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Overseas Development Institute (ODI)

The Millennium Villages Project – a new approach to ending rural poverty in Africa?

Lнdia Cabral, John Farrington and Eva Ludi

Natural Resource Perspectives 101

Overseas Development Institute (ODI)

August 2006

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‘We cannot move forward without an African vision’
Prof. Wiseman Nkuhlu1

Proponents of the Millennium Villages Project argue that the complex problems facing rural development in Africa require a ‘big push’ if substantive progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is to be made – and propose the simultaneous introduction of improvements in agriculture, health, transport, energy, technology, telecommunications and internet connectivity, costing US$110 per person per year over 5 years, and funded mainly from aid flows. This paper examines the challenges this initiative faces, and the questions it raises, in its search for ‘quick wins’ to reach the MDGs.

Policy conclusions

  • The Millennium Villages Project (MVP) usefully draws attention to underinvestment in rural areas, where the majority of the poor are still located.
  • Yet, conceptually, the MVP is characterised by a number of tensions – important among these is its claim to be ‘bottom up’, despite being underpinned by a blueprint.
  • The blueprint is driven by a ‘campaign’ approach – easy enough on a pilot scale, but the longer the period and larger the scale, the greater will be the need to engage with markets, with policy prioritisation in economic, social and environmental spheres, and with issues of aid absorption.
  • At any scale above that of a few villages, ‘big pushes’ generally have to be replaced by carefully sequenced initiatives which exploit complementarities and lie within local administrative capacity.
  • As a number of earlier initiatives (such as Integrated Rural Development and Sasakawa Global 2000) have discovered, ‘big push’ is inappropriate where much local adaptation is needed (as e.g. in agriculture) if innovations are to be adopted widely and sustainably.
  • How far the MVP will be integrated into larger African-owned initiatives such as the CAADP of NEPAD remains unclear.


The Millennium Villages Project (MVP) is an initiative developed by a team of scientists headed by Jeffrey Sachs at The Earth Institute at Columbia University and overseen by the UN Millennium Project. It is described by its proponents as a ‘bottom up approach to lifting developing country villages out of the poverty trap’2.

The project aims to provide successful evidence of how to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). It offers an integrated package of interventions at the village level thought to be essential to help villages get out of extreme poverty. The premise is that a critical platform of basic needs satisfaction has to be reached before economic development can take off. The package comprises investments in agriculture and environment, health and nutrition, infrastructure, energy and communication, and education and training in villages, or conglomerations of villages, with an average of 5,000 people – see Box 1.

The costs of the MVP package are estimated at about US$110 per person per year, for a five year period. These are expected to be co-funded by grants from governmental and non-governmental donors, national and local governments and community-based contributions.3

Twelve impoverished villages in 10 countries – Kenya, Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda – have initially been selected and cover the principal agro-ecological zones and farming systems in Africa. Eligible villages are located in ‘countries that are reasonably well-governed, at peace and have governments seriously committed to achieving the MDGs’.4 Villages, defined as a ‘cluster of rural communities served by a primary school and with some form of local government’, are selected from those where the ‘Earth Institute, its partners, international centres, UN Organisations or grass root NGOs have successful ongoing activities, well-established relationships and mutual trust’.5

These villages are pilot projects that aim to demonstrate how to use community-based, low cost interventions to reduce poverty and meet the MDGs and help to identify the mechanisms for scaling up the project. The MVP plans to reach some half-a-million people by the end of 2006, and at the time of writing, negotiations were in hand for an expansion to about 100 villages across the 10 countries. There have also been talks about expanding the project to countries outside Africa.

Box 1: MVP Interventions

The MVP agenda comprises over forty interventions, including:

Agriculture and environment: provision of fertiliser and improved seed for basic staples; training of extension agents in soil and water conservation and in the use of improved crop varieties; construction of local grain storage facilities; and promotion of community forestry.

Health and nutrition: provision of insecticide-impregnated mosquito bed-nets; basic health care for common diseases, parasite infestations etc; provision of ARV therapy and voluntary AIDS counselling and testing; improved access to drinking water; provision of school feeding programmes and of micronutrient supplementation for pregnant and lactating mothers.

Infrastructure, energy and communication: provision/rehabilitation of health and education facilities and equipment; provision of a village vehicle modified to transport cargo or to serve as an ambulance; provision of a generator; individual solar lanterns; improved cooking stoves; VSAT equipment to provide internet access and mobile phones.

Education and training: training for all primary school children in the use of computers and internet, establishment of a secondary school scholarship for the village; training activities in agriculture, health etc.; training of local facilitators.


MDGs and help to identify the mechanisms for scaling up the project. The MVP plans to reach some half-a-million people by the end of 2006, and at the time of writing, negotiations were in hand for an expansion to about 100 villages across the 10 countries. There have also been talks about expanding the project to countries outside Africa.6

The MVP’s concern with rural poverty and the development of remote rural areas is to be welcomed in a continent where about 70 percent of the poor live and work in rural areas. The motivation is sound, but is the approach right? How different is the MVP from past rural development narratives and experiences? Pedro Sanchez, the Director of the MVP, recognises it as a ‘new approach based on an old paradigm’, with the main difference being the level of intervention – the community.7 This paper sets out the challenges and questions likely to be faced by the MVP as it expands. It examines: the MVP’s Big Push philosophy; its heavy reliance on aid, and on blueprint and campaign modes of intervention; the (as yet) unexplored need for upstream and downstream market linkages; and wider questions of scaling up, particularly to do with aid absorption.

  1. Chairman of the NEPAD Steering Committee, at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan International Conference, Port Elisabeth, 22 October 2003.
  3. Indicative estimates point to the following breakdown of contributions: $70 to be provided by donors; $30 from local and national governments; and $10 from community-based contributions (in cash or in kind).
  4. ‘The Millennium Villages Project’ at
  5. ‘The Millennium Villages Project’, op. cit.
  6. ‘The Millennium Villages Project’, op. cit.
  7. Interview at the 2005 World Food Prize International Symposium, October 13-14, Iowa.

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