In September of 2000, all 189 United Nation member countries signed The Millennium Declaration. It was the largest gathering of world leaders in history, with more than 150 heads of state present. Their aim was to free the developing world of extreme poverty and the abject conditions which cause it. These include income poverty, preventable diseases, hunger, high mortality, inadequate housing and education, while at the same time promoting gender equality and environmental sustainability. These aspirations became the Millennium Development Goals, eight time-bound objectives to be achieved by 2015.

Reaching this goal may seem a daunting task but it’s by no means impossible. Jeffrey Sachs, renowned economist and director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University created Millennium Promise in 2005 to allow private individuals and companies to help achieve the Millennium Development Goals. He feels that addressing poverty is integral to the wellbeing of developed nations. “The idea that somehow the world will take seriously American lives when America has not taken seriously their lives is a profound misunderstanding of the nature of the world today,” said Sachs at the Simon Fraser University President’s Forum in 2002.

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A child outside a house in a village in Mwandama Malawi.
Photo courtesy of Millennium Promise

Millennium Promise aims to achieve the Millennium Development Goals through a project called Millennium Villages: small communities provided with a practical foundation for economic and social growth. The purpose is to help each village reach a point where they become self-sustaining communities. The Millennium Villages are located in some of the poorest regions in Sub-Saharan Africa. These are places where rain fed agriculture has become increasingly unpredictable due to weather patterns, soils have become depleted of nutrients, water management is unaffordable and subsistence farmers are stuck using low yield seed varieties. Millennium Villages tackle several key issues simultaneously. Sachs points out that it is no use establishing a school to provide education if the children are bed-ridden with malaria or are needed to carry water four hours a day. Millennium Villages are provided with mosquito nets, water sanitation, education, high yield seed varieties and healthcare to help kick-start the communities’ stagnant economy.

The key to success for the Millennium Promise lies not in high design but in simple solutions. “Design, broadly defined, plays a critical role in the work of Millennium Promise. We’ve seen that simple innovations can have transformative effects... By providing farmers with seed and fertilizer, crop yields are more than doubled,” says Jeff Flug, CEO of Millennium Promise. Innovative design also plays a critical role. “Sumitomo, one of our primary bed net manufacturers, has patented a procedure that captures insecticide in the resin of the bed net, allowing the insecticide to continuously be released over a five-year period.” The organization is also providing villagers with high-efficiency stoves and re-examining basic architectural principals. “Using no electrification, we are building schoolhouses with ample overlays allowing lots of sunlight to enter,” says Flug. “We are also improving the school kitchens so that they are sustainable… providing a model for the entire community.” He suggests that good design needs to be both conceptual and absorbingly simple.

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Women in a millennium village in Potou, Senegal January 2007.
Photo courtesy of Millennium Promise

Take Sauri, Kenya for instance. It became the first Millennium Village in July 2004 and saw spectacular results in just two years. Villagers who were once desperately hungry have now tripled their crop production to a point at which they are able, for the first time in years, to sell their produce at market. Sachs explains that a community can only support auxiliary jobs like teachers, healthcare workers, tradesmen and shopkeepers if villagers produce more food than they can eat. Too little and everyone is relegated to subsistence farming. “Fundamentally, I believe the world economy works, and fundamentally we’re talking about a part of the world economy that isn’t working… Eight to 10 million people around the world are dying every year because they’re too poor to stay alive, and the purpose of the Millennium Development Goals should be to end that suffering… What we’re doing right now in the world is knowingly allowing millions of people to die every year without making an effort to do anything about it.”

There are currently 79 Millennium Villages with a population of roughly 400,000 people. The scheme is by no means a nursing home for critically ill economies but rather an incubator for what Sachs sees as embryonic countries which, given time, will become self-sufficient. “I believe we could meet most of these [Millennium] goals just about everywhere with the decade that we have left, but we haven’t decided to take it any more seriously than rhetorical flourish.”

Posted May 10, 2007