Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Scaling up Successes: Millennium Villages Edition

It's wonderful to hear about some of what goes on in the Millennium Villages, like the example in this article by Gettleman, while there are other reasons for concern about 1) dependency, paternalism, and lack of voice mentioned briefly here, 2) scalability, and 3) lack of rigorous evaluation. Gettleman discusses the latter problems in "Shower of Aid Brings Flood of Progress"
Agricultural yields have doubled; child mortality has dropped by 30 percent; school attendance has shot up and so have test scores, putting one local school second in the area, when it used to be ranked 17th; and cellphone ownership (a telltale sign of prosperity in rural Africa) has increased fourfold. ...

“I used to think, African killer bees, no way,” said Judith Onyango, one of the new honey makers. But now, she added, with visible pride, “I’m an apiarist.”...

The other day, a community health team in Sauri stooped through the doorway of a home of several sick children, said hello to Grandma and got to work. Within minutes, a health worker had pricked a child, sent a text message with the blood results by cellphone to a computer server overseen by a man named Dixon in a town about an hour away and gotten back these instructions: “Child 81665 OKOTH Patrick m/16m has MALARIA. Please provide 1 tab of Coartem (Act) twice a day for three days.”

These small miracles are happening every day now in Sauri, population 65,000. But the question for Mr. Sachs and his team remains: Is this progress, in development-speak, scalable? In other words, is there a way to take a place like this one and magnify the results by 1,000 times or 10,000 times and wipe out poverty across the developing world?

Mr. Easterly and others have criticized Mr. Sachs as not paying enough attention to bigger-picture issues like governance and corruption, which have stymied some of the best-intentioned and best-financed aid projects.

He said, “Sachs is essentially trying to create an island of success in a sea of failure, and maybe he’s done that, but it doesn’t address the sea of failure.”

For example, one can easily picture what would happen in Kenya, where corruption is essentially a national pastime, if there were a free, donor-supported fertilizer program for the entire nation. The fertilizer would very likely never reach its intended target and would disappear like the national grain reserves that were plundered during a famine in 2008, or the billions of dollars of foreign aid that have ended up in the pockets of Kenyan politicians, according to numerous reports by human rights groups and financial auditors.
Update: A lot of the more knowledgeable bloggers have mentioned that Gettleman is on the list of people whose depictions of life tend to the highly stereotypical (same list with Kristal). The line about corruption being a national pastime has drawn particular fire and ire.

Hat tip: Poverty News Blog

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