Africa's good news

I've come across an amazing program called 'Millennium Villages' which ensures that donated money actually makes a tangible difference.

african boat.88 (photo credit: )
african boat.88
(photo credit: )
Some 3,700 kilometers south of Jerusalem lies Sauri. Sauri is a cluster of villages in Kenya populated by approximately 55,000 people. The primary livelihood is agriculture, and the political importance of the area is negligible. For these reasons, you have probably never heard of Sauri. I hope to change that. In articles about Africa, the usual way of raising awareness is with a barrage of disturbing statistics. The reader might be told that in sub-Saharan African villages like Sauri, nearly one-third of the population is chronically malnourished; that one child dies of malaria every 30 seconds; that 40% of the people live on less than $1 a day. But I would like to share more positive data. Since 2004, malaria incidence in Sauri has dropped from 55% to 13%, and agricultural production has more than tripled. Elsewhere, in Mwandama, Malawi (pop. 35,000), agricultural production has increased by no less than 1,100%, and three new clinics are planned for completion this year. THESE STATISTICS represent a mere fraction of the achievements of Millennium Villages, a project first implemented in Sauri and today operating in some 80 villages in 10 African countries. Millennium Villages aims to drastically reduce extreme poverty in Africa in accordance with the UN's Millennium Development Goals, primarily targeting health, education and agriculture. The project evaluates the specific challenges facing each area and tailors interventions on a village-by-village basis. This is what Prof. Jeffrey Sachs, one of the prime movers behind the project, calls "clinical economics." Millennium Villages further improves its efficiency by servicing the villagers directly, ensuring that aid money does not get lost in governmental bureaucracy and corruption. Admittedly, the system has the disadvantage of being unable to address extreme poverty on national and international levels, though benefits to one group of villages tend to spill over to neighboring areas. Additionally, the project cannot directly address political issues such as corruption and violence. Despite this, Millennium Villages has proven itself to be a staggeringly successful aid program, currently helping some 400,000 people; expansion of the project is ongoing, enthusiastically supported by governments in several countries. THERE HAS been much skepticism about foreign aid in recent years, with critics such as NYU economist William Easterly arguing not only that large amounts of money have been wasted, but that sometimes aid has actually made the situation worse. The Millennium Villages project is in a sense responding to Easterly's criticism by showing that focused and locally distributed interventions can avoid many of the problems that developmental aid has encountered in the past. The amazing progress in villages like Sauri and Mwandama prove that intelligently administered aid can help communities out of poverty traps. What is perhaps most wonderful about this model is that it shows that not only governments and international bodies, but also private - even small-scale - philanthropic efforts can make a meaningful difference in helping alleviate extreme poverty. THE OBJECTION is often raised that before looking abroad, we should help people closer to home, here in Israel, themselves suffering from terrible poverty. Of course, all philanthropic activities are to be encouraged, and helping Israel's poor is a sacred and vital task. However, merely by living in an economically successful state, Israel's poor are protected from many plagues experienced by sub-Saharan Africans - malaria and starvation, for example, are virtually unknown in Israel, though often fatal in Africa. Additionally, there is a unique aspect of Millennium Villages that makes it stand out as a charitable organization: the visibility of its results. When donating to Millennium Villages, I have felt confident that my contribution was being put to good use because of the tangible progress the project has created. For example, when I first read about Mayange, Rwanda, tears came to my eyes. Mayange lies in one of the worst-hit areas of the 1994 genocide, its 50,000 inhabitants primarily consisting of former exiles and refugees. At the dawn of the 21st century, Mayange was a place of death and despair. A drought in 2005 instigated a food crisis; the health center was without a doctor, running water or electricity; one in five children died before the age of five. Thanks to Millennium Villages' intervention, agricultural yields have now tripled, malaria incidence has plummeted from 75% to 10%, infant mortality is decreasing dramatically, and microcredit loaning has been introduced, with 75% of farmers taking out loans and providing family members with health insurance in the process. PERHAPS most inspiring of all, the government of Rwanda has pledged to implement the Millennium Villages program in all 30 of the country's districts, allowing Rwanda to become, in president Paul Kagame's words, "Africa's first Millennium Nation." Contributing to Millennium Villages has made me feel part of this progress. The simple interventions are so cost-effective that there are direct and tangible benefits to every donation: from two-cent pills to treat harmful parasites to $10 anti-malaria bed nets (a proven success at preventing the disease). My involvement has taught me that while it is important to be cognizant of extreme poverty, it is just as vital - and far more rewarding - to pay attention to the miraculous progress taking place in many areas. Regardless of our level of actual involvement, we must empathize with the suffering of our fellow human beings, but also take succor in that which brings them relief and hope. The writer is currently studying in a religious mechina (pre-army one-year program) in Rosh Pina.