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The Millennium Villages Project has launched its second phase, alongside a report stating that it is on track to enable people living in impoverished communities in Sub-Saharan Africa achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

But experts tracking the initiative's progress have questioned whether the project will be financially viable in the long term.

The project started in 2006 as the brainchild of Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, United States and former director of the UN Millennium Project. It aims to show how 'research villages' in ten African countries can achieve the MDGs and disseminate sustainable skills and knowledge.

The second phase, 2011–2015, was launched last week (3 October) with more than US$72 million in new pledges. It will focus on business development aimed at making communities self-sufficient by the time the project ends, and on scaling up interventions and achievements to the rest of rural Africa, by working with African governments.

When the project started some experts were concerned the villages would become 'islands of success' that could fall apart once donors pull out. They also worried about the project moving too fast when similar initiatives in other developing countries have indicated that changes do not happen overnight.

According to the report, which details the initiative's achievements so far, in 11 out of the 14 original sites malaria rates fell by 72 per cent over the first three years; the number of households with access to improved drinking water more than tripled; average maize yields doubled across six sites and quadrupled at some sites; rates of chronic malnutrition dropped by one-third among children under two and the proportion of students benefiting from school meal programmes increased to 75 per cent.

"The first five years of the project certainly demonstrate the feasibility of the model," Paul Pronyk, director of monitoring and evaluation at the project, told SciDev.Net. "We now know that an integrated package of interventions applied to multiple sectors can be delivered and optimised in some of the most difficult and hard-to-reach areas on the planet."

But a paper co-authored by Michael Clemmens, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, in United States, and published last year found that some of the results claimed by the project were "overstated".

"There are many reasons to think that a large fraction of that change would have happened if the project never existed at all," Clemmens told SciDev.Net. "What we do know is that there is no evidence that this will have any long-term effects."

He said the project should not be scaled up until the long-term impacts are clear.

"The only way to do that is to test it a few years after that giant flow of money stops," he added.

Steve Wiggins, research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute, United Kingdom, who contributed to a review in 2008, said that "the project is right to begin the process of transferring the initiative locally", but warned that the big challenge for Africa is governance.

"It's not about donors, it's all about leadership," said Wiggins. "Many African countries have the ability and the resources to implement the [Millennium Villages] model [on their own], so the question is, why aren't they doing it?"

Link to full project report  [1.2MB]
Link to paper co-authored by Clemmens  [733kB]
Link to ODI's review of the project  [706kB]

See below for a video about the Millennium Villages Project: