Africa’s Village of Dreams

Monday, August 20, 2007

Sauri must be the luckiest village in Africa. The maize is taller, the water cleaner, and the schoolchildren better fed than almost anywhere else south of the ?Sahara.

Just two years ago, Sauri was an ordinary Kenyan village where poverty, hunger, and illness were facts of everyday life. Now it is an experiment, a prototype “Millennium Village.” The idea is simple: Every year for five years, invest roughly $100 for each of the village’s 5,000 inhabitants, and see what ?happens.

The Millennium Villages Project is the brainchild of economist Jeffrey Sachs, the principal architect of the transition from ?state-?owned to market economies in Poland and Russia. His critics and supporters disagree about the success of those efforts, often referred to as “shock therapy,” but his role in radical economic reform in the two countries vaulted him to fame. Now he has a new mission: to end poverty in ?Africa.

Africa has been ?drip-?fed aid for decades, Sachs writes in his 2005 book The End of Poverty,?but it has never received enough to make a difference. What money has trickled in has been wasted on overpriced consultants and misspent on humanitarian relief and food aid, not directed at the root causes of poverty. The average African, Sachs says, is caught in a “poverty trap.” He farms a small plot for himself and his family, and simply doesn’t have enough assets to make a profit. As the population grows, people have less and less land, and grow poorer. When the farmer has to pay school fees for his children or buy medication, he is forced to sell the few assets he has or else go into debt. But if he had some capital, he could invest in his farm, grow enough to harvest a surplus, sell it, and start making ?money.

It’s not this diagnosis of Africa’s problems that makes Sachs’s theories contentious, but his proposed solution, which might be called shock ?aid-?huge, sudden injections of money into poor areas. Over five years, $2.75 million is being invested in the single village of Sauri, and an equal amount will be sunk into each of another 11 Millennium Village sites that are being established in 10 African ?countries.

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Source: The Wilson Quarterly (link opens in a new window)