The village that Sachs built

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This post is an abridged version of Chapter 5 in Japhy Wilson’s Jeffrey Sachs: The Strange Case of Dr Shock and Mr Aid, available now in stores.

Jeffrey Sachs claims to have the solution to extreme poverty. In 2006 he set out to prove it with his Millennium Villages Project (MVP). This multi-million-dollar project is the most high-profile development programme in the world today, with a growing array of celebrity supporters including Madonna and Angelina Jolie. Financed by philanthropists and multinational corporations, the MVP operates in villages across sub-Saharan Africa, in which it is implementing an integrated set of provisions in agriculture, health, education, energy, infrastructure and environmental sustainability. The aim is to achieve the Millennium Development Goals in these villages by their deadline in 2015.

Sachs has identified Ruhiira in southwest Uganda as the ‘flagship’ of the MVP.1 Ruhiira covers a total of 140 square kilometres of mountainous land, including numerous villages and farmsteads, with a population of approximately 50,000 people.2 Of all the Millennium Villages, it is Ruhiira that has received the greatest international attention. An award-winning Vanity Fair profile of Sachs is based around a trip to Ruhiira, and it is the focus of Tommy Hilfiger’s Promise Collection – a fashion range fronted by the Hollywood actress Katie Holmes.

In February 2013 I visited Ruhiira to judge the success of the MVP for myself. Sachs defines the ‘extremely poor’ as those living on less than US$1 dollar a day, which included 40-50% of the population of Ruhiira at the start of the project.3 This is the sector of the population that the MVP is designed to support. Yet my research suggests that the vast majority of the inputs provided by the Project are being appropriated by the better-off, while the poorest are being largely excluded. The MVP has provided cows and goats, for example, but most of the poorer farmers who applied for a goat did not receive one because they did not have the resources to construct a shelter and plant grass, as required by the Project. Cows, meanwhile, were perceived to be given only to those with political connections: only one of the households I interviewed had received one, and the head of this household was the chairman of the local council, and already had forty cattle of his own.

Seeds and fertilizers were more widely distributed, benefiting almost everyone. But these also favoured wealthier farmers, as they were distributed on the basis of land holdings, with more given to those with more land. Poorer farmers renting land were often unable to benefit from fertilizers at all, as their landlords would not permit them to use fertilizer, on the assumption that it would impoverish the soil over time. Wealthier farmers also tended to be more closely connected to the MVP, and reported receiving seeds and fertilizer more regularly than poorer farmers.

Economic inequalities in Ruhiira have been further reinforced by the Project’s decision to charge for some of its benefits. Its energy-efficient cooking stoves cost 20,000 shillings (approximately US$8) each, which is well beyond the reach of the poorest households. A clean water system was installed in Ruhiira, but the introduction of a small charge to fill a jerry can meant that the poorest people had returned to drinking water from polluted sources. Latrines, water tanks and solar energy connections were all being provided on condition that the recipient contributed to the costs in either materials or cash – US$55 for a solar power connection, for example.4 Most of the people I interviewed had been unable to afford these benefits.


This sign in Ruhiira advertises a ‘Goat Demonstration Shelter’ supported by the MVP. I spoke to a woman living next to the sign (in a hut just off-camera). She had no idea what it referred to.


ON THE BRINK OF COLLAPSE? 

In mid-2013, several ex-administrators of the MVP prepared a dossier containing extensive allegations of corruption within the administration. Entitled ‘Ruhiira Millennium Villages Project at the Brink of Collapse,’ the twenty-one page dossier opens with the claim that, ‘Peasants face hunger, disease & poverty again as the project leadership strays in office battles.’5 The dossier claims that the management of the MVP has gone downhill since July 2011, when the country coordinator left the Project, and oversight of procurement and recruitment passed from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS). In a telephone interview in September 2013, one of the authors of the dossier, who had been closely involved in the financial affairs of the Project, told me that previously all contracts over US$500 had to be approved by the UNDP but that the local Project office was now in control of contracts for as much as US$15,000.6 Another ex-administrator explained that from 2011 onwards, money was sent directly from the Project headquarters in New York to the local office, with few questions asked.7

The dossier contains a list of twenty-six workers who were allegedly dismissed or pushed out of the administration in an effort to mask the problems that it describes.  To mention but one example of these problems here, the dossier reports on a contract between the World Food Programme (WFP) and a local agricultural co-operative called the Ruhiira Twijukye Women Association, in which beans grown by the co-operative were sold in bulk to the WFP. According to the dossier and a follow-up interview with an MVP administrator who was working closely with the co-operative, some of the money from the WFP allegedly disappeared.8

According to its authors, the dossier was emailed to Millennium Promise in New York in August 2013, and Millennium Promise has conducted an internal investigation into the allegations. (Millennium Promise is a philanthropic foundation founded by Jeffrey Sachs in 2005 to finance the MVP. Sachs sits on its board, and holds the position of ‘Co-Founder and Chief Strategist’9) As email exchanges10 and my contacts11 confirm, the finance director and the associate counsel of Millennium Promise travelled to Uganda shortly after the dossier was sent to New York, and met with three of the dossier authors on September 12, 2013. It is possible that the dossier is the output of disgruntled former employees, or is based on speculation rather than first-hand knowledge – but the seriousness of its charges undoubtedly warrants a searching review by Millennium Promise and the MVP. As my book on Jeffrey Sachs went to press in December 2013, the outcome of their investigation remained unclear.

The details in the dossier are consistent with allegations reported to me in Ruhiira. I was also told of alleged irregularities in the payment of ‘top-ups’ to government health workers operating in the Project area. These top-ups are intended to incentivize staff and to compensate them for the additional tasks that they perform for the Project. The MVP did not respond to my request for details on the payment of top-ups to medical staff. But according to the reports I received, a senior clinical officer who earned US$350 a month would be promised a top-up of about US$115, while a junior health worker earning US$150 a month would be due a top-up of around US$90 – a significant increase in both cases. However, the five health workers I spoke to, and a sixth who provided me with two written statements, all claimed that the top-up payments were being made irregularly. Two of my interviewees further claimed that they had been personally intimidated into signing documents confirming that they had received the payments even when they had not.12 I raise these allegations not as factual statements but as areas worthy of serious investigation by the MVP.

Despite the MVP operating in Ruhiira since 2006, many families like this one remain in ‘extreme poverty’. This family applied for a goat and a cow from the MVP, but received neither. 


WHEN YOU FIND RUHIIRA SHINING

In a video for Tommy Hilfiger’s Promise Collection, Jeffrey Sachs celebrates the achievements of the MVP in Ruhiira, claiming that ‘the livelihoods of these communities are moving from subsistence to income and expanding businesses. This community will be on its way to long-term economic growth and economic improvement.’13 Several people who worked with the Project in Ruhiira had seen similar claims of success on the MVP website, and were incredulous. One health inspector told me: ‘When I see such things, it baffles me, because it’s not what is happening.’14 ‘On paperwork it is doing well’, another government health worker remarked, ‘but down [on the ground] it is not doing what is written on that paper.’15 And an employee of the MVP made the following assessment of its achievements: ‘Some little change has come. But that’s really what I can say. Little.’16

Despite these problems, Ruhiira has received rave reviews from journalists, politicians, businessmen, academics, development students and corporate employees who have visited the Project. A delegation from the University of Notre Dame, for example, reported that ‘The Ruhiira village is a wonderful model.’17 It is clear, however, that everyone who visits Ruhiira through the official channels receives a virtually identical tour: they almost all visit the same clinic, school, water project and IT centre. Many of them even visit the same farmer. In contrast to the impoverished farmers I visited, this farmer  has been provided with two cows, several goats, and a variety of grafted fruit trees. He has even been given a state-of-the-art biogas cooking system, although none of the people I spoke to in Ruhiira had received one, or knew of anyone who had.18 In the words of one MVP health worker, ‘No community involvement: They just use certain homes as demos.’19 Another health worker described the preparations that are made before official visits to Ruhiira:“When we get visits from donor countries – now that is when you find Ruhiira shining! ... They renovate where the situation was going bad … Then [the visitors] go back, and they revert to their normal situation.”20

Strangely enough, the most spectacular representations of success are reserved for the visits of Jeffrey Sachs himself. In 2010, for example, Sachs visited Ruhiira to celebrate the contract with the World Food Programme. A blog report describes "governmental officials, large staffs, armed police, and press people – maybe 50–80 people in a long line of UN white landrovers … [and] children or community people at every stop lining the entrances, singing and clapping hands.’21 An official video of the event shows Sachs being escorted through throngs of cheering villagers, from a pristine school to an overflowing warehouse and a gleaming water project.22 Meanwhile a group called the ‘Millennium Band’, with uniforms provided by the MVP administration, sang songs with lyrics such as: ‘Jeffrey Sachs/You have done a lot/God should bless you’.23 

Sachs himself is an enthusiastic participant in these spectacles staged for his benefit. His 2010 visit is described in rapturous language on the MVP website: ‘“We haven’t done it, you have”, proclaimed Sachs, to tumultuous applause and ululation from the crowd of hundreds; babies and grandmothers who had walked from far and wide to catch a glimpse of their hero.’24 The people who sing and clap are no doubt genuinely grateful to Sachs for the little they have received from the Project. But in this regard the MVP is just reproducing the paternalistic relationships characteristic of Uganda’s highly personalized power structures. ‘People from rural areas treat the provision of services as a favour from the government,” as one Ugandan commentator has explained. “Even if shoddy work is done they remain thankful because they never expected it in the first place.’25

Sachs himself may be unaware of the problems confronting the MVP in Ruhiira. But in his own words, ‘The issues of life and death carry a moral burden to know what you’re talking about’.26 In his moralizing promotion of his development agenda, Sachs has insisted that the extent of global poverty is ‘unimaginable to anyone that knows or cares to look. The only way we could come to this is if you take the decision never to look, and I’m afraid that’s the world we’re living in right now.’27 Could it be that Sachs has taken the decision not to look at the exclusion of the extremely poor from his own development project, and not to hear the allegations of corruption within it?

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1  Jeffrey Sachs, quoted in Shai A. Divon and Cassandra E. Bergstrom, ‘Unintended consequences of development interventions: a case of diarrhoeal diseases, Ruhiira, Uganda’, Development in Practice 42: 1 (2012), p. 88, n. 5

2 Earth Institute, Infrastructure from the Bottom Up (New York: Earth Institute, 2009), p. 94.

3  Millennium Promise, ‘Ruhiira, Uganda’, at mp.convio.net.

4  Earth Institute, Infrastructure From The Bottom Up, pp. 95–7, 103.

5  ‘Ruhiira Millennium Villages Project at the brink of collapse’, anonymous unpublished document, 2013, p. 1.

6  Telephone interview with one of the authors of ‘Ruhiira Millennium Villages Project at the brink of collapse’, 11 September 2013.

7  Member of the administrative staff of the Millennium Villages Project 2006–2013. Telephone interview 19 September 2013.

8  ‘Ruhiira Millennium Villages Project at the brink of collapse’, pp. 4, 14; Member of the administrative staff of the Millennium Villages Project 2009–2011. Telephone interview, 18 September 2013.

9  ‘Millennium Promise Global Board of Directors’, available at http:// mp.thinkfa.com/millenniumpromise/bod.

10  Associate Counsel of Millennium Promise, ‘Re: Complaint regarding Ruhiira MVP’ emails sent to an ex-administrator of the Ruhiira MVP, on the 9th, 10th and 12th of September, 2013.

11  Second telephone interview with one of the authors of ‘Ruhiira Millennium Villages Project at the brink of collapse’, 19 September 2013.

12  Senior Clinical Officer, working in Ruhiira MVP area from September 2012–February 2013, author interview, Mbarara, Uganda, 19 February 2013; Government health officer working in Ruhiira MVP area, author interview, Kabuyanda, Uganda, 13 March 2013.

13  Jeffrey Sachs, in the ‘Business and Entrepreneurship’ video clip on the Tommy Hilfiger Promise Collection website at eu.tommy.com.

14  Health inspector working for one of the local councils in Ruhiira, author interview, Mbarara, Uganda, 9 March 2013.

15  Senior Clinical Officer, working in Ruhiira MVP area from September 2012-February 2013, author interview, Mbarara, Uganda, 19 February 2013.

16  Millennium Villages Project medical sector worker, author interview, Kabuyanda, Uganda, 12 February 2013.

17  Francis L. Shavers, chief of staff and special assistant to the president of the University of Notre Dame, ‘Ruhiira Village Visit’, at president.nd.edu.

18  This farmer features repeatedly, for example, in the ‘Postcards from Ruhiira’ on the Tommy Hilfiger Corporate Foundation website (http://108.166.76.198/2012/06/), and in the press pack for the Promise Collection.

19  Millennium Villages Project health worker – written statement personally delivered to the author in Kabuyanda, Uganda, 11 March 2013.

20  Millennium Villages Project medical sector worker, author interview, Kabuyanda, Uganda, 12 February 2013.

21  Linda Powers, ‘Lots of People Visit Ruhiira’, at lindapowers.blogspot. co.uk.

22  The video can be seen online at youtube.com.

23  Member of the ‘Millennium Band’, author interview, Ruhhiira, Uganda, 10 March 2013.

24  Naomi Handa-Williams, ‘WFP Director Hails the “Revolution of Hope” in Ruhiira’, at millenniumvillages.org.

25  Ssemujju Ibrahim Nganda, ‘Corruption Endemic in Uganda’, Guardian, 13 March 2009.

26  Jeffrey Sachs, keynote address, ‘The Commission on Macroeconomics and Health – Ten Years On’.

27  Jeffrey Sachs, in Washington National Cathedral, ‘The Prophet of Economic Possibilities for the Poor’.

This post includes citations that were mistakenly left out of the print edition of the book. The errors have been corrected in the e-book edition.

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