The Millennium Villages address the root causes of extreme poverty by taking a holistic, community-led approach to sustainable development. To meet the many different challenges each region faces, the villages use multiple tools such as community health workers, diversified local food production, commercial farming, malaria control, piped water, solar electricity, and connectivity to name a few. These multiple tools are synergistic—while each has been proven to support its main target, each also contributes to progress on several or all of the goals.
Tonight, roughly 925 million people in the world will go to bed hungry. Though recurring tragedies of drought and famine galvanize the world's response to acute humanitarian crises, once the news cycle moves on, the chronically malnourished are often forgotten. This problem is most severe in Africa where food shortages affect 30% of the population—over 260 million people. Why has the Green Revolution, which sparked economic development in China and India, failed to reach Africa?
Crop production is increasing in the developing world overall, but Africa has yet to see significant gains. African farmers have been slow to adopt improved crop varieties suited to their soil and climate, and the little land they have has been stripped of nutrients due to poor management and inadequate fertilizer.
Drawing on former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s call for a uniquely African Green Revolution in 2004, the agricultural strategy of the Millennium Villages Project is founded on four pillars:
1. Increasing sustainable agricultural crop production,
2. Improving food and nutrition security,
3. Farm diversification for income generation, and
4. Underpinning sustainability by restoring and conserving the natural resource base.
This strategy aims to make progress toward the first Millennium Development Goal (MDG): decreasing poverty and increasing food security.
In the agriculture sector, inputs like improved seeds and fertilizers paired with farmer training in agronomic techniques have doubled and in some sites more than quadrupled maize crop yields. This has contributed to a 30% reduction in levels of chronic under-nutrition and a 50% reduction in the proportion of children under two years old (i.e., those conceived since the Project began) who are underweight.
Water is essential for human well-being and economic development. Water means productive agriculture, good nutrition and sanitation, and freedom from poverty and disease. Yet water is under unprecedented stress due to climate change, population pressures, pollution and inadequate farm practices. An estimated 1 billion people worldwide lack reliable access to clean, safe drinking water. Nowhere is this more true than in rural sub-Saharan Africa.
An estimated 94 percent of diarrheal diseases—the second leading cause of death among children under five—are attributed to unsafe drinking water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene. Collecting water from remote sources also places an enormous burden on women and young children, limiting their ability to participate in gainful employment and education.
From the simple task of charging a cell phone to powering clinics, computer labs and small townships, improving the quality and quantity of energy is vital to boosting incomes, agricultural production, health, environment and education in the most remote areas of the world. Improving access to water and energy, however, remains one of the biggest obstacles to development because of the large investments needed to have an impact at scale.
At the start of the Project, most public institutions lacked grid electricity connections, and household connections were virtually non-existent. Almost all cooking in homes and schools used fuel wood in traditional three-stone fires, which are both inefficient and unhealthy. The Millennium Villages Project, in partnership with government, private partners and local communities, is showing major gains in extending the electrical grid, increasing access to off-grid electricity and improving energy for cooking.
Innovative projects include the implementation of "shared solar" projects, which use a mobile credit system to pay for household and storefront energy use, and a partnership with JM Eagle, the world's largest PVC pipe manufacturer, to bring safer water to more than 120,000 people. The Project also introduced more energy efficient cookstoves, which free women and children from the time-consuming task of collecting wood for fuel. This innovation also reduces environmental impacts from traditional cookstoves, which emit three to four tons of carbon equivalents per year.
Economic growth in developing countries must go hand-in-hand with environmental sustainability. Addressing climate change, land erosion, soil degradation and water management is essential to the future well-being of people and the planet.
The threats of climate change, environmental degradation and desertification are most severe in the dry land regions of Africa. For decades, governments and the international community have neglected pastoralist communities. As a result, these regions are more susceptible to conflict.
The Millennium Villages Project is actively engaged in agroforestry, farmer training and construction to promote environmental sustainability. Since the project began, more than 2.5 million tree seedlings have been planted to help provide fuel wood and other benefits. Farmers now practice composting, proper fertilizer application and interplanting to better manage their soil fertility and improve harvests. In some sites, gabions and vegetative barriers have been built to stem erosion and restore degraded lands.
With more than 5.3 billion mobile phone subscribers worldwide, the information and technology revolution has transformed our way of life and is the driving force for economic development in the world today. More than 330 million subscribers live in sub-Saharan Africa alone.
The Millennium Villages Project is working to integrate mobile technology into all sectors of its work. The first step was to increase mobile phone network access by ensuring 80% of all households are within two kilometers of cellular range and providing basic data connectivity to key institutions including schools, clinics and ICT kiosks.
The effects are extraordinary. Schools that once sent students home when the sun went down due to lack of electricity can now connect to the Internet and to other schools through solar panels, energy-efficient computers and wireless 3G access. Pastoralists in nomadic communities use their phones to check local market prices and decide whether to bring their livestock for sale. This was possible through partnerships with Ericsson and regional GSM operators that have helped expand and strengthen GSM network coverage.
MVP has introduced mobile phone-based health (mHealth) services to improve the delivery and efficiency of community- and clinic-based health services. ICT programs are supporting MVP interventions including ChildCount+, which is used in Sauri, Kenya, to register and systematically track 10,000 children under the age of five for malnutrition and illnesses.
The burden of poverty is heaviest on the lives of women in rural Africa. More than 80% of farmers are women, more than 40% do not have access to education, and AIDS spreads twice as fast among uneducated girls. Many MVP interventions are designed to improve the lives of women, who spend their days walking long distances to fetch water and wood, cooking, and taking care of daily chores, leaving no time for education or gainful employment.
One basic measure to improve the lives of women is supplying long-lasting insecticide-treated bed nets. This is the simplest and most effective way to reduce the transmission of malaria, a disease to which pregnant mothers and children are especially vulnerable.
Perinatal care for pregnant mothers and babies at local hospitals and clinics is an essential part of healthcare in the Millennium Villages. In the poorest parts of Africa, almost half of all births take place without a skilled attendant and women have a 1 in 16 chance of dying in pregnancy or childbirth.
Increasing access to water by building boreholes, protecting springs, rainwater harvesting and installing pipes lessens the burden on women to walk many kilometers to retrieve it. New and improved cook stoves reduce the use of firewood and lessen emissions, which means girls don’t spend as much time collecting wood and have less risk of contracting respiratory illness from cooking.
Providing school lunches to increase attendance—especially that of girls—is an important step toward empowering women to become future community leaders, land owners and decision-makers in the household. Access to simple things like separate latrines for boys and girls and sanitary napkins, which cost as little as one dollar, allows pubescent girls to attend school without fear of embarrassment. Most rural schools have no sanitation and as a result, girls miss weeks, months or drop out altogether.
In sub-Saharan Africa, child and maternal mortality rates are the highest in the world. Nearly one in every 100 births results in the death of a mother—a situation largely unchanged from 1990. Rates of child death from pneumonia, diarrhea, malaria, malnutrition and birth complications are 20 times higher than in developed countries and continue to rise in many places. Sub-Saharan Africa is home to two-thirds of global HIV infections, and the numbers of new TB cases—already the highest in the world—have doubled between 1990 and 2005. The continent also suffers from 350–500 million malaria cases each year, resulting in nearly one million avoidable child deaths.
What these alarming figures conceal is that the majority of rural Africa’s disease burden can be prevented or treated through the integrated delivery of simple, effective, proven and low-cost interventions.
At the start of the Project, all MVs faced major public health challenges and serious coverage gaps in essential interventions. Levels of chronic undernutrition among children under five approached 50% in five project sites. Women had an average of six children, and only 22% had access to modern contraception. Levels of HIV infection were as high as 12% in Malawi. Finally, an average of nearly one in four children had malaria parasites in their blood, with only 7% using treated bed nets for protection.
In a few short years, the project built and rehabilitated clinics and dispensaries throughout all the sites, supplying them with staff, medicines, water, computers and electricity. Local hospitals were strengthened to support emergency referrals and emergency obstetric services.
Free primary health care at the point of service was successfully introduced at all sites and community health workers regularly visit those who can’t make it to the clinics. Due to these and other investments, encouraging results are emerging. Access to HIV testing among adults has increased threefold, and the chance that a woman gives birth with a skilled provider—a critical intervention for preventing maternal deaths—has increased by 30%. Three years after free distribution of insecticide-treated bed nets, the Villages showed a sevenfold increase in bed net utilization rates and a 60% reduction in malaria prevalence across all the sites.