Judging the Millennium Villages Project

I attended a presentation on Capitol Hill yesterday on the Millennium Villages Project, which is an experiment in international development championed by the economist Jeffrey Sachs.  The idea was basically this: provide across the board health, education, economic development, and infrastructure support to 14 rural villages in Africa and see if that holistic approach can improve the villages’ progress on the eight Millennium Development Goals.  If it works, the plan is to scale up this kind of approach–possibly on a national scale.

The project was started in 2006 and earlier this month the Millennium Villages Project released its “mid-term report.”  The event in Washington summarized the mid-term results.  I must say, the data looked encouraging. The data presented showed the MDG indicators pointed in the right direction.  For example, the Millennium Villages saw chronic mal-nutrition rates decrease sharply (by 40-60%) over base-line (pre-intervention) levels.  Crop production, household assets and access to water and sanitation also improved.

Still, the Millennium Villages Project is not without its critics. In April, Michael Clemens of the Center on Global Development suggested that there has not been a proper (randomized) scientific evaluation of the efficacy of the MVP approach; scaling up of the MVP approach before such an analysis occurs might not be a prudential use of donor dollars.  Prominent aid critic Bill Easterly, who deserves to be taken seriously in these debates, is also fairly dismissive of this approach.   

Still, at 14 villages serving 500,000 people, the MVP is pretty small scale.  The total investment amounts to about $60 per person, per year.  And judging by some of the early results in the report, this approach has had a profound effect on the lives of individuals who live in a Millennium Village.  I would definitely support a rigerous scientific testing of the efficacy of the MVP approach.  At the same time, early data like this makes me think that they just may be onto something.