Let there be light. And water. And education

At first glance you’d be forgiven for thinking it was another UN Millennium Village, part of the Geoffrey Sachs poverty alleviation experiment. It’s not, but it does sound strikingly similar (you know, take a village of poor, impoverished Africans and bring them ‘development’). Whether you agree with the approach or not – and there’s been plenty of debate – it does seem to be growing in popularity, perhaps as a result of frustration in large, top-heavy, top-down global efforts whose goals are totally unrealistic and where success is much harder to measure than failure is to see. William Easterly‘s book, “The White Man’s Burden”, covers this well. So, rather than trying to heal the world, the idea is you try to heal a village or two and take it from there.

This latest experiment (well, it’s a year old now) centres around a newspaper appeal for a village in northeast Uganda called Katine. Reading through, many of the project objectives seem worthy enough – access to clean water, healthcare, education and so on – but the headline the Guardian chose doesn’t do anybody justice, least of all the inhabitants of Katine. “Can we, together, help one African village out of the middle ages?” it reads. For many people this perception is an ongoing frustration. If I wasn’t so interested in the topic I’d probably have stopped reading just there, as might many people at Amref (a leading partner in the project), whose staff happens to be over 90% African. That level of local ownership though is encouraging, as are the projects aims to “take advantage of – and build on – existing social and economic networks as well as traditional and indigenous knowledge”. This is probably why the newspaper decided to throw its weight behind the idea last year, and why Barclays Bank followed with a couple of million dollars (in today’s economic environment it’s less likely they’d do that now).

It will be interesting to see if the Guardian can hold their readers attention long enough to see this three year project through, although one year on it’s still gobbling column inches. Whatever happens, though, the increasing shift towards smaller-scale – and therefore more likely sustainable – initiatives, such as Katine (and maybe even the UN Millennium Villages), does present us with a different model from the one tried and tested with so little success since the 1970’s.

All we now need do is work a little harder on those headlines.

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