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August 29, 2012

Economist Unveils Ghana Project to Break Poverty Cycle

by Laura Burke

SILINGA, Ghana – Economist Jeffrey Sachs unveiled his new Millennium Village on Tuesday in Silinga, in Ghana's north.  The Millennium Villages Project started in 2005 based on the belief that poor villagers are stuck in a "poverty trap" and if given enough resources, they will become self-sufficient.  However, such plans do have their detractors. 

Video: Millennium Villages Project



Nabari village lies on a flat plain in northern Ghana, and even by African standards, the village is extremely poor.  Several of the mud-thatched houses lost their reed roof tops in a wind storm, and have not yet been replaced.  There is no electricity for miles, and villagers travel long distances to fetch clean water.  Look for a place to buy basic necessities like soap and salt, and you won't find a single store.
 
Memuna Dokurgu, who is 65, says her family barely has enough to eat.
 
She says last year her family of nine harvested only two bags of maize, which lasted them just two months.  After the food ran out, she gathered bundles of firewood to sell for 50 cents each and bought maize.
 
Life might change for Dokurgu soon.  Her village falls within the territory of a new Millennium Village Project.  Started in 2006 by economist and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, Jeffrey Sachs, the Millennium Villages Project is meant to serve as a model for how aid money can help the world's poorest people.  Sachs says his goal is to enable poor communities to reach the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, a series of benchmarks for poverty alleviation.
 
Northern Ghana has not benefited from the country's growing industries of oil, mineral mining and infrastructure.
 
Sachs said at the project's launch on Tuesday he will help end poverty in the region.
 
"We're here today to mark the beginning of the end of poverty in West Mamprusi and Builsa and the northern region because there is no way for poverty to continue.  This is a hard-working community… And with a helping hand from the United Kingdom and with new technologies and new ways to do things poverty can be ended in this region," Sachs said.
 
The project, which costs $24 million, will be funded largely by the British Department for International Development, or DFID.  The Ghana government and local NGOs have also promised to contribute nearly half of the funding.  Sachs says the total figure also includes contributions the government would be making anyway.  DFID will also fund a 10-year evaluation of the project, the first time a Millennium Village has been independently evaluated since the first village was launched in 2006, in Kenya.
 
Sachs has set up over a dozen demonstration sites across ten countries in Africa to show integrated development works.  He says the poorest people are stuck in poverty, but if given enough assistance in agriculture, education, health, infrastructure and business development, they can lift themselves out of poverty for good.  It's not just about charity, he says.
 
"If nothing more were to happen than a village project as a demonstration but the rest of the country remains a mess there is no way that these villages will accomplish anything on the long term," Sachs said.
 
But the initiative has sparked debate in the development community about whether such programs are sustainable in the long-term.
 
Michael Clemens is a senior fellow at the D.C.-based Center for Global Development.  
 
"I mean sure, as a humanitarian model, as a pure charity you can do so much for individual families, for individual children, and I admire people who do that but to suggest… that this is something that can go on and on-- how?," Clemens said.
 
Yet Sachs says the project is already influencing national governments to scale up projects like the distribution of mosquito nets to fight malaria.  And Sachs has proven he can mobilize resources and money, attracting corporate sponsors like Tommy Hilfiger and rock stars like U2's Bono.  He has also convinced some governments to bump up funding to rural areas.
 
Sachs says the success of the project will have to be measured incrementally.
 
"I don't think this project will meet the standards of a randomized trial that you might do with a new medicine, but then again the things that we're doing are already proved often by those kinds of randomized trials.  What we're really trying to do is to show how to put those things together, so if you know that bed nets work to fight malaria and have been proved in so-called randomized trials, and if you know that higher fertilizer use can raise farm yields significantly, and that's been shown in randomized trials, and if you have other kinds of good investments that have been proved in a variety of ways, then putting them together is a different kind of task," Sachs said.
 
Whether the project has lasting impact, or is effective even in the short term, will be determined by the final results of the British study--results which will be available in another ten years.