In his book Emerging Africa, Steve Radelet investigates the events taking place in Africa today and in the last decade. He opens with the commonly held misconception that no one expects any good news to come out of Africa. People have been conditioned to expect news of civil war, endemic diseases, and other tragic and brutal events. However, Radelet focuses his book on a group of 17 countries he calls the “emerging countries.”
These emerging countries are steadily experiencing higher quality of life for their citizens. For example, Ghana has seen at least a 5% growth in their economy every single year for the last 15 years. The average economic growth for each of these countries has been at least 3.2% per capita per year since 1996. Along with this economic growth, the emerging countries are seeing falling levels of poverty. In Ghana, the percentage of the population living below the poverty line has decreased by 20%.
This is in stark contrast to the Africa of the 70’s and 80’s. 50 years ago, when most African colonies began gaining their independence, many were taken over by authoritarian governments with strong economic and political controls. These governments made poor economic choices and borrowed large sums of money from foreign sources, plunging their countries into outrageous debt. Subsequently, an economic crisis began in Africa: loans from foreign sources were cut, and governments no longer had the resources to stifle political unrest.
The economic and political discontent felt by many citizens in these African countries helped lead to the current economic turnaround seen today. With Namibia’s first election in 1989, a new “era of democracy” began in Africa, with all 17 of the emerging countries establishing a democratic government. According to Radelet, “Never in history have so many low-income countries become democratic in such a short amount of time.”
Within these newly established democracies, Radelet witnessed a shift towards the protection of civil liberties and government transparency and accountability. Accompanying these shifts was the implementation of more sensible and sustainable economic policies, as the emerging countries were still trying to escape the debt crisis. According to Radelet, the rise of democracy and establishment of good economics are the two driving factors of this turnaround. He also recognizes that the spread of technology and a new generation of leaders have contributed to higher quality of life in the emerging countries.
As these emerging countries began to experience unprecedented economic growth, one well-known economist, Jeffrey Sachs, decided to test his hypothesis on the best methods to contribute aid to communities in Africa living below the poverty line using a mission he named the Millennium Villages Project (MVP). The goal of this project is to fight poverty at the village level with community-based development, providing communities with the education and resources they need to become economically self-sufficient.
The first MVP site was established in Sauri, Kenya, in 2004. The area is actually composed of 11 different villages with a high population density around 70,000, according to the MVP website. Before the project began, citizens in Sauri harvested an average of 1.9 tons of maize per hectare, leading to deficiencies of food. Additionally, only about ½ of women received treatment for HIV/AIDS. Since the project was begun, maize yield has increased to 5 tons of maize per hectare, helping to decrease food insecurity in the area. The project has also educated citizens in beekeeping and fish farming in an effort to diversify the income of the area. Almost all women receive HIV/AIDS treatment and 97% of children receive the measles vaccine.
While these statistics are promising and certainly point to higher quality of life for the people of Sauri, many are not convinced that these improvements were catalyzed solely by the MVP. Looking at statistics for Kenya as a whole, we can see that the GDP increased from $12.7 billion in 2000 to $63.4 billion in 2015. Additionally, life expectancy has increased from 50.8 to 61.6, and the human development index (HDI), a measure of many different factors that contribute to quality of life in a country, has increased from 0.45 to 0.548. Thus, while Sauri is doing better in many areas, so is the rest of Kenya.
Sachs and his team have also received much criticism for their reports on the success of the MVP. Several different sites have noted that, while Sachs reported improvement in 13 of the 17 indicators for the MVP villages, no villages were chosen as controls with which to compare the MVP sites. Thus, there is a lack of evidence that the MVP is the reason for these improvements. Additionally, Sachs has been criticized for claiming incorrect figures in the decline of child mortality rates in the MVP villages.
Still, in looking at the pros and cons of the MVP, I believe that it is a viable project towards ending poverty. It implements change and improvements at the village level, empowering citizens to make their own decisions towards economic stability and providing resources to give them a step up. As they say, “If you give a man a fish, he will eat for a day. If you teach a man to fish, he will eat for a lifetime.”
Millennium bugs. May 2012. www.economist.com
Sauri, Kenya. http://www.millenniumvillages.org/the-villages/
Murphy T. Learning from mistakes made: The Millennium Villages Project. October 2013. www.humanosphere.org
Radelet S. Emerging Africa.
Starobin P. Does It Take a Village? June 2013. www.foreignpolicy.com