Five years ago my Open Society Foundations gave $50 million to support the launch of the Millennium Villages Project—a bold initiative aimed at ending extreme poverty in rural Africa. It’s a big challenge but the project has come a long way since 2005, when Jeffrey Sachs first told me about his idea. There are now 80 Millennium Villages in Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania, and Uganda serving half a million people.
As the project embarks on its next phase, my foundations will contribute $27 million over the next five years. The Soros Economic Development Fund, a social investment fund that is part of my Open Society Foundations, will consider up to $20 million in investment-worthy business projects in the relevant countries.
Our continued support for the project will help scale up the experience gained in the model villages in the first phase, and link small agriculture with business structures. This will provide sustainable incomes for entire regions, not just for model villages.
Back in 2005, I saw in Jeff’s plan a fresh approach in the fight against poverty as well as an attractive risk-reward ratio. If our initial investment only helped the people living in the model villages, it could be justified as a humanitarian gesture. But if it could be scaled up, we would get a reward that would be out of proportion to the investment made.
Since then the Millennium Villages has changed lives. A man in Sauri, the first Millennium Village in Kenya, followed the project’s advice on agriculture and became a catfish farmer. At the age of 50 he was finally able to feed his family and his work now contributes towards his village’s economy. A group of women in Malawi set up a bakery cooperative. The cooperative farms cassava, turning it into flour—profiting from a pent up demand for a product that was hard to find locally.
African leaders understand that the Millennium Villages approach is working. National governments are now funding the project, by and large by themselves. This is a real breakthrough, but there is no one-size-fits-all approach. The government of Nigeria has adopted this model and committed to scale it up through its debt relief package. Mali is supporting the country’s 166 most food insecure communes—a project should reach approximately 2.6 million people. Rwanda will scale up Millennium Village-type interventions to 416 administrative sectors as part of its policy to accelerate economic growth and social services.
Five years ago I believed that the Millennium Village Project deserved a shot. After closely monitoring its progress I now believe it should be scaled up. We have seen how the Millennium Villages can transform people’s lives, and with this next phase I believe it is well on its way to transforming entire countries and regions.