Millennium Villages: Moving the goalposts

Here on the blog, we’ve been following the progress of the Millennium Villages Project, a joint effort from the UN and Columbia’s Earth Institute that has introduced a package of development interventions in health, education, agriculture and infrastructure into 14 “clusters” of villages throughout 10 African countries. In response to a critical paper by Michael Clemens and Gabriel Demombynes, the MVP architects published a statement last week that they said would “clarify” some “basic misunderstandings” about the project. This statement caught our attention because—I would argue—what it is actually doing is seeking to reframe the debate about the project, and redefining project success in different, less ambitious terms.

“The primary aim” of the project, the MVP architects write, “is to achieve the Millennium Development Goals in the Project sites, as a contribution to the broader fulfillment of the MDGs (Evaluating the Millennium Villages: A response to Clemens and Demombynes, October 2010, emphasis in the original). Also important, they say, is to clarify what the MVP is not: “The MVP is not testing a rigid protocol for implementing MDG-based outcomes…The MVP is not claiming or aiming to provide a unique or “optimal” model for achieving the MDGs.”

This sounds fine unless you’ve read the many other MVP project reports and documents that clearly outline other, different, major goals and indicators of success.

For example:

So, in this context, what’s even more revealing about this new statement is what it does NOT say. It does not mention that the improvements to the villages will be self-sustaining, or even moving towards self-sustainability by 2015, although that notion was at one point advertised as a “central proposition underpinning the Millennium Villages concept” (MVP FAQ, late 2006). In this case, the clarification seems more like a retrenchment, a moving away from the ambitious claims made at the project’s optimistic outset.

The new MVP definition also backs away from talking about interventions “undertaken as a single integrated project” that will serve as “proof of concept that the poverty trap can be overcome” (as stated in the PNAS paper cited above). In fact the impact of the project as an integrated whole can’t be demonstrated, the MVP authors argue, because some of the same improvements at work in the Millennium Villages (insecticide-treated bednets, subsidized fertilizer and seeds, for example) are also present in many of the surrounding villages.

Before, the project was defined in its own materials as a research experiment (a “proof of concept” carried out first in “research villages”) to prove that a package of development interventions delivered in a particular way can help lift the very poorest people living in rural Africa out of poverty forever. In today’s new formulation, the MVP is a means to show that by spending an amount roughly equal to 100 percent of the village’s per capita income on already “proven” interventions, for a period of 10 years, it can allow that village, for at least one moment in time in 2015, to step across the finish line demarcated by the Millennium Development Goals.

If the project continues to define success in these narrower terms, it will effectively shift the focus away from any obligation to show that the positive things achieved in the Millennium Villages are self-sustaining beyond the 10-year life of the project, or to prove that they are actually a result of the project itself.


Screen shot of the top of World Bank's Africa Can...End Poverty Blog last Friday:

That notice was removed; here’s what the same blog tells us, at the bottom of the post, today:

UPDATE: Another view from Chris Blattman.