I have an abiding interest is the great trade or aid debate. I've always - since my days studying development economics thirty years ago - tended to favour trade as the best route out of poverty. Indeed part of me suspects that aid programmes may even crowd out local development.
The Millennium Villages project seems such an appealling idea:
The Millennium Villages Project addresses the root causes of extreme poverty, taking a holistic, community-led approach to sustainable development. Our work unites science, business, civil society and government in these efforts by empowering communities and partners alike to become a part of the solution to ending extreme poverty.
And that appealling message - wrapped up in the UN's Millennium Goals - has attracted a huge investment from charities, philanthropists and, of course, governments. The idea of creating new villages with excellent infrastructure, schools, health centres and the benign advice of development experts seemed just right. A challenge met, resources directed and Africa freed from poverty!
But there's a problem. For all the grand talk, the list of great and good 'partners', endorsement from bilateral and multilateral aid agencies and the gushing words of politicians and celebrities, these Millennium Villages are not making the difference Professor Sachs claims:
Documents recently made public by the UK government reveal the cost of poverty reduction in the Millennium Villages Project, a self-described “solution to extreme poverty” in African villages created by Columbia University Professor Jeffrey Sachs. The project costs at least US$12,000 per household that it lifts from poverty—about 34 times the annual incomes of those households. This highlights once again the importance of independent and transparent evaluation of development projects.
"So what" you might say - the benefit to those families helped by the programme in incalculable. That may be so but what of the opportunity cost? We know that relatively small cash transfers can transform lives:
There is robust evidence from numerous countries that cash transfers have leveraged sizeable gains in access to health and education services, as measured by increases in school enrolment (particularly for girls) and use of health services (particularly preventative health, and health monitoring for children and pregnant women). Effects are typically larger in LICs with lower baseline levels. Cash transfers also have a proven role in supporting specific vulnerable groups (people living with HIV and AIDS, orphans and vulnerable children). (DFID 2011)
The Millennium Villages programme represents a huge transfer of resources (34 times average incomes in the receiving country) but any evaluation lacks balance - indeed Sachs has made a virtue out of measuring only the impact in the villages themselves:
...Jeff Sachs noted in a 2006 speech that they were not doing detailed surveying in non-MV sites because—he said— “it’s almost impossible—and ethically not possible—to do an intensive intervention of measurement without interventions of actual process.” A paper the following year went on to explain that not only is there no selection of control villages (randomized or otherwise), there is also no attempt to select interventions for each village randomly in order to isolate the effects of specific interventions, or of certain sequences or combinations of interventions.
What we've discovered is that if you throw huge amounts of money at a relatively small number of families, you can transform their fortunes. The problem is that this can't be done for the entirety of Africa's poor families and, more worrying, the approach acts to embed susbsistence farming which is not in the long term interests of these families. And, as Michael Clemens points out:
...causing short-term improvement of some kind with charity does not make a development project successful. A successful development project does more with the money than an alternative project can—otherwise diverting money to the former makes everyone worse off than if that project didn’t exist. And that has ethical dimensions.
The Millennium Villages programme is perhaps the last of the grand Victorian ventures, a hangover from an approach to development that assumes poor Africans can't do it for themselves and have to be helped. Maybe its failure will change our approach to development and we'll realise that patronising the poor is wrong and appreciate that our protectionism, green exclusivism and home preference kills more Africans than we save with aid.