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Accompanying Mr. Sachs on the visit to Nabari, he said: “The British government only funds programs which deliver.” Mr. Mitchell said its contribution “will have a remarkable effect on northern Ghana, a place where there is deep poverty even by African standards.”

Skepticism and criticism

Since the Millennium Village project was launched in Kenya in 2006, Mr. Sachs‘ vision has twice put him on Time magazine’s list of the year’s most influential people, and he is an adviser and friend of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, who wrote a laudatory account of a visit last year to a Millennium Village in Malawi.

“In a community that once could not feed itself, a giant warehouse was almost bursting with tons of surplus grain,” Mr. Ban wrote. “By using high-yield seeds, better soil management, and proper row planting, the community has more than tripled its crop production, and villagers who previously were hungry grain buyers are now food-secure grain sellers.”

But Michael Clemens, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Global Development, says a similar project called Integrated Rural Development was attempted in the 1970s and ‘80s by the World Bank and failed because it could not survive without donor funding.

Mr. Clemens, who researches ways of making aid more effective, sees a similar fate awaiting the Millennium Villages.

“How likely is it that without the lavish expenditures of a New York-centered philanthropist-funded organization, the project can continue for long?” he said.

Mr. Sachs says his project is different from the 1970s venture, mainly because of technological advances.

“What we are doing was not tried before and could not have been. The earlier programs did not include computers, email, Internet for data management, systems control, mapping, monitoring, banking, payments, health care, teaching, process control, value chains and countless more areas,” he wrote in an email.

Mr. Clemens and his co-author, Gabriel Demombynes, a senior economist at the World Bank in Nairobi, Kenya, have published papers and editorials over the years claiming the project is overstating its impact.

They say it boasts of gains in indicators such as child mortality, without noting these are insignificant compared with changes happening at a relevant regional or national level.

That should be the critical question for every project like this one: “What would have happened if the project hadn’t come along?” Mr. Clemens said.

Measuring success

Mr. Sachs acknowledged that his project’s evaluations have lacked the rigor of a randomized control trial, but said he is using interventions that have already been proven to work.

“This would not be satisfactory if we were introducing a new, untested medicine. I wouldn’t take the medicine myself,” he said. “But if what we’re really trying to do is show communities that at low cost it’s possible to do a number of important and proven things, and here are some ways to do that, I think this can play an important role.”

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