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Low-Cost Thrills in Millennium Village Data

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Yesterday, May 30, the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited the Millennium Villages project (MVP) in Mwandama, Malawi. While there he had the opportunity to meet with local community members first hand and to see and hear about how they are pursuing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as a very practical day-to-day reality. On the occasion of his visit, Mr. Ban was also presented with the first major report on progress after three years of MVP activity, in a publication entitled Harvests of Development in Rural Africa. As the Secretary-General said upon receiving the report, "It is a case study in what is possible, even in the poorest of places in the world."

The Millennium Village data indeed show remarkable results across the first five reporting sites in Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, and Uganda. Average maize crop yields nearly tripled. Anti-malaria bednet usage increased sevenfold, helping average malaria prevalence plummet from approximately one in four people infected to one in ten. Chronic malnourishment dropped from fully half of children under 2 years old being stunted to just a third. The average share of populations with access to improved drinking water soared from 20 percent to 72 percent, while access to basic sanitation jumped from 6 percent to 42 percent.

While these average "quick win" figures are compelling, each Millennium Village community and local partnership team recorded spectacular gains in key areas, too. Mwandama in Malawi had nearly a sixfold increase in maize yields compared to pre-project levels. Sauri in Kenya saw a spectacular decline in malaria prevalence, dropping from nearly half of local residents infected to merely 1 in 12. Pampaida in Nigeria transformed from having effectively no one with access to improved drinking water to more than 70 percent having access. Ruhiira in Uganda jumped from only 4 percent of residents having access to sanitation to, again, more than 70 percent access. Bonsaaso in Ghana saw major leaps in health services, more than doubling the percentage of birth deliveries accompanied by a skilled attendant, from 30 percent to 61 percent.

There are many key points to extract from the results. First, the data serve as testimony to the efficacy of low-cost, locally-led, integrated, community-focused development programs across a wide range of impoverished and challenging rural environments. The five Millennium Village sites described in this report represent a highly varied cross-section of farming systems, topographies, community governance structures, and local burdens of disease. The project is still in its early days, and each site has its own unique blend of successes and challenges, but the common theme of rapid progress across sectors and sites is an important policy lesson on the viability of achieving the MDGs by their 2015 deadline.

Second, the project's budget for activities spanning agriculture, health, education, infrastructure, and business development has been very modest, at $120 per community member per year, with only half the resources coming from the MVP donor budgets and the other half coming from the national government, community members, and other partners. Although the precise cost numbers are still being analyzed, the sites all look to have been achieving their gains by operating well within the $120 total budget in the first three years. No one can reasonably say that these costs are high compared to the human value they are creating.

Third, in the weeks leading up to the June G8 and G20 summits in Canada, the project's low per capita cost is a timely reminder of the consequences of the G8 not holding itself accountable on its foremost global development promises for 2010. In 2005 the G8 leaders promised to double aid to Africa by this year. This works out to $80-100 per African annually. If it had come true, there would now be enough aggregate resources available for every village in Africa to be a Millennium Village. Instead the G8 stands about $20 billion behind its commitments as it enters a summit where the host Canadian government plans to focus on "accountability."

Fourth, the results underscore the need to translate the MDGs into a plan of action that addresses the needs of every community, district, and country that seeks to achieve them. Today Secretary-General Ban called on, "every country to look closely at [the Millennium Villages'] success." It is essential to maintain the focus on practicality. Last fall President Obama called for the September 2010 MDG Summit at the UN to adopt an action plan for the Goals. This will be a critical opportunity to map out the scaling mechanisms to meet the integrated needs of all rural villages around Africa.

The new data are of course only preliminary and reflect early results for a broader 10-year project. Much work remains to be done to move beyond quick wins and support the growth of local sustainable systems. More interim data are slated for release later this year, including through peer-reviewed scientific publications. Forthcoming evidence will review progress in the other program sites and comparison villages. Nonetheless, many of the newly released data are breathtaking enough on their own that the respective village communities and local teams deserve huge praise. Their work underscores the tremendous results that can be achieved through a holistic approach to community-based development. As world leaders prepare to gather at upcoming G8, G20, and UN summits, we need to help them ensure all communities around rural Africa start to receive similar support, and achieve similar gains.

***Author's note: Some readers of this blog misinterpreted the Harvests of Development document as a formal project evaluation, although the report's text is clear in describing it otherwise. To help avoid any residual confusion, the word "scientific" (before "report") has been removed from the original version of this blog post. Apologies for any inadvertent misunderstandings on this point!

John McArthur is CEO of Millennium Promise (http://www.millenniumpromise.org) and teaches at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. He co-chaired the International Commission on Education for Sustainable Development Practice, which was supported by the MacArthur Foundation and hosted by the Earth Institute at Columbia University.