A Look Back at a Millennium Village Fighting Poverty in Rural Tanzania

For a decade, significant amounts of money flowed to a handful of sub-Saharan Africa's poorest villages. It was earmarked to eradicate poverty, hunger and disease. But did it work?
Von Marius Münstermann und Christian Werner
In the Tanzanian village of Mbola, clay brick walls and corrugated iron roofs are a sign of relative prosperity. Many families still live in thatched huts.

In the Tanzanian village of Mbola, clay brick walls and corrugated iron roofs are a sign of relative prosperity. Many families still live in thatched huts.

Foto: Christian Werner

The village that is to be saved from the terrible scourge of humanity lies at the end of a red gravel road lined with tall palm trees and mango trees laden with fruit. Among them is waist-high grass and dotted with the occasional mud-brick home. Some of these structures have corrugated iron roofs, but most are thatched.

Calling Mbola a village is a bit of a misnomer. It is more a collection of scattered houses with no real center. And, says Gerson Nyadzi: "In the past, every day in Mbola was a struggle between life and death. This road that now leads to Mbola saves lives."

That road used to be no more than a sandy track that cut through 13 kilometers (8 miles) of bush -- and only a lucky few had motorbikes. "Expecting mothers bled to death on their way to the hospital," Nyadzi says. "Today, much has improved in Mbola." And it's not just because of the road.

Nyadzi would know. For 10 years, he was the director of a program whose aim it was to develop places like Mbola.

A Simple Reason

The Millennium Villages Project encompassed 20 villages in Tanzania, including Mbola, in which some 40,000 people live. Here, farmers can be seen loading tobacco, the most common - and most lucrative - crop in the region.

The Millennium Villages Project encompassed 20 villages in Tanzania, including Mbola, in which some 40,000 people live. Here, farmers can be seen loading tobacco, the most common - and most lucrative - crop in the region.

Foto: Christian Werner

Why are children still dying from curable diseases? Why do millions of people still go to bed hungry every night? In 2005, Kofi Annan, the former secretary-general of the United Nations, and the economist Jeffrey Sachs provided a simple answer to these questions: Poor people lack money. And they provided a number. The amount of money it would take to vastly improve the lives of the poorest of the poor, people in villages like Mbola was between $101 and $127 per person, per year.

Investing this money over a period of 10 years would sustainably improve the lives of billions of people. That was the hypothesis they meant to examine under the scope of the Millennium Villages Project (MVP) in 12 select locations in sub-Saharan Africa. The program was supposed to demonstrate how poverty could be eradicated once and for all.

The project was financed by more than 200 institutions, foundations and corporations, including the UN World Food Program, Nestle, Unilever and the Pepsi Foundation. Madonna, Angelina Jolie and Bono promoted it while Tommy Hilfiger designed a collection in its name. Stanford professor Eran Bendavid estimated that around $600 million flowed into the project.

But can money alone eliminate structural problems? In Mbola, four years after the end of the program, the jury is still out. It was an ambitious undertaking that brought about many changes, to be sure, but it also created a number of new problems.

Too Quick to Praise

Dr. Gerson Nyadzi directs the MVP program in Mbola. He says villagers used to constantly be sick, but now that has changed thanks in part to education about hygiene.

Dr. Gerson Nyadzi directs the MVP program in Mbola. He says villagers used to constantly be sick, but now that has changed thanks in part to education about hygiene.

Foto: Christian Werner

Under the leadership of Jeffrey Sachs, the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York, which was responsible for the scientific monitoring of the program, published enthusiastic reports hailing the project as a "bold, innovative model for helping rural African communities lift themselves out of extreme poverty" and as a "solid foundation for sustainable growth." The final study, published in the medical journal The Lancet in 2018, highlighted the "significant favourable impacts on agriculture, nutrition, education, child health, maternal health, HIV and malaria, and water and sanitation."

But there was ample criticism of this rosy analysis. Halfway through the program, in 2011, external scientists began pointing out serious statistical deficiencies and misinterpretations. "We argue that weaknesses in the MVP's evaluation methods will make it impossible for anyone to know if the project is achieving its goals," wrote Michael Clemens and Gabriel Demombynes in the Guardian, in a piece based on a study of the Millennium Villages project they had performed. There was, the pair of scientists argued, insufficient data from before the program began in addition to a lack of comparative data from other villages that had not participated in the program.

But there had been an even more fundamental criticism from the very beginning: The notion that the fight against poverty would require a "big push," meaning millions of dollars worth of investments, was an idea conceived by researchers sitting at desks thousands of miles away -- people who had no idea what life was really like in the target communities.

Shaban Lusiga is a beekeeper. The region is famous for its thick, dark honey.

Shaban Lusiga is a beekeeper. The region is famous for its thick, dark honey.

Foto: Christian Werner

In the local language of Kinyamwezi, Mbola means "bee sting." The region is famous for its dark honey. In the past, villagers used to cut down the honeycombs of wild bee colonies from the trees. But as part of the MVP, a beekeeping cooperative was founded and members were equipped with beehives and protective suits. This made it possible for 196 beekeepers to harvest up to 2,000 liters (528 gallons) of honey from 360 hives each year, says one of those beekeepers, Shaban Lusiga.

Imperfect Solutions

Today, only 30 beekeepers and 20 hives remain. Many were stolen, Lusiga says, though most of the wooden hives simply rotted in the humid air and were eaten by termites. On top of that, it was difficult to establish a functional supply chain for transporting the honey from the bush to lucrative markets.

The project ultimately became one of many examples of MVP money essentially going to waste in Mbola. Despite the interest of the local population, the attempt to sell honey beyond the village was a flop. It had been conceived by the program's managers, who apparently did not take into consideration extenuating circumstances on the ground. Beekeeper Lusiga has since returned to selling his honey in small bottles on the side of the road.

Omari Jumanne Dengu is a tobacco farmer who dries and prepares his leaves himself.

Omari Jumanne Dengu is a tobacco farmer who dries and prepares his leaves himself.

Foto: Christian Werner

Thousands of light brown leaves hang over Omari Jumanne Dengus' head like a colony of sleeping bats and the door to his mud-brick shack is black with soot. Dengu is busy hanging up his tobacco harvest for fermentation. The 47-year-old has been farming tobacco for half his life. In Mbola, the nicotine-rich leaves are both a blessing and a curse, the latter because the Virginia tobacco farmers here grow is an ecological disaster. In order to infuse the leaves with a smoky aroma, they must dry them over an open fire fueled by trees from the local forest.

The farmers sell their harvest to the tobacco wholesaler Alliance One or directly to the cigarette manufacturer Japan Tobacco International. "The tobacco companies were skeptical when we first tried to involve them in the project," says former project director Nyadzi. "They were afraid of losing their farmers."

Aisha Bahari walks her bicycle to a pump station to fetch water.

Aisha Bahari walks her bicycle to a pump station to fetch water.

Foto: Christian Werner

The project's organizers did in fact attempt to encourage farmers to plant crops other than tobacco, such as sunflowers to make cooking oil. But like with honey, it was difficult to set up supply chains for the new products, Nyadzi says.

'People Still Live Like They're Poor'

Instead, many tobacco farmers, like Omari Dengu, were equipped with improved, more efficient fermentation ovens that didn't require as much wood, meaning they could be fed with smaller branches and lower the stress on the surrounding forests. Tobacco growers have also committed themselves to planting 55 new trees per hectare a year for reforestation. Indeed, the new ovens are a perfect example showing that moderate adjustment can sometimes be even more effective than radical change.

Tobacco is by far the most important crop in the region and no other plant is as lucrative for farmers. "Last year, I earned a profit of around 8 million shillings on my 2.5 hectares of land," says tobacco farmer Dengu. That's around 3,000 euros for his family of 12 -- a lot of money in this area. "But does tobacco make people rich?" Nyadzi asks. "Look at the houses. People still lead a humble existence. The tobacco business is insecure, prices fluctuate year to year. The economy needs to be diversified. Farmers can't only grow tobacco."

Hamsa Martin Singa gave up growing tobacco in favor of fruit tree seedlings, which he sells to orchards.

Hamsa Martin Singa gave up growing tobacco in favor of fruit tree seedlings, which he sells to orchards.

Foto: Christian Werner

One of those demonstrating how things could work without tobacco is Hamsa Martin Singa. Since he quit growing the cash crop, he's been planting seedlings of orange, lemon and mango trees next to his house, which he sells to surrounding orchards. As part of the MVP project, thousands of mosquito nets were distributed and Singa has now spanned many of these over his vegetable beds, where he grows chilies. Rather than protect his family from malaria, the nets protect his seedlings from pests.

He grows corn on the edge of his farm, which he then stomps into pulp. "Thanks to the fertilizer and seeds we received from the project, we can harvest much more corn," Singa says.

Companies like Monsanto, which also participates in the MVP project, brought their seeds and fertilizers to Mbola free of charge for the first year. Such campaigns are often criticized because farmers are not permitted to multiply the seeds themselves to prepare for the coming season, but become dependent on the agricultural giants.

Aisha Bahari gets water for her family at one of the six pump stations that were built with MVP funds.

Aisha Bahari gets water for her family at one of the six pump stations that were built with MVP funds.

Foto: Christian Werner

But Singa was convinced and was happy to purchase the new seeds again for a second year. "Hunger is history here," he says. The farmers in Mbola aren't concerned about the criticism of market heavyweights like Monsanto, all they care about is how to glean as much food as possible from their fields, which are generally no larger than a few hectares. It remains to be seen whether the new varieties will prove their worth in the long run, Singa says. At the moment, he only has one problem: "There's still no mobile phone reception in the village."

Improved Health Care

"In the past, people in Mbola were constantly sick from drinking contaminated water out of exposed water sources from which their goats and cattle also drank," Damian Cleopa Kindole says. The 37-year-old runs Mbola's small clinic, which was built with MVP funds in 2009. Since its construction, Kindole and his colleagues have been able to detect malaria pathogens directly on site under a microscope. Together with a midwife, who assisted with 268 births last year, and a colleague, who drives a motorcycle as an ambulance between the surrounding villages, Kindole cares for 2,300 patients.

Since the MVP project ended four years ago, eight of what was once a team of 11 people have disappeared. "The government was no longer able to pay the salaries of our hospital staff, which were formerly financed by the MVP," Kindole says. Most nurses and doctors have moved to cities where they can work in private clinics or for NGOs, he says.

Damian Cleopa Kindole, the clinic's director, talks to the midwife Restitua Karele.

Damian Cleopa Kindole, the clinic's director, talks to the midwife Restitua Karele.

Foto: Christian Werner

Nevertheless, the project has seen some overall successes: The campaigns on contraception and family planning, malaria prevention and information about hygiene have already paid off in a big way. "The child mortality rate has fallen massively," Kindole says.

Bendavid, the renowned medical professor from Stanford, says he considers the Millennium Villages Project to have been particularly successful when it comes to medical care. "The clearest evidence of the benefits of the investments are improved health care for mothers and an overall improvement in health values," he said in 2018.

But how much these successes will last over the long term remains to be seen, Nyadzi says. "The project showed where improvements were possible without a lot of money." But: "Since the project has ended, much of that money is no longer there."

This piece is part of the Global Societies series. The project runs for three years and is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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