Why development history matters for the Millennium Villages Project

by Ed Carr, Associate Professor in the Department of Geography at the University of South Carolina A growing volume of critical writing on the Millennium Villages project (MVP) includes blog posts, journalistic piecesscholarly works, and, recently, one partial social impact study. Nearly all point to project outcomes that could have been avoided had the project seriously engaged with the long history of field-based experiences in development.

Here, I will focus on just one example: Because the MVP did not critically evaluate the effect of its own assumptions about what works in development, a conflict between project goals and the needs of the villagers has emerged in at least one site.

The MVP is part of Millennium Promise, an effort to make progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).  As a result, the MVP framed its interventions around the MDGs.  For example, in 2005 the MVP website described community participation in this MDG-centric manner:

An open dialogue [between MDG-trained teams and villagers] will cover topics such as local problems as related to the MDGs, constraints and opportunities for achieving the MDGs at their village level, initial discussions on possible solutions and approaches for achieving the MDGs, and general impressions/consensus on being included as a Millennium Villages Project site.

The project’s founders have stated that the MVP was built on the “core truth” that there are “known packages of effective and generally low-cost interventions” that can address poverty.  A review of the MVP described it as a pilot project seeking to “provide successful evidence of how to achieve the Millennium Development Goals”. The project’s focus on finding “successful evidence” for the efficacy of these packages of interventions suggests that the project has an interest in validating the importance of the problems identified in the MDGs and justifying the interventions of the MVP.

This creates a conflict of interest for the field staff of the MVP: What if the evidence does not show success? And what to do when the local community’s concerns do not align with either these solutions or the MDGs?

Those familiar with the history of development work know that such conflicts of interest are chronic. Take the classic by Robert Chambers:  Whose Reality Counts. He describes what happened when he examined a consultant's glowing report on a World Bank irrigation scheme and found evidence that the conclusions were wrong:

My points were more or less accepted, but then the matter was consigned to an indeterminate limbo.  Nothing was done.  Far from being rejected or modified, the consultant’s conclusions were published unchanged, and without reference to the criticisms....The consultants knew that the World Bank, which had commissioned the study, was keen to justify the new approach.  They knew what result was wanted.  Supported by the consultants’ unchanged report, the new approach was implemented on a large scale.  So, even if bad news is reported, it may be avoided, rejected or finessed out of sight. (p.82)

Another disconnect appeared in a UNDP/OECD evaluation of a project in Mali: “it has to be asked how the largely positive findings of the evaluations can be reconciled with the poor development outcomes (1985-1995) and the unfavorable views of local people.” (1999)

Similarly, a classic work by James Ferguson (1994) recounts a World Bank project to teach better farming techniques in a mountainous region of Lesotho, out of touch with local people who had long ago learned to abandon the poor soils of that region and work as migrants in South African mines.

There are the same significant pressures on the MVP field staff to press participants to conform to project assumptions and expectations, and to reject or finesse evidence and feedback that does not. Those designing and implementing the MVP should have addressed possible conflicts between their goals and those of the communities. They did not. As a result, I was not surprised to see this quote from a woman living in a Rwandan Millennium Village, from a recent study:

The MV has to meet with local community to learn more about what people really want because sometimes the MV brings things that the community doesn’t need or want.

This and several other issues with the MVP were easy to see from the outset (see here and here). But to recognize them required a familiarity with the history of development and a self-awareness that the Millennium Village Project itself has never shown.


Ed Carr is an associate professor in the Department of Geography at the University of South Carolina.  His book Delivering Development: Globalization’s Shoreline and the Road to a Sustainable Future was released by Palgrave Macmillan on February 1, 2011.  He blogs at Open the Echo Chamber.

Read all Aid Watch posts on the Millennium Villages project here.