A Millennium Village in Madagascar is learning to stand on its own as five years of support from the UN Development Programme (UNDP) come to an end this month.
The Millennium Villages Project dates back to 2004, when it was launched by the UN in conjunction with the Earth Institute at Columbia University and the international nonprofit Millennium Promise. Under the leadership of Columbia University's Jeffrey Sachs, 14 sites in rural Africa, each with a total population of about half a million, were selected to become Millennium Villages.
The project intended to demonstrate how the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) could be realized, testing the theory that a large injection of public investment and foreign aid could boost household incomes, improving savings and local investment. An average of US$60 per person per year was spent trying to improve lives in the Millennium Villages.
The merits of such a costly project have sparked intense debate in the development sector. Some argue that Millennium Village outcomes such as lowered child mortality and improved access to safe drinking water were similar to those in neighbouring areas that were not part of the project.
But Madagascar's Millennium Village appears to demonstrate that sufficient, targeted investment can speed up development, even in a country that has experienced four years of political crisis and near-zero percent economic growth.
Following a coup in 2009, international donor funding to Madagascar was largely frozen, and government investment in social sectors has been almost non-existent; the country as a whole has no hope of achieving the MDGs by the 2015 deadline. But funding for the Millennium Villages Project continued unabated, yielding positive results for the test community.
Sambaina Commune, which lies 45km west of the capital, Antananarivo, was initially chosen as a Millennium Village because more than 60 percent of its 7,000 inhabitants were living in poverty, subsisting from agriculture and making crafts. At the same time, there was a clear potential to improve agricultural practices.
The community was first named an ICT [information communications technology] village in 2005 through the separate Infopoverty Programme, which provided access to technology through classrooms equipped with computers.
In 2008, the Millennium Villages Project declared Sambaina a Millennium Village, and investment was made into clean and renewable energy, safe water, agriculture and the development of small industries. For the last five years, the commune has received a donor investment of $400,000 per year, amounting to $50 per person per year.
"In the beginning, agents came and explained to us what the Millennium Development Goals were. There were people in the village who didn't want to believe them. Some of them didn't want to change. They felt they wanted to preserve what they had," said Rosalie Rabodozafy of the village Nanganehana, which is part of Sambaina. "Now, they have become interested in development."
When the programme started, Rabodozafy became a member of the community health committee. "The first thing that changed was hygiene and health," she recalled.
"There was a health centre before the project started, but often, people didn't go to the doctor. They would just buy some Paracetamol on the street when they felt bad. This mentality had to change. Our committee informed them about health issues, and they now know that they need to go for tests and check-ups."
The health committee also set up a medical insurance scheme and ensured access to clean drinking water by installing pumps in the villages.
Through the project, Rabodozafy's family learned to plant rice according to the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), which involves planting in rows instead of in bunches and using less water. Rabodozafy and her five children now grow enough food to eat for 11 months of the year. "Our harvest used to last us three months, and that was if we ate only two times a day. So these improvements will stay, as long as we keep using the technique," she said.
Mayor Arsene Randriamiarana of Sambaina said about 73 percent of local farmers now use the SRI method, greatly improving their production.
Significant infrastructural improvements have also been made, from renovating the school to installing pumps and electricity, with inhabitants contributing to the costs and helping with the work.
"It was difficult in the beginning, as people thought every household would be given cash. It took a while for them to understand that the money would go to training and infrastructure," Randriamiarana told IRIN.
As the project comes to an end, both Sambaina's residents and its mayor expressed the belief that the positive changes introduced by the project would remain now that the initial investment had been made and local people's incomes had improved.
Randriamiarana has set up committees charged with maintaining the new infrastructure, which will collect contributions from residents. "Electricity cables cost 1 million ariary (US$450) a metre, and we needed 3km of it.
There's no way we could have paid for this ourselves. But now that we have it, people can contribute to the maintenance of the cables and the water pumps. You can't wait for the government to renovate schools and roads," he told IRIN.
Support for small local industries is also winding up as the project's funding ends. A group of 15 women and two men who came together to form a cooperative making jam and yoghurt had received start-up funding of 300,000 ariary ($135) from the project.
The women have been selling their sample yoghurts in small shops around the villages and, eventually, they hope to make enough money to pay themselves salaries of 80,000 ariary ($36) a month. For the moment, they are struggling to find enough fruit to make sufficient quantities of jam. Nonetheless, they say they are learning.
"Before all this started, I didn't have a job," said Voahangy Razafinantoandromanan. "Now, I'm part of the health committee, and I work for the cooperative."
The Millennium Villages Project started at a time when Madagascar was following a development plan, but this changed after the coup. With donor funding still largely frozen, there has been scant investment in infrastructure or support for small businesses, and Randriamiarana is doubtful the Millennium Village model will be able to spread to other places.
"When I go to other communes ... people have to wait for days to get a birth certificate or other papers. The government doesn't even send enough money to pay for the salaries of the civil servants.
So the communes have no source of income, other than the meagre amount of money the people pay for the services. As long as there is no national policy to develop the rural areas, there's no hope for other communes to develop," he told IRIN.
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]