. Communities learned to work together, and with fertilizers donated in part by the United States, they became able to feed themselves and eventually to begin developing. Sachs argues that African countries are so poor that there is no point talking about good governance or corruption – they need basic services like health, education, and agriculture.

No doubt health, education and agriculture are needed, but are Millennium Villages the answer? The project provides technical assistance, seeds, fertilizer, medicine, V-Sat phones, school support, vehicles, and other needs to small rural communities. Sachs is a bit fuzzy on the numbers, but the project budgets anywhere from $50-$150/person/year for these villages, not counting all of the experts, the government-funded health workers, teachers, agriculture extension agents and others, or other in-kind support from other donors. The problem with this model is that a village of 5,000 people easily costs $750,000 per year, probably a lot more when all the costs are factored in. It doesn’t take too many villages for this to cost in the billions.
There are plenty of other problems. How can this possibly scale up? Sachs is running anywhere from four villages, according to his staff, to 40 according to the website to 78, according to his talk yesterday. How many thousands of villages in Africa need this help, and is this resource-heavy model scaleable? It seems to me that we already know, from Sachs himself in the Report on the Commission on Macroeconomics and Health, that pumping money and expertise into a village will make things better, but donor funding doesn’t come close to the needs identified.
Sachs seems intent on antagonizing the donors, and his audience, because apparently we don’t care as much as he does about Africa.
All of this leads me to think there is an element of publicity stunt here. The Millennium Village website gives links to Jeff and Angelina in People Magazine and on MTV. Wouldn't we be better off using the lessons already learned, rather than repeating them, by channeling funds to proven programs?
I am all for attainment of the MDGs, but we need practical, reasonable, scaleable and implementable solutions. The Millennium Villages aren’t convincing.

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.