Skip to content

What’s it like to live in a Millennium Village?

In Mayange, a cluster of villages about an hour’s drive south of Kigali, Rwanda, interventions by the Millennium Village Project across all sectors (in seeds, fertilizer, malaria nets, health clinics, vaccines, ambulances, water sources, classrooms, computers, cell towers, microloans and lots more) aim to lift villagers out of poverty within five to ten years.

What do we know about the effects of such ambitious projects on the lives of the people living in these impoverished, rural communities? A qualitative study by Elisabeth King, a post-doctoral fellow with Columbia’s Earth Institute, produces a fascinating if limited* “snapshot” of social impacts of the Millennium Village Project in Mayange. A few observations:

The villagers King talked to were reluctant to bare all to a foreigner asking questions about delicate social topics. Her questions about quality of life, trust, and social exclusion elicited some contradictory and evasive answers: “Life in Mayange…In general it is not bad, it is not good, it’s in between.” “I know people well. But then, people are private and one only knows one’s own problems.” “There are no problems. But there are always some small problems between people though.”  King explained that in her previous research she found that Rwandans “downplayed negative aspects of social life and tended to embed negative reflections within positive pro-government ‘bookends.’”

MVP has good brand recognition and outreach; cooperatives sometimes increase cooperation. King found that the project was well-known among villagers, and almost all could name a change that had resulted from the project. Most were members of some kind of cooperative (farming, basket-weaving, bee-keeping) created by the project, and some described these groups as strengthening social bonds in the community or increasing women’s confidence by helping them provide income for their families.

Villagers thought that benefits from the project were unevenly distributed. In response to “Who gained the most from the project?” villagers answered most frequently “MV staff,” followed by “local leaders,” and villagers most willing to adopt new practices suggested by the project.

MVP may not be doing so well on the most basic thing – letting people say what THEY want. The most common suggestion was that the project should consult more with people in the community about what they want. One woman told King: “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. People may have good ideas.”

*King’s study is limited in several ways beyond lack of statistical significance (she spoke with 35 individuals and 8 focus groups in a population of 25,000 people). One, as a visiting Westerner asking questions about MVP, she can’t avoid being seen as tied with the project. Whether this makes her interviewees more timid in voicing complaints (for fear of losing some project benefit or subsidy), or more bold (in the hopes of gaining resources to address their troubles) is hard to say. Two, the Rwandan ban on talking about ethnic divisions prevents people from speaking candidly about this obvious issue in a place where resettled genocide survivors and released prisoners now live side by side. Three, King has no baseline data, so she can’t talk about changes in quality of life or social cohesion based on statements from before the project vs. during/after the project (see also: Clemens and Demombynes).

Thanks to Michael Clemens for the tweet that sent this study our way.

Read previous posts on the Millennium Villages here.

This entry was posted in Academic research, Metrics and evaluation and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.

19 Comments

  1. Stephanie White wrote:

    Re living in one of these villages and actually talking to people about what you think, I think, would be a terrifying experience. How can it not feel like Big Brother is watching? It’s amazing what the ‘development wringer’ puts people through. Um, wait, not ‘amazing’….I meant ‘shameful.’

    Posted January 21, 2011 at 6:17 am | Permalink
  2. TMS Ruge wrote:

    “…People may have good ideas.”

    It is really sad that the lady has to plead that. Even sadder that the ideas implemented aren’t the villagers’ own.

    Posted January 21, 2011 at 9:15 am | Permalink
  3. Sadly, it seems not much has changed. Reminds me of the Kenya MVP article in Harper’s Magazine back in 2007. (See: http://www.undg.org/docs/7579/The%20Continuation%20of%20Poverty_Harpers%20Magazine_Millennium%20Villages.pdf) That most BASIC thing though–letting people be the drivers of their own development–that can’t be overlooked.

    Posted January 21, 2011 at 10:16 am | Permalink
  4. Posted January 21, 2011 at 11:08 am | Permalink
  5. Has the MVP introduced any new drought resistant crops such as those described in the following catalog? http://www.nativeseeds.org/pdf/seedlistingcatalog.pdf . Do the project leaders know the principles of business process reengineering so that they can suggest ways of making failing businesses and farms more efficient and profitable? See my “poverty” paper at http://home.comcast.net/~prigter/site/ .

    Posted January 21, 2011 at 11:33 am | Permalink
  6. What happens after the external support ends ?

    Posted January 21, 2011 at 11:39 am | Permalink
  7. Seth Brooks wrote:

    I agree with Ruge that it does seem more like a plea from the woman rather than a statement. However, some of these ideas that are brought forth are ones that maybe the villages haven’t thought of. As stated above, what does happen when the foreign aid is no longer there? Do the people who provide this aid have a right to interject their ideas as a result of bringing this aid?

    Posted January 21, 2011 at 11:57 am | Permalink
  8. To see an example of what African entrepreneurs are investigating see http://moringablog.wordpress.com/ . Note: There are thirteen types of moringa. Some of the types are better at higher altitudes. Who provides the MDG with agriculture engineering advice?

    Posted January 21, 2011 at 12:52 pm | Permalink
  9. Ed Carr wrote:

    Hell, we knew this was a problem 5 years ago – I wrote something up in 2006 that nicely predicted a lot of these outcomes (though it took two years to appear in print – refereeing takes time): http://www.edwardrcarr.com/Publications_files/Carr%20the%20MVP%20and%20African%20Development.pdf

    Credit to Progress in Development Studies for running it before it became the fashion.

    Posted January 21, 2011 at 2:59 pm | Permalink
  10. TGGP wrote:

    “letting people say what THEY want”
    Reminds me of WWIC (Why Wasn’t I Consulted), perhaps a relic of our stone-age minds.

    I’m with Caplan & Hanson, most opinions are crap and consent (voting with your feet/revealed preference) is all that’s needed.

    Posted January 21, 2011 at 10:59 pm | Permalink
  11. Vic Herson wrote:

    Strong article will be keeping an eye out for others, this opens my eye even more now and how fortunate we are to live in better conditions than they do. God bless

    Posted January 22, 2011 at 3:32 am | Permalink
  12. Could aidwatchers or the MVP supply more training and resource evaluation information?
    Did the MVP provide the farmers with “all” the training they needed to more effectively grow crops and raise animals? See the training materials that the UN FAO provides poultry farmers in Afghanistan and the technical material that ECHO provides worldwide (see http://www.echonet.org/content/agQuestion) I assume that training would be a major strength for the MVP given their university connections.
    Did the MVP provide “all” the missing resources that the farmers needed to more effectively grow crops and raise animals? In particular, did they provide the proper amount of fertilizer, irrigation equipment, seeds and nursery stock appropriate for the Koppen climate of Mayange, pesticides and disease control supplies, food processing equipment, food storage equipment, transport equipment, farming equipment, micro loans, and packaging so that the farmers could succeed? How were these resources distributed in a fair manner? What is their evaluation of costs, returns, and business operations? Have they set up the necessary supply chains for future operations?

    Posted January 22, 2011 at 11:25 am | Permalink
  13. geckonomist wrote:

    Q: “Who benefits the most?”
    A: “The MV Staff”

    Absolutely brilliant.
    Perfect description of the aid sector.

    Posted January 25, 2011 at 8:46 am | Permalink
  14. geckonomist wrote:

    @Paul Ritgerink: you seem to believe that higher production leads to higher farmer income.

    You are mistaken.

    Any farmer can tell you that.
    Although you imply that farmers are primitive toilers who are not smart enough to figure out how to produce more, they are a lot wiser than you.

    And every farmer in Rwanda can tell you that extra productions will rot in the field, because nobody comes to buy the extra product.

    Farmer Income = ( Production * price ) – expenses.

    And when the price of extra product de facto equals 0 , the farmer only has expenses.

    So he won’t implement your good FAO ideas.

    Posted January 25, 2011 at 9:03 am | Permalink
  15. Nela wrote:

    The end results of such ambitious projects are typical, and this is exactly why a lot of development “projects” fail. Local populations do not feel they are getting what they need out of it, and instead feel as if donor countries / corporations are using them as an experiment in a development game. Consultations with ALL of the stakeholders, in terms of with the municipal government AND with the population itself as well as donors need to be done as a first step. Oftentimes, it has been found beneficial to actually have a third party conduct these consultations separately in order for everyone to be heard equally (there are sometimes resentments between the local population and the government).

    Furthermore, many development projects produce outcomes that we could consider as positive, such as many examples of the World Bank going in to parts of Africa and installing internet connectivity and supplying computers, yet these outcomes are not always beneficial to the populations living there. I recently heard a talk by the head of an NGO, Digital Opportunity Trust (DOT), who spoke of how she has seen these computers still sitting in boxes because the populations have not been taught what to do with the computers, how to use them, or why they would even want them in their own lives.

    We have evidence of the same type of fail within developed countries. Take the case of Canada and the native population, which is consistently being pushed out of their lands as well as pressured to partake in the capitalist economy as a form of development, despite resistance to do so. More can be read about this in Todd Gordon’s “Imperialist Canada,” where he talks about how a country normally seen as peaceful and not having an extreme presence in international affairs still effectively pursues an imperialist agenda both at home and abroad.

    To me, it seems that the staff and donors benefit more from the projects than the actual recipients in many cases. I wonder whether any of this will ever really change on a larger scale?

    Posted January 25, 2011 at 10:32 am | Permalink
  16. @gekonomist The procedure that I describe in Table 1 of my “poverty” paper at http://home.comcast.net/~prigter/site/ was more or less the same procedure used by Chilean farmers to significant increase the amount of fruit and vegetables that they exported to the United States. It led to much higher production and higher farmer income. Go to your local supermarket and look for products from Chile.

    I did not imply “that farmers are primitive toilers who are not smart enough to figure out how to produce more”. I implied they did not have the proper infrastructure to produce and sell their products with a large profit.

    With regard to your comment that “every farmer in Rwanda can tell you that extra productions will rot in the field, because nobody comes to buy the extra product”, these farmers need to follow the proven procedures I outlined in Table 1 of my “poverty” paper so this doesn’t happen.

    Posted January 25, 2011 at 2:11 pm | Permalink
  17. charles wrote:

    Does this really qualify as a “study”? Sounds worse than the well-intentioned MVP efforts! This is embarrassing. The people pointing fingers at MVP – and I certainly count myself as one – should remember the “doctor, heal thyself” dictum. How can you expect development people to be rigorous and principled when this is what counts as an evaluation? Anyone who wants to understand what these projects are doing should go and live in the community for at least a year just as the locals do. This parachute reporting is really a disservice: the reporter admits that no one will talk candidly to her so how can any of her results be valid? If she simply lived there for a while she could perhaps grasp the true extent of the project(s) being implemented. The old 2-fer approach to evaluation – two weeks talking to two dozen people for two hours and two thousand dollars a day (all told) is completely useless. Please stop peddling it. And until you guys get serious about evaluating this stuff, I don’t see how you can ask the development people to get serious about how they do it either!

    Posted January 28, 2011 at 12:41 pm | Permalink
  18. Jacob Clere wrote:

    These responses are amazingly similar to ones I received as part of a community development project I worked with in Indiana. That project – The Biotown USA Initiative – was run by the governor’s office, received similar criticisms from the small town where it was implemented for being top-down and unresponsive to local ideas, and it relied on a similar strategy of large, unreproducible capital expenditures. In the end, it failed.

    Posted January 31, 2011 at 9:39 pm | Permalink
  19. Ben wrote:

    It seems you’re applying a more quantitative paradigm to the study’s limitations. Qualitative studies aren’t trying to generate statistical significance, as you suggest. While phenomenological and life history approaches may attempt to study a process in a way that generates temporality and the interviewee’s perspective on how something influenced another, rarely are qualitative studies trying to generate a casual argument. If your research questions are statistical and causal, qualitative methods are ill-suited. On the other hand, it seems unfair to critique the study on methodological grounds that by its nature it shouldn’t have addressed. I’m not saying there aren’t relevant critiques to make of the design, but sample size and “baseline” data aren’t so relevant as they would be for a survey. Ask any qualitative researcher and they will tell you that 35 interviews and 8 focus groups is an incredibly large set of data!

    I think a major issue you rightly focus on is the outsider status. It seems community members see MV staff as “others” and feel disenfranchised from decision-making. Assuming the MVP wants to act on this, it might behoove them to look at community-based health programs and research throughout the past 40 years in the U.S. for lessons learned and models of how to integrate programs/research better with the needs of the community.

    Posted February 1, 2011 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

3 Trackbacks

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by OpenEye Group, Conduit Journal. Conduit Journal said: What’s it like to live in a Millennium Village? http://bit.ly/hcDI0m [...]

  2. [...] was looking for an old OB post to link to at Aidwatchers, and either discovered or rediscovered a video my co-blogger Dain had highlighted that I [...]

  3. By Morning Links – Stupid « Arresting Development on January 24, 2011 at 12:06 am

    [...] What’s it like to live in a (Rwandan) Millennium Village? (AidWatch) [...]