Saturday, May 8, 2010

A look at Millennium Villages Project from Conde Nast

Amy Wilentz sounds a skeptical (?) tone:

Toya's villagers stand around in groups, watching as Sachs and his entourage inspect the community. A few hundred of the more than 5,000 people who live here have come to welcome us. The wind whips over the sand, luffing the men's robes like sails. A rice farmer tells Sachs that the yield is very low but that if they could just grow a windbreak of some kind, they could have mangoes, bananas, dates, and oranges. The Millennium Villages Project is hoping to double or triple the rice harvest with new rice seeds and fertilizer that are better adapted to the local climate. The windbreak, too, sounds like a good idea to Sachs and his entourage. Under a beating sun, he tells a circle of village elders that he wants them to start nurseries and fisheries. To me, it seems as if he must be hallucinating: fruit trees and fish? All around us is sand and wind. I ask a woman standing outside the circle what she thinks of Sachs.

"I've heard of him," Aïssata Amadou Maïga answers quietly. "He came to help us." A farmer who cultivates rice with her hands, the 45-year-old has five children, ages 30, 25, 14, 8, and 3.

"He came to bring us happiness," another villager adds. In other words, hopes are high—which is always dangerous, because high hopes must be fulfilled or anger and desperation can result.

... When Sachs gets up to speak ("President Jeff Sex," Toya's mayor announces), he has to explain the project to his listeners; a Malian translates the speech into Bambara, the nation's lingua franca. "I bring many partners who are interested in Toya," Sachs tells the silent crowd. "A movie star—you can see him on television, his name is Matt Damon." Around him the faces are blank. "The Secretary-General of the UN sends his good wishes." More blank faces: Damon and Ban Ki-moon, equally unknown quantities here. "And many international businesses want to help you," Sachs tells them. "A company called Sony, which makes computers, wants to give them to you." But what do they know of Sony or computers? He tells the crowd that there are "many exciting things we'll do together in the coming years." Among these he includes introducing new seed varieties, better irrigation, veterinary health care, fishing, a new ambulance, computers for the school, and even the development of tourism as a source of revenue. These are things the people understand better.

As President Sex continues, children on the sidelines sit in the sand near their mothers, and skinny-legged boys run with sticks and hoops. The sunlight plays across the lenses of Sachs's eyeglasses as he speaks from beneath the huge architecture of his turban. Jeffrey of Arabia, I think.

Some paragraphs that caught my eye:

When he deals with hardened power brokers and manipulative politicians, author Naomi Klein writes in The Shock Doctrine, Sachs often seems "like a Boy Scout who has stumbled into an episode of The Sopranos."

... The Millennium Villages may score impressive results during the five years in which they get funding. But after the quick fix, if the changes are not grafted onto the local culture, they may not endure. As Norman Rush writes in Mating, his novel about development in Africa, "If you know in your heart something is in essence or origin charity you act differently toward it than if it's utterly your own creation."

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