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Fighting poverty

“Look at villages through the MDG prism”

by Hugh Williamson
Welthungerhilfe, a German development agency, is cooperating with villagers to closely monitor rural progress in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The idea is to show that bottom-up approaches are useful for achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), rather than basically banking on massive aid-inflows as does Jeffrey Sachs’ Earth Institute at Columbia University. [ By Hugh Williamson ]

Bosane Damessa is proud of her small garden. The barefoot 24-year-old woman farmer in Sodo, a village 100 km west of the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, enthusiastically shows her visitors the garlic plants, new crops and medicinal plants growing near her small circular mud hut. “I hope my harvest will be good this year,” she says. “Life is not easy, but I try to make the best of it”.

Life is indeed not easy. Bosane has been supporting her two children on her own since her husband left her a few years ago. She shares her home with her four cattle at night in order to protect them from thieves.

Regassa Bekele, a project worker with CDSE (Community Development Service Ethiopia), a non-governmental group that is working with Bosane, says that she is among the “poorest of the poor”. He does emphasise, however, that her situation is not unusual. Local farmers earn only $ 50 to 100 a year from their produce, he says. They rarely have any real opportunity to escape poverty.

Ethiopia is one of the world’s poorest countries, ranking 170 out of 177 on the UNDP’s human development index. “The countries with worse scores are mostly conflict states,” says Joachim Schwarz, project worker in Ethiopia with Welthungerhilfe (German Agro Action), a non-governmental agency that cooperates with CDSE. Welthungerhilfe is promoting food security, water, flood relief and related issues in Ethiopia.

Sodo is a dispersed collection of round mud-and-straw huts among rolling fields. For Welthungerhilfe this poor settlement is of particular relevance as it is one of the agency’s 15 “Millennium Villages”, where it intends to highlight village-level progress towards the eight United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of reducing poverty, improving health care and boosting education opportunities by 2015.

Welthungerhilfe has been involved in rural development programmes in the 15 villages chosen in Africa, Asia and Latin America for several years. Since early 2006, however, they have become the focus of elaborate participatory monitoring systems to gauge progress towards achieving the MDGs. The Millennium Village programme is on track in all villages – with the exception of a village in Afghanistan, where the tough security situation has meant work there has been suspended.

Grassroots perspective

According to Jens Martens, head of Global Policy Forum Europe, a Bonn-based non-governmental group, the Welthungerhilfe initiative is “unique among international development agencies”. He stresses that the Millennium Village programme is about providing insights into the grassroots challenges involved in achieving the UN goals.

In an initial ten-day course, Welt­hun­ger­hilfe and its partners train local people as interviewers. Moreover, 30 village representatives, chosen locally, participate in a workshop to set priorities for the programme, including which of the MDGs are most important for the village. “This also raises awareness of the MDGs themselves, which most local people have never heard of before,” reports Florian Wieneke, of Welthungerhilfe. The villages chosen by Welthungerhilfe provide a counterpoint to their better-known namesakes, the twelve Millennium Villages targeted under the auspice of the UN by development economist Jeffrey Sachs and his Earth Institute at New York’s Columbia University. The UN villages, all in sub-Saharan Africa, are designed to show that a sharp boost in development funds from rich countries would be effective in achieving the MDGs. According to the official website, the Villages “demonstrate how the eight MDGs can be met (...) within five years through community-led development”.

Financial inputs from international donors worth $ 250,000 per village per year plus similar contributions from local and national governments and others are aimed at showing how the villages can “embark on a path of self-sustaining economic development”, the site says.

Welthungerhilfe’s Wieneke says the German agency’s approach is different. Welthungerhilfe has 40 years experience in participatory rural development programmes, and wants to test what role this bottom-up approach can have in achieving development targets. “In addition to the usual project monitoring we are looking at the villages through the prism of the MDGs to gauge progress towards the UN goals,” Wieneke says.

By contrast, he describes the UN project’s approach as one of “pumping lots of money into a village, developing what they see as an effective model and then checking whether this can be multiplied elsewhere”. Wieneke has been involved in setting up the monitoring in Welthungerhilfe’s Millennium Villages.

The monitoring itself involves both quantitative assessments, based on detailed questionnaires, and a qualitative approach involving participatory work with a representative group in the village. This monitoring process has already sparked interest among other development agencies and governments working on the MDGs, as it has proven difficult to set up effective monitoring processes at the macro-level for the UN goals. Even the Earth Institute has expressed interest in the monitoring methods, Wieneke says.

In a recent report, Martens (2007) noted that, at the half-way point towards the 2015 deadline there are few signs the MDGs will be achieved in full. And he confirms there are serious monitoring problems. A new website was launched by the UNDP to present regular updates on the progress towards the MDGs, but the information gaps on the site show that many African countries in particular lack the basic data to make monitoring possible, he says.

Back in Sodo, Regassa gives a tour of a new community centre and of demonstration vegetable plots in the village. He says the Millennium Village initiative is also aimed at improving communication among villagers, about crop use, for instance. “Farmers often keep information to themselves” he says.

In the CDSE office, he points to charts showing how many farmers have signed up for various aspects of the group’s work such as the targeted inputs of higher yielding crop types and different breeds of cattle. He notes that over one hundred households have enlisted to plant crops with potential yields four times higher than “teff”, the grain used in traditional Ethiopian cooking. “This process will take time” he says, since teff is of cultural, as well agricultural importance in Ethiopia. “People need time to adapt” he says.

The Welthungerhilfe will publish its full findings when the initiative ends in 2010. Nevertheless Ingeborg Schäuble, chair of Welthungerhilfe, said in the autumn that the organisation could already present the “first successes” concerning the results of its ongoing rural development work in the Millennium Villages. Regarding Sodo, she said, the rates of malnutrition among children in the 480 household village, at 18 per cent for boys and 25 per cent for girls, are much lower than the national average of around 38 per cent. Similarly, only 2.5 of 100 children die at an early age, compared with 16.6 of 100 at the national level.