Millennium Villages Project Retracts Controversial Report

by Alex Oliver-Gans

The Millennium Villages Project has retracted a controversial paper published in The Lancet claiming that their efforts have reduced child mortality significantly in participating villages. The report, which was attacked quickly for flawed methodology, was prompted by a long history of criticism toward the project for its lack of transparency. The MVP’s failure to make data available for their critics has been a blow to its reputation, but what may be most important to the story is that the controversy has managed to steal attention away from the most hopeful news in development to have emerged in recent years.

The paper, published by The Lancet on May 8, claimed “reductions in poverty, food insecurity, stunting, and malaria parasitaemia” and a 22% decrease in morality rates among children under 5 years of age within Millenium Village sites. Youth mortality rates were reported to have been reducing three times faster in Millennium Village sites than in other areas.

Responses to these claims were quick to arise. Jeffrey Sachs, head of the Millennium Project, wrote an op ed for CNN on May 10 promoting the MVP’s success and the need to continue funding. Nature gave a hopefully skeptical report, citing doubts from Michael Clemens of the Center for Global Development about the MVP’s methodology.

Almost immediately, however, doubts about the MVP report’s methodology dominated the discussion. Nature posted an editorial about the MVP’s need for transparency. Development organizations and bloggers criticized the report’s claims of statistical significance, the fact that all evaluation is performed by those who run the organization, and the paper’s lack of recognition that a decline in infant mortality already exists on the country level, even when the MVP isn’t involved.

Most damaging was a report from Gabriel Demombynes and Espen Beer Prydz of the World Bank uncovering a significant mathematical error that, when corrected, showed that the Millennium Villages actually had slower declines in child mortality than the national average.

The Lancet retracted the MVP’s paper while defending the project’s viability. The MVP commented on their error as well, promising to invite critics and experts to “join an independent expert committee to review the data collection and help improve its accuracy.” In what may be a bad omen for the MVP, on the day of the retraction President Obama announced The New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, a USAID-brokered initiative focusing on private sector investment in developing countries instead of aid.

Issues of transparency aside, what’s most disappointing about the Millennium Village’s paper is its complete ignorance of the incredible developments happening in Africa without their help. According to research from the World Bank, Kenya’s infant mortality rate “has fallen by 7.6 percent per year, the fastest rate of decline among the 20 countries of the region for which… data is available.” The Economist reports that in most African countries, the infant morality rate is falling around twice as fast as during the early 2000s and 1990s. Development economists are calling this development the “best story in development,” and a “tremendous success story.”

This is the kind of incredible progress that the MVP would love to claim credit for, but, as The Economist states, “aid does not seem to have been the decisive factor… No single thing was. But better policies, better government, new technology and other benefits are starting to bear fruit.”

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