Just spent the afternoon scratching an itch I had to look at the research on the Millennium Villages Project, which aims to end extreme poverty, with a focus on Africa. It is headed by noted economist Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University (with whom I had a mild disagreement years ago at a conference about whether Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen‘s research on hunger and food supply were generally applicable*). Long** and the short** of it is that results are iffy; it’s not clear that the Millennium Villages (MVs) are doing much better than other villages or national averages in those countries on most or all of the (18-22) measured variables (regarding education, health, infant mortality, etc.), and country-wide progress in improving quality of life in many of the studied areas may account for much, if not all, positive effects in the few variables where MVs do seem to be doing something.

What is incredibly striking to me is that, in the excessive, not-getting-my-own-publications-worked-on time I spent obsessively reading many of the relevant studies, views, news, and analyses (some of which you can follow from my Twitterpating***), not one of themincluded so much as a quote from, let us call them, a Millennium Villager. That is, a resident or participant, an actual African from one of the villages where the interventions have been staged. It would be, quite clearly, “qualitative”/anecdotal data, and further there would be potential difficulties regarding whether or not someone would even feel comfortable openly criticizing (if they felt critical) a project that may be benefiting them, or a neighbor, or whatnot, but there doesn’t seem to have been even a whiff of direct contact with regards to most of the analyses (to be fair, I think this is reflected in MVP’s self-reporting as well as outside analyses; third-person recounting of people’s stories equals not autonomy, sovereignty, or having one’s own voice).

It reminds and underlines for me two of the fundamental things I try (I don’t claim to succeed, yet) to do in my work, which are:

1) Include sociological research that conveys something of how the people involved in a given program/site/location perceive what’s going on there, and

2) Give direct voice to the people I work with, such that their story is their story–hopefully added to in depth, context, and analysis by the work I do, but not utterly superseded by the “researchers’ ocular”.****

I don’t at all claim to have succeeded in either of these (and to some extent, it’s not up to me to decide when I’ve succeeded but rather must be evaluated from the perspective of those I work for and with). But I don’t detect even a scent of this in any of the writing I saw.  The actual Africans in the MVs might in theory or principle agree with the entire critiques, or be utterly happy with everything and the evaluations… or may not be able to follow them, or may not care. But some attempt should be made, I think, to find out which (and insofar as there is comprehension difficulty, time spent with the participants themselves understanding some of the econometric nuance if they evince interest).

Of course, a dedicated and humanistic anthropological/sociological approach focused on systematically understanding the subjective realities of the MVs**** would just be preferable, I’d say, in the first damned place, and as I mentioned to some other AgroecoPeeps–to me, a project with the resources and prominence of MVP really should have, by now, built enough capacity that a number of participants could make the case (and openly critique) the projects with and for national media; hell, some employment could be generated by training and paying some locals to become professional bloggers/journalists (or already present resident individuals employed doing this). Again, there is always the danger of tokenism or pressures to be a mouthpiece–but again, and again, and again I feel I’ve had to say:  the risk of a skewed or unrepresentative voice from an underprivileged community does not and cannot excuse continuing to amplify no voices from such a community. The solution to tokenism is not a blackout!!!!


*Said in short, “Starvation is the characteristic of some people not having enough food to eat. It is not the characteristic of there being not enough food to eat.”

**”Long” and “short” do not meaningfully describe the linked pieces. (Both are arguably “long.”)


****A reference I’ve long found inspiring/useful in this area is
Loker, W. M. 2000. Sowing discord, planting doubts: Rhetoric and reality in an environment and development project in Honduras. Human Organization 59:300-310.
In the end of the piece, Loker discusses the importance of anthropologists’ skills to do, essentially, what I’m talking about here.

2 thoughts

  1. Reblogged this on Agroecology in Arizona and commented:
    We just read an article critiquing the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s development work in Africa, along with the follow up exchange of letters to the editor in my course “Security, Equality and Ecology of the Global Food System”. Working with first year college students, how do we begin to make sense of the internal battles within global food and agriculture-related development? Who assesses the “success” of a development project? My friend and Colleague M. Jahi Chapell weighs in…

    Patel, R., Holt-Gimenez, E. and Shattuck, A. (2009) “Ending Africa’s Hunger” The Nation 289:8 p. 17-22 http://www.thenation.com/article/ending-africas-hunger

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