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Donald Ndahiro

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Sustainable Results: Addressing Misconceptions About The Millennium Villages Project

Posted: 06/23/09 06:43 PM ET

Here in Rwanda, Magatte Wade's strange recent Huffington Post blog was received with quite a bit of surprise.

Wade's assertions over what she calls "ignorant" and "arrogant" rules for village tourism is wholly off-base. For starters, the community itself began the official tour program--in partnership with a private sector partner--nearly two years ago as a way to manage the significant number of requests to visit the village. As word of Mayange's development successes spread, the number of students, professors, NGOs, and other development practitioners interested in visiting grew as well. In true entrepreneurial spirit--precisely the opposite of Ms. Wade's description--the people living in Mayange saw a way to take ownership over the interest in their work.

Thus, far from accurately attacking Professor Sachs or the Millennium Villages Project, Wade has actually (and unintentionally, no doubt) gone after the very Africans that she purports to support! The Millennium Villages Project was not and is not involved in their management nor content. Rather, the community formed a cooperative with nearly 200 members to ensure that tours would be informative and interesting. The community formed this because it did not wish professors or tourists or anyone to be shown their accomplishments without leaving some lasting benefit. Among the co-op's requests was that tourists viewed it as a valuable touristic experience and not "come see the poor and how they live" but rather: "come see how a community that went through hell in 1994 and beyond has developed to become one of the most robust in the country." Nearly 70% of revenues from the tours go into a community development fund. Last year the community decided to use it to build homes for the homeless. It was the community leadership that specifically requested that all visitors be aware of the first rule that Wade found so offensive -- to avoid handouts of candies, pens, or anything else to community members. Their view was that such handouts would inculcate a view by their children that visitors were sources of charity rather than sources of revenue and learning. That's why the tour visits their superb basket cooperative and their farms, schools and health center. The community wants sales and purchase orders!

With regard to Mayange's small business development plan, Wade's argument makes it clear that somehow she missed the critical link between the Millennium Village's work and entrepreneurship. The village that she visited in Rwanda was devoid of businesses when the Millennium Village began its work in 2006. The vast majority of the community was suffering malnutrition, and a famine had broken out. There were no health services. School enrollment was minimal. There was no electricity available. Agriculture was disastrous as was the environmental effect of decades of erosion. Entrepreneurship simply could not exist let alone thrive in this sort of environment.

It's against that backdrop that the government of Rwanda and community of Mayange chose to be a Millennium Village site. Since then, the project has been entirely Rwandan-run and implemented on the ground. In a short period of time the results have been impressive. From that, the government is now adopting key Millennium Village approaches, under its national Umurenge Vision 2020 initiative, which calls for scaling up to nearly 1 million additional people in the poorest parts of the country. Here is a short list of key results:

Farmers across the board are growing 60% more food with some experiencing 2 and 3-fold increases. This means there's more to eat, sell and save. The community now stores vital grains annually in a seed bank rather than relying on hand-outs or humanitarian relief. There is a fully-functioning health center run by Rwandans which delivers more than 85% of the community's babies and provides primary health care. We're proud that it is considered one of the best in the district. School enrollment has gone through the roof with more than 95% of children of age in attendance. Dozens of new cooperatives have taken off and are generating employment and new products. The community leaders frequently comment that weekly funerals of children which were once commonplace just two years ago, have since ceased altogether. In short, the project, which through and through is community-led, has achieved its goal of sustainably reducing poverty in the community, and on that foundation of stability, the community has begun real prosperity-creation projects.

As a local, my goal has long been to build dignity and development together. That's the heart of the project here in Rwanda and in all nine countries where the Millennium Villages project currently works. Sharing with my colleagues in Ehtiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Uganda, Mali, Nigeria, Ghana, and Senegal has been an intense and wonderful experience. And while the debate still rages on, we will work tirelessly to meet the goals we have set forth.