Entries tagged with “Millennium Village Project”.


Bill Gates has a Project Syndicate piece up that, in the context of discussing Nina Munk’s book The Idealist, argues in favor of Jeffrey Sachs’ importance and relevance to contemporary development.

I’m going to leave aside the overarching argument of the piece. Instead, I want to focus on a small passage that, while perhaps a secondary point to Gates, strikes me as a very important lesson that he fails to apply to his own foundation (though to be fair, this is true of most people working in development).

Gates begins by noting that Sachs came to the Gates Foundation to ask for MVP funding, and lays out the fundamental MVP pitch for a “big push” of integrated interventions that crossed health, agriculture, and education sectors that Sachs was selling:

[Sachs’] hypothesis was that these interventions would be so synergistic that they would start a virtuous upward cycle and lift the villages out of poverty for good. He felt that if you focus just on fertilizer without also addressing health, or if you just go in and provide vaccinations without doing anything to help improve education, then progress won’t be sustained without an endless supply of aid.

This is nothing more than integrated development, and it makes sense. But, as was predicted, and as some are now demonstrating, it did not work. In reviewing what happened in the Millennium Villages that led them to come up short of expectations, Gates notes

MVP leaders encouraged farmers to switch to a series of new crops that were in demand in richer countries – and experts on the ground did a good job of helping farmers to produce good crop yields by using fertilizer, irrigation, and better seeds. But the MVP didn’t simultaneously invest in developing markets for these crops. According to Munk, “Pineapple couldn’t be exported after all, because the cost of transport was far too high. There was no market for ginger, apparently. And despite some early interest from buyers in Japan, no one wanted banana flour.” The farmers grew the crops, but the buyers didn’t come.

But then Gates seems to glide over a really key question: how could a smart, well-intentioned man miss the mark like this? Worse, how could a leading economist’s project blow market engagement so badly? Gates’ throwaway argument is “Of course, Sachs knows that it’s critical to understand market dynamics; he’s one of the world’s smartest economists. But in the villages Munk profiled, Sachs seems to be wearing blinders.” This is not an explanation for what happened, as telling us Sachs suffered from blinders is simply restating the obvious. The real issue is the source of these blinders.

The answer is, to me, blindingly obvious. The MVP, like most development interventions, really never understood what was going on in the villages targeted for intervention. Sure, they catalogued behaviors, activities, and outcomes…but there was never any serious investigation into the logic of observed behaviors. Instead, the MVP, like most development interventions, was rife with assumptions about the motivations of those living in Millennium Villages that produced these observed activities and outcomes, assumptions that had little to do with the actual logic of behavior. The result was interventions that implicitly infantilized the Millennium villagers by providing interventions that implicitly assumed, for example, that the villagers had not considered the potential markets for new and different crops/products. Such interventions assume ignorance as the driver of observed behaviors, instead of the enormously complex decision-making that underlies everyday lives and livelihoods in even the smallest village.

To give you an idea of what I mean, take a look at the following illustrations of the complexity of livelihoods decision-making (these are from my forthcoming article on applying the Livelihoods as Intimate Government approach in Applied Geography – a preprint is here).

First, we have #1, which illustrates the causes behind observed decisions captured by most livelihoods frameworks. In short, this is what most contemporary development planning gets to, at best.

Figure 1

However, this is a very incomplete version of any individual’s decision-making reality. #2 illustrates the wider range of factors shaping observed decisions that become visible through multiscalar analysis that nests particular places in wider networks of economic, environment, and politics. Relatively few applications of livelihoods frameworks approach this level of complexity, and those that do tend to consider the impacts of markets on particular livelihoods and places.

Figure 2

While this is better than the overly-simplistic framing of decisions in #1, it is still incomplete because motivations are not, themselves, discrete. #3 illustrates the complex web of factors, local and extralocal, and the ways in which these factors play off of one another at multiple scales, different times, and in different situations.

Figure 3

When we seek to understand why people do what they do (and do not do other things), this is the complexity with which we must engage.

This is important, because were Gates to realize that this was the relevant point of both Munk’s book and his own op-ed, he might better understand why his own foundation has

many projects…that have come up short. It’s hard to deliver effective solutions, even when you plan for every potential contingency and unintended consequence. There is a natural tendency in almost any kind of investment – business, philanthropic, or otherwise – to double down in the face of difficulty. I’ve done it, and I think most other people have too.

So, what do you do? Well, we have an answer: The Livelihoods as Intimate Government approach we use at HURDL (publications here and here, with guidance documents coming later in the summer) charts an analytic path through this level of complexity. Before the usual objections start.

1) We can train people to do it (we are doing so in Mali as I write this). You don’t need a Ph.D. in anthropology to use our approach.

2) It does not take too much time. We can implement at least as fast as any survey process, and depending on spatial focus and resources, can move on a timeframe from weeks to two months.

3) It is not too expensive – qualitative researchers are not expensive, and we do not require high-end equipment to do our work.

The proof is in the reactions we are getting from our colleagues. Here in Mali, I now have colleagues from IER and agricultural extension getting fired up about our approach as they watch the data coming in during our pilot phase. They are stunned by how much data we can collect in a short period of time, and how relevant the data is to the questions at hand because we understand what people are already doing, and why they are doing it. By using this approach, and starting from the assumption that we must understand what people are doing and why before we move to interventions, we are going to lay the foundation for more productive interventions that minimize the sorts of “surprise” outcomes that Gates references as an explanation for project failure.

There are no more excuses for program and project design processes that employ the same limited methods and work from the same problematic assumptions – there are ways to do it differently. But until people like Gates and Sachs reframe their understanding of how development should work, development will continue to be plagued by surprises that aren’t all that surprising.

So, it seems I have been challenged/called out/what-have-you by the folks at Imagine There Is No . . . over what I would do (as opposed to critique) about development.  At least I think that is what is going on, given that I received this tweet from them:

@edwardrcarr what would You do with 1 Billion $ for #developmentbit.ly/rQrUOd #The.1.Bill.$.Question

In general, I think this is a fair question.  Critique is nice, but at the end of the day I strive to build something from my critiques.  As I tell my grad students, I can train a monkey to take something apart – there isn’t much talent to that.  On the other hand, rebuilding something from whatever you just dismantled actually requires talent.  I admit to being a bit concerned about calling what I build “better”, mostly because such judgments gloss over the fact that any development intervention produces winners and losers, and therefore even a “better” intervention will probably not be better for someone.  I prefer to think about doing things differently, with an eye toward resolving some of the issues that I critique.

So, I will endeavor to answer – but first I must point out that asking someone what s/he would do for development with $1 billion is a very naive question.  I appreciate its spirit, but there isn’t much point to laying down a challenge that has little alignment with how the world works.  I think this is worth pointing out in light of the post on Imagine There Is No . . ., as they seem to be tweaking Bill Easterly for not having a good answer to their question.  However, for anyone who has ever worked for a development agency, the question “on what would you spend a billion dollars” comes off as a gotcha question because it is sort of nonsensical.  While the question might be phrased to make us think about an ideal world, those of us engaged in the doing of development who take its critique and rethinking seriously immediately start thinking about the sorts of things that would have to happen to make spending $1 billion possible and practical.  Those problems are legion . . . and pretty much any answer you give to the question is open to a lot of critique, either from a practical standpoint (great idea that is totally impractical) or from the critique side (and idea that is just replicating existing problems).  When caught in a no-win situation, the best option is not to answer at all.  Sure, we should imagine a perfect world (after all, according to A World Of Difference, I am “something of a radical thinker”), but we do not work in that world – and people live in the Global South right now, so anything we do necessarily must engage with the imperfections of the now even as we try to transcend them.

Given all of this, I offer the following important caveats to my answer:

1) I am presuming that I will receive this money as individual and not as part of any existing organization, as organizations have structures, mandates and histories that greatly shape what they can do.

2) I am presuming that I have my own organization, and that it already has sufficient staff to program $1 billion dollars – so a lot of contracting officers and lawyers are in place.  Spending money is a lot harder than you’d think.

3) I am presuming that I answer only to myself and the folks in the Global South.  Monitoring and evaluation are some of the biggest constraints on how we do development today.  As I said in my talk at SAIS a little while ago, it is all well and good to argue that development merely catalyzes change in complex systems, which makes its outcomes inherently unpredictable.  It is entirely another to program against that understanding – if the possible outcomes of a given intervention are hard to predict, how do you know which indicators to choose?  How can you build an evaluation system that allows you to capture unintended positive and negative outcomes as the project matures without looking like you are fudging the numbers?  This sounds like constrained thinking, but it is reality for anyone working in a big donor agency, and for all of the folks who implement the work of those agencies.

4) I am presuming there are enough qualified staff out there willing to quit what they are doing and come work for this project . . . and I am going to need a hell of a lot of staff.

5) I am presuming that I am expected to accomplish something in the relatively short term – i.e. 3-5 years, as well as trigger transformative changes in the Global South over the long haul.  If you don’t produce some results relatively soon, people will bail out on you.

All of these, except for 5), are giant caveats that basically divorce the question and its answer from reality.  I just need to point that out.  Because of these caveats, my answer here cannot be interpreted as a critique of my current employer, or indeed any other development organization – an answer that would also serve as a critique of those institutions would have to engage with their realities, blowing out a lot of my caveats above . . . sorry, but that’s reality, and it is really important to acknowledge the limits of any answer to such a loaded question.

So, here goes.  If I had $1 billion, I would spend it 1) figuring out what people really do to manage the challenges they face day-to-day, 2) identifying which of these activities are most effective at addressing those challenges and why, 3) evaluating whether any of these activities can be brought to scale or introduced to new places, and 4) bringing these ideas to scale.

Basically, I would spend $1 billion dollars on the argument “the new big idea is no more big ideas.”

Why would I do this, and do it this way?  Well, I believe that in a general way those of us working in development have very poor information about what is actually happening in the Global South, in the places where the challenges to human well-being are most acute.  We have a lot of assumptions about what is happening and why, but these are very often wrong.  I wrote a whole book making this point – rather convincingly, if some of the reviews are to be believed.  Because we don’t know what is happening, and our assumptions are wide of the mark, a lot of the interventions we design and implement are irrelevant (at best) or inappropriate (at worst) to the intended beneficiaries.  Basically, the claim (a la Sachs and the Millennium Villages Project) that there are proven development interventions is crap.  If we had known, proven interventions WE WOULD BE USING THEM.  To assume otherwise is to basically slander the bulk of people working on development as either insufficiently motivated (if we weren’t so damn lazy, and we really cared about poor people, we could fix all of the problems in the world with these proven interventions) or to argue that there simply needs to be more money spent on these interventions to fix everything (except in many cases there is little evidence that funding is the principal cause of project failure).  Of course, this is exactly what Sachs argues when asking for more support for the MVP, or when he is attacking anyone who dares critique the project.

The only way to really know what is happening is to get out there and talk to people.  When you do, what you find is that the folks we classify as the “global poor” are hardly helpless.  They are remarkably capable people who make livings under very difficult circumstances with very little resource and limited fallback options.  They know their environments, their economy, and their society far better than anyone from the outside ever will.  They are, in short, remarkable resources that should be treated as treasured repositories of human knowledge, not as a bunch of children who can’t work things out for themselves.  $1 billion would get us a lot of people in a lot of places doing a lot of learning . . . and this sort of thing can be programmed to run over 6 months to a year to run fieldwork, do some data analysis, and start producing tailored understandings of what works and why in different places . . . which then makes it relatively easy to start identifying opportunities for scale-up.  Actually, the scale-up could be done really easily, and could be very responsive to local needs, if we would just set up a means of letting communities speak to one another in a free and open manner – a network that let people in the Global South ask each other questions, and offer their answers and solutions, to one another.  Members of this project from the Global North, from the Universities and from development organizations, could work with communities to convey the lessons the project has gleaned from various activities in various places to help transfer ideas and technology in a manner that facilitates their productive introduction in new contexts.  So I suppose I would have to carve part of the $1 billion off for that network, but it would come in under the scale-up component of my project.  Eventually, I suspect this sort of network would also become a means of learning about what is happening in the Global South as well . . .

With any luck at all, by year 3 we would see the cross-fertilization of all kinds of locally-appropriate ideas and technology happening around the world and the establishment of a nascent network that could build on this momentum to yield even more information about what people are already doing, and what challenges they really face.  We would have started a process that has immediate impacts, but can work in tandem with the generational timescales of social change that are necessary to bring about major changes in any place.  We would have started a process that likely could not be stopped.  How it would play out is anyone’s guess . . . but it would sure look different than whatever we are doing now.

In my guest post on Aid Watch yesterday, I argued that a basic familiarity with the history and philosophy of development, and some training in critical approaches to development, might have averted at least one of the problems currently associated with the Millennium Village Project (a conflict of interest for project workers when the stated goals and interventions of the project and the needs of MVP communities do not align) before it happened.

A failure of background knowledge also lies at the heart of the MVP’s enduring popularity, even in the face of mounting empirical evidence that it is not working.  It is one thing to ignore the predictions of a lone academic (or a few academics).  It is another to overlook evidence of problems trickling in from around the world. If the MVP is so flawed, why do so many continue to support it?

I argue that the MVP drew its popularity from two sources: its theoretical eclecticism, and from the ways in which it resonated with conventional understandings of development and development practice in the major agencies.  If one goes through the literature on the MVP, one will find echoes of many different bodies of development theory (I say “echoes” purposefully: the MVP has never overtly referenced any bodies of development theory in its publications, forcing critics to read between the lines).  For example, various authors (e.g. here and here) have found in the MVP the influence of “big push” theories with their foundations in the 1950s, while others hear the reverberations of Reagan-era privatization and deregulation.

While drawing upon many bodies of theory to build something new is not a problem in and of itself, doing so productively requires an understanding of each theory from which one is drawing.  The framing of the MVP shows no sign of such familiarity.  Instead, it appears to pluck “useful” bits and pieces of these theories that support the project’s larger political agenda and justifications for its technical interventions.  It adopts the language of “big push” theories when it argues for a concentrated injection of capital across sectors of a village economy to get them all moving simultaneously.  At the same time, it turns to the governance focus with echoes in modernization theory.  As I argued in my article on the MVP:

This focus, insofar as it does not consider the ways in which existing processes do function and places a priori weight on Western modes of administration and governance, echoes earlier, often ethnocentric, tenets of modernization theory, such as the need to convince societies to embrace new, Western forms of administration on their path to ‘development’. (338)

The problem is that these “useful bits” were parts of larger theories that, on the whole, often contradicted one another.

For example, as Cabral et al. (2006) have observed, ‘big push’ theories of development that see a coordinated injection of capital across all sectors of an economy as a productive means of driving economic ‘take off ’ and development (for example, Rostow 1959) run contrary to the claims of modernization theorists like Lewis (1954), who saw unbalanced growth in different sectors of the economy as a key to stimulating the overall economy. (338)

The result was a project that on one hand had something for every development perspective.  However, this came at the cost of internal coherence, and the ability to reflect upon or address the well-known historical problems encountered by those who employed the larger theories from which these bits were taken. A reasonable familiarity with the history and philosophy of development would have made these issues apparent long before there was a need to gather empirical evidence on the performance of the MVP.

But this sort of eclecticism only goes so far in explaining the popularity of a project – after all, most people do not worry much about the underlying assumptions of a given project or program.  What policymakers certainly do notice are the ways in which the MVP nicely aligns itself with conventional understandings of development policy and practice.  For example, there are broad similarities in approach and assumptions between the MVP and Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) which suggest that the MVP is not only nothing new, it is nothing revolutionary (or, in fact, even that different from what is already being done by the mainstream development community):

Like the MVP, PRSPs tend to deal with development issues sectorally, without addressing either the tradeoffs or the synergies between different sectors – this is particularly true in the context of sustainable development planning. PRSPs also tend to conceive of solutions to sectoral problems without reference to local conditions. For example, lagging agricultural production is often addressed through the introduction of more inputs, which on its surface might seem like the ‘common sense’ application of ‘tested and true methods’. Such a set of solutions and rhetoric is nearly identical to that seen in the MVP. Finally, PRSPs, like the MVP, do not consider the social context and processes through which problems are identified and solutions shaped at the national or local level. Yet, national politics may influence the identification of a particular harvest as ‘insufficient’ or ‘sufficient’, a label that shapeshow people view that harvest and the needs of those who are dependent on it for their livelihoods. In short, the MVP and the PSRPs are mutually reinforcing – there is no challenge to the development status quo in the MVP, except perhaps in the form of a call for more money to fund the ‘big push’ (Cabral et al. 2006) needed to ‘kick-start’ development in these villages. (338-339)

Again, a familiarity with the conceptual literature in development studies would have allowed those who touted this project as something new to recognize its fundamentally conservative approach to development.

All of this goes to deepen an underlying point in the Aid Watch post: more practitioner training in the history and philosophy of development, and a wider exposure to critical approaches to development, are critical first steps toward the creation of (or simply the recognition of) truly revolutionary, coherent and ultimately successful projects.

A few conversations on the blogs over the past two weeks have me thinking about the divide between aid/relief work and development – one of those minor issues I am supposed to be addressing in my current job.  I am nothing if not ambitious.  However, as folks have tried to clarify the difference between aid and development, I’ve become more and more uncomfortable because I really think these two areas need more blending, not more distinction.

And so now I am wondering if, in fact, the gap between aid and development is part of the reason so many “development” projects don’t work out.  I put development in quotes there for a reason – most of these projects never actually get to the development phase.  Take my ongoing rants about the Millennium Village Project.  Here is an ambitious program of interventions that is meant to be a development project.  However, at this point it is really an aid project – at least by the definitions I am seeing circulate.  The MVP is still completely dependent on external interventions and expertise for its outcomes.  Where it seems to me the MVP falls down is in the transition from the aid phase to the development phase, when these changes in people’s lives become self-sustaining, and engender new changes that do not require any sort of external intervention.  In short, the MVP seems to assume that with enough aid over enough time, change becomes self-sustaining and the processes necessary to bring about well-being spontaneously emerge.  This is what I like to call the “then a miracle happens” moment.  As in:

Dump money, aid and material into a place over a series of years –> then a miracle happens –> change is self-sustaining

The MVP is hardly the only project guilty of this – hell, this thinking is endemic to development.  We can back up to Rostow’s Stages of Growth in the 1950s (at least) and find the exact same fallacy.  Big push/modernization theories, the Washington Consensus, basically every program founded on the core idea that economic growth drives everything else, they all suffer from this fallacy.  This, ladies and gentlemen, is your grand challenge for development – the “big question” that could really change how we do what we do.  We need to articulate how our initial interventions, our “aid”, is/can be transformed/built upon/leveraged/instrumentalized/whatever to result in the self-sustaining changes we see as development.

On his blog Shanta Devarajan, the World Bank Chief Economist for Africa, has a post discussing the debate about the performance and results of the Millennium Villages Project (MVP).  The debate, which takes shape principally in papers by Matt Clemens and Gabriel Demombynes of Center for Global Development and Paul Pronyk, John McArthur, Prabhjot Singh, and Jeffrey Sachs of the Millennium Villages Project, questions how the MVP is capturing the impacts of its interventions in the Millennium Villages.  As Devarajan notes, the paper by Clemens and Demombynes rightly notes that the MVP’s claims about its performance are not really that clearly framed in evidence, which makes it hard to tell how much of the changes in the villages can be attributed to their work, and how much is change driven by other factors.  Clemens and Demombynes are NOT arguing that the MVP has had no impact, but that there are ways to rigorously evaluate that impact – and when impact is rigorously evaluated, it turns out that the impact of MVP interventions is not quite as large as the project would like to claim.

This is not all that shocking, really – it happens all the time, and it is NOT evidence of malfeasance on the part of the MVP.  It just has to do with a simple debate about how to rigorously capture results of development projects.  But this simple debate will, I think, have long-term ramifications for the MVP.  As Devarajan points out:

In short, Clemens and Demombynes have undertaken the first evaluation of the MVP.  They have shown that the MVP has delivered sizeable improvements on some important development indicators in many of the villages, albeit with effects that are smaller than those described in the Harvests of Development paper.  Of course, neither study answers the question of whether these gains are sustainable, or whether they could have been obtained at lower cost.  These should be the subject of the next evaluation.

I do not, however, think that this debate is quite as minor as Devarajan makes it sound – and he is clearly trying to downplay the conflict here.  Put simply, the last last two sentences in the quote above are, I think, what has the MVP concerned – because the real question about MVP impacts is not in the here and now, but in the future.  While I have been highly critical of the MVP in the past, I am not at all surprised to hear that their interventions have had some measurable impact on life in these villages.  The project arrived in these villages with piles of money, equipment and technical expertise, and went to work.  Hell, they could have simply dumped the money (the MVP is estimated to cost about $150 per person per year) into the villages and you would have seen significant movement in many target areas of the MVP.  I don’t think that anyone doubts that the project has had a measurable impact on life in all of the Millennium Villages.

Instead, the whole point here is to figure out if what has been done is sustainable – that is the measure of performance here.  Anyone can move the needle in a community temporarily – hell, the history of aid (and development) is littered with such projects.  The hard part is moving the needle in a permanent way, or doing so in a manner that creates the processes by which lasting change can occur.  As I have argued elsewhere (and much earlier that in this debate), and as appears to be playing out on the ground now, the MVP was never conceptually framed in a way that would bring about such lasting changes.  Clemens and Demombynes’ work is important because it provides an external critique of the MVP’s claims about its own performance – and it is terrifying to at least some in the MVP, as external evaluations are going to empirically demonstrate that the MVP is not, and never was, a sustainable model for rural development.

While I would not suggest that Clemens and Demombynes’ approach to evaluation is perfect (indeed, they make no such claim), I think it is important because it is trying to move past assumptions to evidence.  This is a central call of my book – the MVP is exhibit A of a project founded on deeply problematic assumptions about how development and globalization work, and framed and implemented in a manner where data collection and evaluation cannot really question those assumptions . . . thus missing what is actually happening (or not happening) on the ground.  This might also explain the somewhat non-responsive response to Clemens and Demombynes in the Pronyk et al article – the MVP team is having difficulty dealing with suggestions that their assumptions about how things work are not supported by evidence from their own project, and instead of addressing those assumptions, are trying to undermine the critique at all costs.  This is not a productive way forward, this is dogma.  Development is many things, but if it is to be successful by any definition, it cannot be dogmatic.

Well, there’s nothing like continued empirical evidence for the arguments I have been making about Jeff Sachs’ Millennium Villages Project (MVP), and thanks to a Tweet from Michael Clemens, I’ve now got more.  Clemens is one of the authors of a report that is very critical of the MVP, and that report was good enough to find and cite my work on this topic – but how he dug up this story from a Liberian newspaper, I will never know:

“The project is a new approach to fighting poverty in post-conflict Liberia, but residents in the District have complained that they had seen no evidence of the project getting off the ground. In a brief statement to the President, Deputy Speaker Tokpah J. Mulbah indicated that the project, which seeks to improve the socio-economic and infrastructural development of the District lacked the residents’ involvement and that there was not tangible impact being felt by the villagers. He added that the people of that District were discontent about the way the project is being implemented in their village.”

But the brutal sentence is the one by Deputy Speaker Tokpah J. Mulbah that titles this post: “‘Madam President, millions of dollars have been spent on the Millennium Village Project but we have seen nothing concrete done for our people,’ he said.”

Clemens’ report is here.  My article is here.

Kentaro Toyama has a great piece in the Boston Review on the use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in development – really, though, it is a larger commentary on how we think about using technology in development generally.  Simply put, Toyama warns against treating ICT as itself a solution for poverty – instead, he argues, it is but one tool, a means to an end:

If I were to summarize everything I learned through research in ICT4D, it would be this: technology—no matter how well designed—is only a magnifier of human intent and capacity. It is not a substitute. If you have a foundation of competent, well-intentioned people, then the appropriate technology can amplify their capacity and lead to amazing achievements. But, in circumstances with negative human intent, as in the case of corrupt government bureaucrats, or minimal capacity, as in the case of people who have been denied a basic education, no amount of technology will turn things around.

This reminds me of a conversation I had with Alex Dehgan the other day – talking about how efforts to address particular development challenges, whether via technology or other approaches, should be focused on a systematic approach to the problem that will yield different, but locally-appropriate, outcomes in different places, instead of the search for a singular solution that could be applied anywhere and everywhere (history is littered with the wreckage of these efforts – most recently, see the Millennium Village Project).  This is what I have been after in my work on livelihoods and adaptation for the past 7 years or so – a way of approaching these issues in a rigorous manner that allows for the serious consideration of local context.  How we translate that into programming and policy remains to be seen . . .