It Takes a Village

Why Africa won't wait for Western do-gooders to save a continent.


As the leaders of the Millennium Villages Project (MVP) in Africa, we were both amused and frustrated to read Paul Starobin’s critical portrait of Jeffrey Sachs’s plan to end poverty (“Does It Take a Village?,” July/August 2013). The jibes come mostly from a familiar set of academics and critics who, like the author, have neither visited an MVP site nor discussed the project with the African leaders involved. Starobin did not speak to us or other Africa-based MVP coordinators, even though the project’s communications director repeatedly asked him to do so.

This strikes us as an irresponsible way to report on an African-run project. Our aim in the Millennium Villages is to fight poverty and save lives here on this continent. The critics in Washington tell us to take small steps. But why should we go slowly in the fight against malaria, AIDS, and lack of safe water when these problems can be solved more quickly and comprehensively? Before outside observers tell us once more to wait on randomized trials of already proven innovations, let them come here to see what can be accomplished now.

Already, governments around Africa are embracing the MVP, adopting its methods, and showing confidence in scaling up the project. Several countries, for instance, recently accepted a major financing package worth tens of millions of dollars from the Islamic Development Bank. If Starobin had spoken with African leaders, he would have learned how the project is helping countries solve major problems by encouraging them to set national policies that support the poor and sick. The large-scale distribution of malaria-fighting bed nets across villages and the expansion of community health centers are but two examples.

Eight years ago, the leaders of the MVP, including Sachs and our colleagues working in the villages, stated that the United Nations Millennium Development Goals can be achieved even in the very poorest “hunger hot spots” of rural Africa. We disagreed with advice to tackle these problems in a slow, piecemeal fashion, as if Africa were the subject of a classroom experiment. And we still do. With the help of the MVP, our continent is solving its problems through cutting-edge technology and science, markets, and government programs — all of which explains why more and more countries are joining Sachs’s project. If Foreign Policy had cared to look at the real situation on the ground, it would have told its readers the truth.

Director, Columbia Global Centers, Africa
Nairobi, Kenya
Director, MDG Center West and Central Africa
Dakar, Senegal

Paul Starobin replies:

Belay Begashaw and Amadou Niang claim that my article’s criticism of the Millennium Villages Project comes mostly from academics who have never visited a single MVP site. That is simply not true. Economist Edward Miguel at the University of California, Berkeley, and Nancy Birdsall of the Center for Global Development, both of whom are quoted in the article as MVP critics, have made site visits to MVP villages and have written about their findings. Miguel, in a chapter of his 2008 co-authored book, Economic Gangsters: Corruption, Violence, and the Poverty of Nations, drew on his visit the previous year to the Sauri Millennium Village in Kenya, and Birdsall wrote in a 2012 blog post about her visit to the Koraro Millennium Village in Ethiopia.

As for the claim that I did not talk to Africa-based leaders about MVP, that is also not true. I interviewed a senior Kenyan government official, Charity Ngilu, who as health minister worked closely with Jeffrey Sachs to launch MVP in her country, and she is quoted in the article. I also interviewed Bright Kanyontore Rwamirama, a member of Uganda’s parliament and a cabinet official who is closely involved with MVP in his country. In addition, an Africa-based writer, Sam Rich, visited the Ruhiira Millennium Village in Uganda and talked to project leaders there, expressly for the Foreign Policy article.

It is understandable that Begashaw and Niang take issue with pointed criticism of MVP, but they have no basis for saying that such criticism, as voiced in the article, is ill-informed.

Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer is the Europe editor at Foreign Policy. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and Forbes, among other places. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and master’s degrees from Peking University and the London School of Economics. The P.Q. stands for Ping-Quon.

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