Comparing Millennium Villages: A Lesson in Localization

The Earth Institute houses development expertise that spans sectors, agro-ecological zones, and nearly every region of the world, and we have been able to draw on this global experience and the lessons learned to provide innovative approaches to some of the world’s most complex development challenges.  The Millennium Villages (MV) Model is an example of this, with core values that are designed to transcend regions.  In recent years, a number of countries around the world have approached the Earth Institute and CGSD with the hope of replicating that model, and as interest continues to expand to other regions and other countries, it has highlighted the need to revisit some of the most successful MVs and learn from their experience.

In July 2012, Dr. Gordon McCord, Director of Economic Development at CGSD, and Megan Cassidy, Program Manager, traveled to East Africa to see the MVs in action.  We visited the Mayange Millennium Village in Rwanda, and the Ruhiira Millennium Village in Uganda.  Both sites are MV success stories, but the path to achieving that success has been a lesson in localization.  Though close in proximity and similar on paper – both are rural areas with high levels of poverty and sub-humid climates – they could not be more different in their development stories.

Students on break at a local school in Ruhiira high above the valley. Since the arrival of MVP, this school now benefits from pumped water and reliable energy, school meals prepared in clean burning cook stoves and new teacher housing.

We started in Rwanda.  The Mayange MV is approximately 30 minutes outside the capital of Kigali, and the main road to the site passes through some of the most stunning hillside landscapes.

The MV, serving a population of approximately 23,000, is bisected by a major highway that was recently paved by the government, and a large percentage of the population is clustered around the thoroughfare.  The proximity to the road provided unique opportunities to the MVP team in Mayange.  Working closely with the community and government counterparts, access to energy, expanded education infrastructure, and business development were identified as the priorities.  All five schools in the impact area have been connected to the grid and provided with a computer lab, and several schools have been expanded to accommodate the growing number of students matriculating into secondary school.  Additionally, because the road is a major transport route to Burundi, the community and the MVP immediately recognized the business opportunities.  Working with community cooperatives, businesses in basket-weaving and cassava production have sprung up and proven to be financially viable enterprises.

Inspired by the experience in Rwanda, we then drove across the border to Uganda, to see a completely different (though similarly successful) MVP.  Ruhiira is located nearly an hour off of the main road through Mbarara and is accessed only via dirt roads that wind through extremely treacherous terrain.  The community of 50,000 people sits atop steep hills, and when the MVP team showed up over five years ago, they had one priority – water.  Traditionally, water had been carried from the base of the hills to the top by hand, draining time and resources.  With the support of the MVP, a water program has been realized, with a system to pump water to the top of the hills which is then delivered through a series of public taps.  A business model was built out in parallel to ensure the financial sustainability of the water program, achieved through the installation of private and business taps and charging a nominal fee for the use of public taps.  The improved access to water has allowed the community to focus on other priorities – education, business, health, and agriculture. Because of the remoteness of the site, teacher absenteeism was a major problem, one that has since been improved through the construction of on-site teacher housing. The impact area also boasts one of the strongest health centers in the country, drawing patients from the capital and even Tanzania, and entrepreneurship and agricultural output have also improved.

Two large cisterns in the valley around the Ruhiira village collect water that is pumped up to the center of the community, where community members can then access it through a series of public taps, reducing the household time and resources previously allocated to water collection.

Though the core values of the Millennium Villages Model are evident at both sites, Mayange and Ruhiira illustrate the importance of localizing the decision-making and implementation.  The interventions and priorities were different at each site, but there were also some important common threads that we can learn from as we adapt the Millennium Villages Model to new contexts: 1) the necessity of community engagement and participatory methods at every stage of planning and implementation; 2) the emphasis of interventions that focus on capacity building within the community and sustainability; 3) integration of the government in the decision-making and delivery process; and finally, 4) a committed and knowledgeable team on the ground.  With the valuable experience of the African Millennium Villages, we have a strong foundation for supporting countries in building similarly empowering models for sustainable development.

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