NABARI, Ghana — In the village of Nabari on northern Ghana's dry savanna, 80-year-old Wudana Dokurugu lives with other widows in a clump of mud huts. They farm maize and soybeans in nutrient-poor soil, and say their food never lasts to the next harvest.
"When I run out of food, I go fetch firewood and sell it for [50 cents] a bundle," said Mrs. Dokurugu.
That will buy her a bowl of dry maize. Anyone getting sick will likely not have the $2.50 fare to the nearest hospital, about 15 miles away.
Lately, however, Nabari and 33 neighboring villages are in the spotlight, brought together as a single "Millennium Village" as part of American economist Jeffrey Sachs' ambitious effort to demonstrate that, with the right guidance and seed money, Africans can rise out of poverty and become self-sustaining.
While this West African country is benefiting from new oil wealth, mining and industry, life for many in the districts of West Mamprusi and Builsa, about 300 miles from the capital, Accra, consists of understocked food markets, poor health and low school attendance.
"This is a hardworking community, and with new technologies and new ways to do things, poverty can be ended in this region," Mr. Sachs told more than 1,000 villagers in Silinga, a village near Nabari, when he visited in August, accompanied by Ghana's new president, John Mahama.
A challenging endeavor
The 14 Millennium Villages in Africa are part of a global anti-poverty initiative launched under U.N. auspices in 2000.
The goal is to bring people such as Mrs. Dokurugu out of poverty with a big push of assistance that will wean them off aid after several years. The villages get fertilizer and improved seed, irrigation canals, clinics and health workers, school meals, roads and better access to markets.
Mr. Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York, says that villagers in Africa are stuck in a poverty trap, and with the right help can escape it for good.
But he has critics. Some say the project creates dependence, that its advances may be no greater than the rest of the country in question and cannot be sustained once the project ends.
Now Mr. Sachs has scored possibly the project's biggest coup to date -- $18.1 million from the British government's Department for International Development to help 30,000 people in northern Ghana -- which, with government and local contributions, comes out to about $150 per person per year over five years.
But it also presents Mr. Sachs with a challenge, because the British agency is spending $3 million of the money on a 10-year evaluation of the project to measure its impact, sustainability and value for money.
It's the first independent evaluation, and the critics say it's long overdue.
Even though he acknowledges the program hasn't been rigorously evaluated, former British Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell has faith in it.
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.
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."
But how, Mr. Clemens asked, can "low cost" be judged if full expenditure figures for all the projects aren't published?
The full figure is critical for knowing whether the money could have been better spent elsewhere, he said. "That's the whole point. It's to figure out what to do with scarce aid resources."
Mr. Sachs said releasing those figures served no purpose. "We are not trying to demonstrate what the Earth Institute can do. We are trying to demonstrate what can be done on the ground at a certain cost, with a certain budget, in a certain way."
Some also think Mr. Sachs' approach encourages dependence.
Dambisa Moyo, Zambian-born author of "Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working, and How There is a Better Way for Africa," wrote in a Huffington Post editorial: "The aid interventions that Mr. Sachs lauds as evidence of success are merely Band-Aid solutions that do nothing to lift Africa out of the mire -- leaving the continent alive, but half drowning, still unable to climb out on its own."
Mr. Sachs said he is being unfairly targeted, given the level of waste that exists in the aid sector.
He said much of the progress being made throughout Africa is "precisely because of the kinds of interventions that we've been championing and calling for," such as more fertilizer, better seeds, malaria-preventing bed nets and trained community health workers.
Mr. Sachs' continues to attract funding and support for the project.
"He's one of the most charismatic, persuasive people in the world. I've seen people bend over crying at his speeches," said Mr. Clemens. "He knows how to move people, and that's a beautiful thing."