It Takes a Village

Why Africa won't wait for Western do-gooders to save a continent.

As the leaders of the Millennium Villages Project (MVP) in Africa, we were both amused and frustrated to read Paul Starobin's critical portrait of Jeffrey Sachs's plan to end poverty ("Does It Take a Village?," July/August 2013). The jibes come mostly from a familiar set of academics and critics who, like the author, have neither visited an MVP site nor discussed the project with the African leaders involved. Starobin did not speak to us or other Africa-based MVP coordinators, even though the project's communications director repeatedly asked him to do so.

This strikes us as an irresponsible way to report on an African-run project. Our aim in the Millennium Villages is to fight poverty and save lives here on this continent. The critics in Washington tell us to take small steps. But why should we go slowly in the fight against malaria, AIDS, and lack of safe water when these problems can be solved more quickly and comprehensively? Before outside observers tell us once more to wait on randomized trials of already proven innovations, let them come here to see what can be accomplished now.

Already, governments around Africa are embracing the MVP, adopting its methods, and showing confidence in scaling up the project. Several countries, for instance, recently accepted a major financing package worth tens of millions of dollars from the Islamic Development Bank. If Starobin had spoken with African leaders, he would have learned how the project is helping countries solve major problems by encouraging them to set national policies that support the poor and sick. The large-scale distribution of malaria-fighting bed nets across villages and the expansion of community health centers are but two examples.

Eight years ago, the leaders of the MVP, including Sachs and our colleagues working in the villages, stated that the United Nations Millennium Development Goals can be achieved even in the very poorest "hunger hot spots" of rural Africa. We disagreed with advice to tackle these problems in a slow, piecemeal fashion, as if Africa were the subject of a classroom experiment. And we still do. With the help of the MVP, our continent is solving its problems through cutting-edge technology and science, markets, and government programs -- all of which explains why more and more countries are joining Sachs's project. If Foreign Policy had cared to look at the real situation on the ground, it would have told its readers the truth.

Director, Columbia Global Centers, Africa
Nairobi, Kenya
Director, MDG Center West and Central Africa
Dakar, Senegal

Paul Starobin replies:

Belay Begashaw and Amadou Niang claim that my article's criticism of the Millennium Villages Project comes mostly from academics who have never visited a single MVP site. That is simply not true. Economist Edward Miguel at the University of California, Berkeley, and Nancy Birdsall of the Center for Global Development, both of whom are quoted in the article as MVP critics, have made site visits to MVP villages and have written about their findings. Miguel, in a chapter of his 2008 co-authored book, Economic Gangsters: Corruption, Violence, and the Poverty of Nations, drew on his visit the previous year to the Sauri Millennium Village in Kenya, and Birdsall wrote in a 2012 blog post about her visit to the Koraro Millennium Village in Ethiopia.

As for the claim that I did not talk to Africa-based leaders about MVP, that is also not true. I interviewed a senior Kenyan government official, Charity Ngilu, who as health minister worked closely with Jeffrey Sachs to launch MVP in her country, and she is quoted in the article. I also interviewed Bright Kanyontore Rwamirama, a member of Uganda's parliament and a cabinet official who is closely involved with MVP in his country. In addition, an Africa-based writer, Sam Rich, visited the Ruhiira Millennium Village in Uganda and talked to project leaders there, expressly for the Foreign Policy article.

It is understandable that Begashaw and Niang take issue with pointed criticism of MVP, but they have no basis for saying that such criticism, as voiced in the article, is ill-informed.


Ottawa Is No Caracas

Debating what it means to be a "rogue petrostate." 

I wish I could turn a phrase like Andrew Nikiforuk, who makes the case for Canada as a "rogue petrostate" ("Oh, Canada," July/August 2013). No, you are not misreading that -- it is Canada he compares to Saudi Arabia or Venezuela. Instead, I have to rely on evidence, and unfortunately, the evidence in Nikiforuk's case is far from convincing.

Canada has not bet its entire economy on resource industries -- far from it. In fact, the share of GDP from oil, natural gas, and mining has, with a few interruptions, largely decreased since the 1960s. In April 2007 (the earliest date for which the Canadian government provides a direct comparison to current economic figures), oil, gas, and mining collectively accounted for 8.34 percent of GDP. In April 2013, that number was 8.30 percent. Nikiforuk would have you believe that Canada's oil sands petroproject has led to a rapid increase in economic dependence on unconventional oil. He's right in a sense: Dependence has increased 40 percent since 2007 -- but from just 1.3 percent to just 1.8 percent of GDP. The share of Canadians working directly in mining, oil, and gas has also increased, from 1.1 percent of employment a decade ago to 1.5 percent today. Even if oil and gas production were to increase drastically to account for half of export revenues, more than a fifth of GDP, and a quarter of government revenue, that would put Canada on par with Norway, which could hardly be called a petrostate in the pejorative sense.

Nikiforuk suggests that these small increases, like a canary in a coal mine, are but a preview of a disastrous future for Canada, carved out by policy changes intended to ease access to the resources driving this dependence. Some laws have done so, but to focus on them alone is to ignore many recent decisions that have done just the opposite. For example, the federal government has curbed tax incentives for oil and gas companies, placed further limits on asset sales to foreign companies (including those from China), and refused, despite heavy lobbying from the oil industry, to give favorable tax treatment to liquefied natural gas plants. Alberta, home to Canada's oil sands, has significantly increased royalty rates and even introduced a carbon-pricing regime. These changes cost the industry and those who invest in it.

Canadians could be forgiven for believing industry and government rhetoric and concluding that their economy is or will be dominated by resource development. But is Canada a petrostate? Hardly. The national economy is less dependent on resource extraction today than it has been at almost any time in the last 50 years, and that trend is likely to continue. Canadians should scrutinize their national energy and environmental policies, particularly with regard to the fast-growing oil sands sector, but that scrutiny must focus more on the evidence and less on the noise.

Associate Professor
Alberta School of Business
Edmonton, Alberta

Andrew Nikiforuk replies:

Andrew Leach not only misses the point of my article but avoids the central issue: the corrosive influence of oil revenue on the political character of oil-exporting countries.

Petrostates occupy a continuum of dysfunction that includes everything from Vladimir Putin's Russia to Sarah Palin's Alaska. And yes, Norway is a petrostate, too. Canada, which now supplies the United States with 28 percent of its oil, most closely resembles Britain during its ugly foray into its North Sea reserves: Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher used the proceeds from offshore petroleum not only to fund a right-wing political revolution, but also to create a charming myth of economic well-being based on the rapid spending of oil wealth.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a genuine petrolista, has followed in Thatcher's footsteps and is spending oil dollars to socially re-engineer Canada in his own frightful image. Like an untidy tin-pot regime, his government offers no fiscal plan to deal with oil wealth, no coherent energy plan, and no realistic targets on climate change. You know you live in a petrostate when the federal government obsessively talks about pipelines and bitumen as the country's economic engine -- or when status quo economists such as Leach try to minimize the political side effects of resource dependence with numbers that can't capture the dysfunction now undoing Canada.