The headless heart

I just discovered that the Millennium Village Project has a blog, which (surprise!) is less concerned with a sincere discussion of development than with promoting the organisation’s beliefs and activities. One particular entry stood out that I found deeply disheartening:

Instead of fundraising, last year at Carleton University, Students To End Extreme Poverty campaigned to get a question to referendum whereby students would vote on whether or not they would pay an extra $6 per person annually in tuition fees to help finance a Millennium Village. We got 73% of the vote. The 20,000 students at Carleton now contribute over $120,000 annually to Millennium Promise.

Yes, that’s right, the students of Carleton University have locked themselves and their future peers into making yearly contributions to the Millennium Village project. And why is this?

We chose to support Millennium Promise because it offers the most effective approach for providing people with the tools they need to lift themselves out of extreme poverty. It is also the only approach that, if scaled, would see countless lives saved, an African Green Revolution and, amongst other things, every child in primary school.

All of this despite the lack of  evidence that the benefits Millennium Villages provide are:

  • Scalable
  • Sustainable
  • Persistent
  • Transferable – recall that Millennium villages were founded in places they were expected to make the most difference.

$120,000 a year could be used as to contribute to a proper  randomised or even pseudo-randomised study of the Millennium Villages!

The Millennium Villages are obviously welfare-enhancing; few people deny that (the sheer volume of money flowing into these villages virtually guarantees it). What we need to do is know more about whether these impacts would work as general development policy, but the MVP program has little incentive to ask the appropriate questions, because the appropriate questions don’t make for good sound bytes for the media or for potential donors!

Laura Freschi at Aid Watch has also posted today about the problems with discerning the MVP’s impact.

Update: Chris Blattman suggests that testing the impact of the Millenium Villages might be infeasible.