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Hybrid maize and chemical fertilizer fail to end poverty August 23rd, 2020 by

In 2005, Jeffery Sachs, macroeconomist at Columbia University, started the Millennium Villages Project. At 14 sites across Africa, the project intended to end poverty, to pull people above a daily income of $1.25 a day, by investing in health, education and agriculture. Sachs started the first, five-year phase of the project with almost $120 million in donations from a handful of wealthy folks.

As told in Nina Munk’s 2013 book, The Idealist, Sachs was intensely optimistic and sincere. The funding would allow him to try a model to end poverty; he hoped that after some initial success, governments and international agencies would follow with larger investments to end poverty worldwide.

The villages were actually big communities, with an average of about 6,000 residents. In each one, the project was led by an educated, local person who shared Sach’s vision.

Journalist Nina Munk followed Sachs for six years, and also visiting the villages on her own. Munk noticed that money was flowing into the villages, especially as measured by the number of people who built homes with metal roofs, instead of thatch. But Munk and some of the people she interviewed for the book wondered if this relative prosperity would last after the project ended. I wondered too, so I looked for a more recent evaluation of the project, and found one by Sachs himself, and his colleagues, published in 2018, based on surveys in 2015 at the end of the second and last five-year phase of the Millennium Villages Project.

The researchers saw some progress towards the UN’s Millennium goals, especially for malaria, HIV/AIDS and maternal health.

But the study found that the project had made no impact on poverty.

It is a stunning admission, and I admire the team’s honesty. Income in the Millennium Villages had increased a bit, but over the same decade most African economies had slowly improved. By the end of the project, the families in the Millennium Villages were no better off than households in the surrounding communities.

Paradoxically, the study found that the project had had a positive influence on agriculture, defined narrowly as the use of hybrid maize seed and chemical fertilizer, which Sachs and his team had encouraged, subsidized and distributed to the local people.

The use of hybrid maize seed and chemical fertilizer may explain why the project did not end poverty. Expensive seed and fertilizer make farmers dependent on buying these inputs every year. If the rains fail one year, farmers may lose their maize, but if they bought seed and chemical inputs, they may also go into debt for the seed and fertilizer. So, what Sachs’s team thought of as a positive influence may have in fact undermined the potential of agriculture to contribute to poverty reduction.

Agriculture is also too complicated to reduce to simplistic solutions like seed and chemicals. Maize is a major crop in parts of Africa, but not everywhere. As Munk describes for the village of Ruhiira, in southwest Uganda, although farmers did plant the maize seed, and harvest it, they were unfamiliar with the crop. The locals didn’t like to eat maize, had nowhere to store it, and were not connected to grain buyers, making the grain difficult to sell.

Although Sachs was naĂŻve and reductionist about agricultural development, I suspect that he was right about the need for governments and bilateral agencies to make massive investments in health, education and electricity. Governments are now spending trillions of dollars to mitigate the pandemic lockdown.

But for agriculture to help end poverty, mere investment is not enough. How the money is invested also matters. As explained in the report Money Flows, investments in agroecology are needed to build more resilient domestic food systems that could reduce risks, and poverty.

Further reading

Biovision Foundation for Ecological Development & IPES-Food 2020 Money Flows: What Is Holding Back Investment in Agroecological Research for Africa? Biovision Foundation for Ecological Development & International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems.

Mitchell, Shira, Andrew Gelman, Rebecca Ross, Joyce Chen, Sehrish Bari, Uyen Kim Huynh, Matthew W Harris, Sonia Ehrlich Sachs, Elizabeth A Stuart, Avi Feller, Susanna Makela, Alan M Zaslavsky, Lucy McClellan, Seth Ohemeng-Dapaah, Patricia Namakula, Cheryl A Palm, and Jeffrey D Sachs 2018 The Millennium Villages Project: A retrospective, observational, endline evaluation. Lancet Global Health 6: e500–13.

Munk, Nina 2013 The Idealist: Jeffery Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty. New York: Anchor Books. 260 pp.

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