Why I’m a Millennium Villages sceptic

Last week Jeffrey Sachs set out a robust defence of his brainchild, the Millennium Villages Project, although, as Tom Murphy pointed out, it was somewhat low on detail. I’ve never knowingly been near a Millennium Village, but my own experience causes me to doubt the lasting legacy of the MVP, at least in countries with similar problems to where I work.

First the good news, Sachs took on some of this detractors by saying that the MVP was as much about developing systems to improve service delivery (and hence attainment of the Millennium Development Goals) rather than just,  per se, achieving the MDGs in the targeted villages. I’m a big fan of systems approaches, so this gets the thumbs up from me. Systems are definitely more easily replicable and scaled up than individual projects that focus simply on the needs of its target area.

Now for the bad news, systems are not automatically and by definition scalable. A system that works well at one level may not work well a wider scales due to unanticipated problems and bottlenecks. Ben Ramalingam recently blogged on exactly some of the new challenges that occur as one scales up. This doesn’t mean that the original system was designed badly, but simply that good systems management takes an iterative approach, making tweaks and improvements as we go along (what I term the KISI approach).

But that is not the biggest problem that I see. Even the best designed systems need to interact with things outside their control, in particular people; indeed I suspect that the MVP has people playing integral roles at every step in the way (i.e. that mostly what we’re talking about here is systems for organising human work). A system’s output is constrained by the quality of these interactions. In short, as any good businessman knows, you need competent and motivated staff to deliver a high quality of service. And that is where so much service delivery in developing countries falls down, with last mile service delivery particularly badly managed. Unfortunately short-term, local solutions to this are not scalable.

The problems are legion, and not all a result of poor education amongst the workforce. I know some excellent and (when you consider what they are up against) surprisingly motivated local civil servants. But the overall system drags everyone down. Sure you can tinker at the margins with systems to improve paper flow (mostly in local government around here, we’re talking about paper flow), but the elephant in the room is an unmotivated and unsackable workforce.

Of course this problem will apply at the MVP sites, but there you also have a massive aid effort with lots of expat technical advisers and a high level of political interest. I’ve noticed around here, normally sloth-like civil servants who won’t even sit in a meeting without a generous per diem rush around like lauded socialist workers striving manly (or womanly) in the name of their country when a bigwig is due to visit, working into the night and through weekends, all without any per diems.

Thus I fear all the achievements of the MVP will wash up against the great brick wall that is a change resistant bureaucracy. Once the high level of funding, all the expat TAs, and the high level political interest have withdrawn we’ll be back to business as usual, and the MVP will be neither sustainable in the selected pilot villages nor scalable. Maybe this will not apply everywhere, but I would wager a decent sum that it will happen here. The community contributions which Sachs highlights may also be much harder to be elicit when it’s just government staff doing the asking.

The MVP has a laudable goal, and even as an experiment, the idea of resolving various systemic problems in service delivery is a worthy one that definitely deserves some experimentation; marginal changes can lead to marginal improvements, and, as a by product, perhaps a marginal improvement in government staff morale. But if Sachs wants to take a systems approach to achieving the MDGs maybe he should have looked at HR management reform in developing country civil services. It’s a Herculean task to be sure, that, around here at least, the World Bank has been striving at vainly for some time. But until you resolve that problem I fear these sorts of big push attempts to transform service delivery and hence quality of life in developing countries will always be at least one more big push away from succeeding.

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