Groupthink at Notre Dame

Swallowing the lies at a Millennium Villages Project

by Sasha Alyson

The new millennium arrived with high hopes for the future, along with a lot of things named “Millennium.” One was the Millennium Villages Project, which Columbia University’s superstar professor Jeffrey D. Sachs claimed would show that ending extreme poverty was really quite easy.

His target was fourteen villages in Africa. This story is one in a series about the MVP. Others are linked at the end.

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Soon after it was underway, the Millennium Villages Project was aglow in optimistic media coverage.

The Rev. John I. Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, brought a delegation to visit the MVP “flagship” village, Ruhiira, in 2007. Each day one or two members of the group – Jenkins himself, a professor, a student – described their experiences and impressions for the president’s “Uganda Journals.”

Jeffrey Sachs promised it would be easy to end extreme poverty. It was not. His high-profile project didn’t even budge the needle on that. What did come easily was getting publicity for himself and his project, and pulling in prominent supporters who brought much-needed credibility.

One early success was hauling in Notre Dame, a mainstream university whose enthusiasm offers a striking example of the groupthink that keeps the aid industry afloat. The Notre Dame delegation, led by the university’s president, proved unable to look beyond the feel-good packaging to see the bald-faced lie inside. It is this unquestioning mindset that allows the West to continue pretending it knows how to develop the Rest, and that it sincerely wants to do so, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary..

Twenty MVP staff greeted the Notre Dame group on arrival. The university president wrote that “the overwhelming impression for me is the warmth, hospitality, and joy of the people.” His chief of staff added that “whether these interventions will be successful in lifting this village out of poverty is yet to be seen.” In the end, no, they utterly failed, but nobody wanted to write a journal about that.(1)

The head of Notre Dame’s Africana Studies department added: “With our position among the educated elite comes a responsibility to examine critically the structures that make up our society. We have the opportunity, nay the obligation, to question whether structures very familiar and perhaps comfortable and profitable to us should continue to exist.” Noble sentiments, but no such questions are asked in his account, nor in anyone else’s. Perhaps they all sensed that probing questions would not win them points; President Jenkins was on the Millennium Promise board of directors.(2) The MVP repeatedly stressed its “community-based” and “bottom-up” philosophy and the Notre Dame delegation happily parroted these sentiments. University President Jenkins wrote that: “The villagers themselves own and drive all the work being done.” According to his chief of staff: “Members of the community were active in setting project goals [and] establishing priorities.”

Fr. Robert Dowd, from the Political Science department, talked with the Notre Dame student paper about the trip. “This project is not about us swooping in and about us achieving goals,” he said. “It’s about empowerment and allowing [the villages] to be in control of the project.” Of Nindye, a new Millennium Village that Notre Dame sponsored, he explained that “They will be more than recipients – they will be setting priorities.”

That’s 0-for-4, if sports lingo is the only way to make the Notre Dame crowd pay attention to reality. It’s 4-for-4, if we’re scoring by how well everybody fell in line with the groupthink espoused by their boss at the university.

The MVP goals were explicitly defined as the Millennium Development Goals, which had been written in private, at the United Nations, which in 78 years has never had any African representation on its powerful permanent security council. It had been Jeffrey Sachs at Columbia University in New York who decided these were the right goals for fourteen villages in ten countries of Africa. People in the villages had not chosen the goals, they did not set the priorities, they were not the owners. They had merely consented to welcome the MVP in their villages, and since the man known as “The Great Professor” assured them that this would end extreme poverty in five years, their agreement cannot even be called informed consent.

The 147-page MVP handbook didn’t come from the villages, it was written at Columbia University. Despite 61 uses of the term “community-based,” plus further mentions of “community participation,” “self-determination,” and so on, the American-based writers are not shy about telling the African communities what to do:

  • The community should plan and participate in establishing disincentives for clearing areas.
  • The community must be mobilized and instructed on the importance of correct use of the bednets.
  • A community-based hygiene and sanitation group should partner with NGOs and community based organizations.
  • Voluntary Health Workers should perform dietary/food security assessment at household level.
  • Each MV should have a communal food bank which is compiled with 10 percent of each community’s annual surplus.

Was that 10-percent-of-surplus figure the result of careful analysis or – be honest with me please – were we just winging it? The unstated assumption here is downright scary once it’s spelled out: That people who actually live in the village need a wild guess from academics in New York.

These may be great suggestions, they may be good ideas but not high priorities right now, they may be unworkable and irrelevant. In any event, they did not come from a newly empowered village in Africa, they came from the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York, which was glad to be helpful.

The “local ownership” deceit

“The villagers themselves own and drive all the work being done,” wrote Jenkins. Ownership, empowerment, community-based… these are favorite words of the aid industry, sprinkled onto everything just as some diners sprinkle salt onto every dish placed in front of them, before they even taste it.

Local ownership? Let’s sample what’s on the plate before we blindly sprinkle on the salt.

In many parts of the world, few homes have indoor plumbing. People go into the forest or behind a tree to relieve themselves. Westerners who grew up with indoor plumbing and plentiful water get highly distressed by this, and toilets are a favorite project of foreign NGOs.

Toilet construction was an MVP priority. “Improved sanitation” was a U.N. goal by which the MVPs were measured, and building toilets offered a quick, low-cost way to score higher. But toilet construction wasn’t driven by local demand. This goal was imposed.

Only MVP location — in Ghana — was subjected to an independent, controlled evaluation. The final report stated: “In the last two years of the project more toilets were built but evidence already suggests that people are not using them or they are already in a state of disrepair.”(3)

Clearly the “local ownership” talk had been sprinkled on to make a top-down project palatable to non-locals. And it worked. Visiting in 2007, the Notre Damers lapped it up. Sachs fiercely resisted allowing impartial, outside evaluations of his work and the glum news from Ghana didn’t arrive until 2018. By then, .Sachs and crew had long since fled town. The Millennium Villages concept was already recognized as a failure. The aid industry had moved on to new ventures — which it would describe as sustainable and locally-driven.

Photo showing new toilets at a Millennium Villages site, which had quickly fallen into disrepair.

PHOTO: The evaluation stated that the MVP “increased access to and use of improved toilets (a target under Goal 7), although there is qualitative evidence that this is unsustainable.” Photo by Reality Check Approach (RCA) Team / Itad.

And one more disguised motive

Another deceit was more subtle.

Sachs repeatedly stated that the MVPs were pursuing the U.N.’s millennium goals (the MDGs). When an objective evaluation was finally done, it was the MVP’s failures on these goals that sank the final nails into its already-sealed coffin.

But Jeffrey Sachs’s claiming the U.N. goals has the ring of a preacher who decides to proselytize his personal prejudices, then waves a Bible to support them. The opening paragraph of the MVP handbook calls for “conversion from subsistence to commercial agriculture and development of the private sector” and the handbook repeatedly calls for market-driven programs, market studies, “input and output markets,” cash crops, export markets, marketing training, and much more. The first priority in the Millennium Village of Dertu was the Millennium Livestock Market.

Yet the U.N. development goals said nothing about converting to commercial agriculture, nothing even about markets. All this came from Jeffrey Sachs, who had pushed Russia into a hyper-fast market conversion which proved disastrous. Africa offered Sachs an opportunity to redeem himself, to show that his market-focused beliefs were solid and Russia simply hadn’t enacted them properly. But the Sachs approach failed in Africa just as in Russia.(4) Independent follow-up researchers found that “In the effort to ‘enlighten’ farmers and to ‘make’ them entrepreneurs, MVP unintentionally opened doors for corruption, social exclusion, and mistrust.”(5)

The “Integrated Development” theory behind the MVPs had a bad track record already, and now a monkey wrench was thrown into the works: While declaring he wanted to improve agriculture, education, health, and so on, Sachs was desperate to prove that his market-focused theories of development were right. While this wasn’t exactly a secret — it was clear to anyone who read the MVP Handbook — the handbook presumably wasn’t read by many people outside the staff. Elsewhere, Sachs and the MVP talked about the U.N. goals.

The Notre Dame visitors ignored the obvious lie that these were community-based goals. Nor, of course, did they notice this more hidden discrepancy.

If anyone on the MVP staff questioned why their handbook pushed market priorities, while their official goals did not, I find no evidence they said anything. It doesn’t pay to antagonize the boss.

Nor did Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. chief who kept giving Sachs more titles and credibility. The U.N. goals were providing cover for Sachs’s personal crusade; wasn’t that a concern? Nor, that I can find, did his critics within the aid establishment. With good reason, they called attention to Sachs’s failure to plan a good evaluation of what was presented as a proof-of-concept innovation, but not on this subterfuge._

Jeffrey Sachs, as the captain, was trying to move the ball in a different direction than others on the team. Nobody called him on it.

Income-producing skills

The Notre Dame group somehow failed to realize that goals shipped over from New York did not qualify as being set by the community.

But Notre Dame’s Fr. Dowd wasn’t pursuing awkward questions about who really set the goals. The highlight of the visit, he writes, was a ceremony where 300 villagers welcomed them “with smiling faces and rhythmic clapping.” Another Notre Damer loved “the indescribable beauty of the drums and voices singing in their language.”

So it’s true that the villagers learned income-producing skills. They learned that rhythmic clapping, drumming, and singing, from a colorfully-attired crowd, would move the souls of foreigners who could help bring in some aid money. But this isn’t the type of skill the MVP promised to nurture. It is not — to use the standard terminology — sustainable or scalable or transformative. It’s same-old, same-old.

The Notre Dame delegation included a student who heard “heart-breaking stories.” Computer skills were taught by a teacher with a blackboard. The student asks, “how can somebody learn the vital skill of a computer through drawings of the screen on a chalkboard?” What about the questions we were just exhorted to ask? For example: If they don’t have computers, and perhaps not electricity (the room is sometimes “too dark to see”), isn’t it nuts to use this time to “teach” computer skills on the blackboard? Was this curriculum blindly pushed from the West (the computer teachers were two recent Notre Dame graduates), and accepted merely because the U.N. and a major university were assumed to know what they were doing? Somewhere, a schoolgirl is diligently trying to memorize the difference between a computer mouse and an icon, because Westerners will eagerly give money to ensure that girls learn STEM skills.

She can learn much faster, on a real computer, if and when that’s a useful way for her to spend her time – but only if her innate ability and desire to learn have been nurtured, and not euthanized. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Sachs was boasting of how many children the MVP had driven into this school system with no regard for whether they learn anything.(6)


1. Notre Dame president John I. Jenkins’s account of the visit to the MVP sites originally appeared at, with the final digit changing for each of the seven days. Those pages, which might have become an embarrassment, have disappeared, although an innocuous entry written at the same time, honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, still appears.

2. The MVP involvement wasn’t the only occasion when Notre Dame president John I. Jenkins displayed a groupthink mentality. In 2020, amidst the Covid-19 pandemic when travel was forbidden for students and faculty, he took a Notre Dame delegation to a ceremony at the Trump White House. They did not wear masks; one member of the delegation explained this as “an attempt to blend in and adhere to the conventions set by the event’s powerful hosts.” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, identified the ceremony as a “superspreader event.” Jenkins was soon diagnosed with Covid, as were other attendees, including two Republican senators and New Jersey governor Chris Christie. Many Notre Dame students strongly protested their president’s reckless “do as I say, not as I do” attitude and the faculty senate came within one vote of passing a “no confidence” resolution.

3. Impact Evaluation of the SADA Millennium Villages Project in Northern Ghana, Executive Summary, by Itad, 2018.

4. Just as the Millennium Villages Project was getting underway, William Easterly’s book The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, hit the shelves. Easterly was a former World Bank economist and an adept writer, and his sharp criticism of the aid industry got more attention than similar critiques. As if he could see the future (perhaps because he had studied the past), he describes the flaws in the “Big Plan” theory, why he believes markets are a good system for poverty alleviation but that a overnight switchover is doomed to failure, and why the “planners” working from afar will never achieve their grandiose schemes. As the aid industry continues to trod down the same paths that have failed so often, The White Man’s Burden remains a clear account of why these paths will continue to lead nowhere.

5. Hellen Kimanthia and Paul Hebincka, “‘Castle in the sky’: The anomaly of the millennium villages project fixing food and markets in Sauri, western Kenya,” in Journal of Rural Studies, 2018.

6. Some years ago, a bright young man was working at the literacy project in Laos where I’ve been based since 2006. He was in our office from 8:00 to 2:30, then went to a computer class at the university. A couple of times he mentioned that he learned more from working in our office than at school. One day, while showing him something on the computer, I was surprised that he didn’t know certain basic skills, such as how to move a file from one folder to another.
   “You are studying computers, aren’t you?” I asked. “Yes, I’m studying computers!” I had a sudden thought. “Do you have computers at the university?” “Yes, we have computers.” “Well, what do you do if you need to move a file?” He looked at me for a puzzled moment, then explained: “Oh, we have computers. But most of them don’t work.” This was normal in his life, so he hadn’t thought to mention it earlier.
   We are told that the Notre Dame school had 7 computers for 300 students, yet computer skills were taught on the blackboard. Couldn’t the computers have been put to some use? Maybe each student could get 30 minutes a week on a rotating basis? Looking at possible reasons why that apparently didn’t happen may give some insight into why equipment and technology, which donors and technocrats are eager to see as the solution, so rarely are.
   First, maybe these computers, too, did not work. Dirt, dust, insects, leaky roofs, voltage spikes, unskilled users, and lack of a tech support staff all take a toll. No, the first-grade teacher cannot maintain them in her spare time, as a visitor once suggested to us. Or they were so virus-ridden as to be unusable; that’s the fate of many shared, donated computers. Or they arrived already broken, with a note, “We just love what you’re doing! These computers don’t work, but if you can fix them, they’re all yours!” (Yes, such things happen. Search for “broken medical equipment donated to developing countries” – but not unless you’ve got a strong stomach.) Even if there was electricity and the computers did work, a 30-minute rotating schedule would have required a full-time teacher with superb teaching skills to handle the ever-changing small groups. The first grade teacher can’t do that in her spare time, either.
   These are the superficial reasons that so many non-functional computers site in a storage area in developing countries. The deeper reason is that these computers were not selected by local people who had considered possible options and thought computers were best. Wealthy technophiles had decided that computers were the answer and supplied them, with no true understanding of the situation.

Related stories

Left: Millennium Villages Project. The MVP was supposed to prove that Western aid could end extreme poverty in five years. It didn’t. But its failures offer insight into the true intents of Western aid.
Right: An African Adventure. Bono wanted to make Africa “less of a burden, more of an adventure” and the Millennium Villages Project made it just that – for celebrities and bigwigs who briefly visited and got the media spotlight.

Left: The Uganda Journals A Notre Dame delegation visited the Millennium Villages Project site in Ruhiira, Uganda, in 2007, and published their thoughts and observations.
Right: Experts vs. Chimps: Do “development experts” have any more wisdom than dart-throwing chimpanzees? Well, it’s a tight contest. It turns out, the experts who get in the news have a sorry track record, though they try to hide it.

Left: Aid for the richest and whitest: UK Aid has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars through AgDevCo, a UK “impact investor,” to help white European investors run agribusinesses in Africa.
Right: UNICEF preaches diversity. But for 77 years, UNICEF has ALWAYS had a white USA citizen in its top spot. That’s hypocritical. Racist, too? You decide. And it leads UNICEF to push Western interests.

Left: Groupthink has led to many disasters — from burning down ancient peat forests, to compelling children in the South to attend schools where they learn nothing. Groupthink helps the aid industry stay in business.
Right: One Laptop Per Child. U.N. agencies, with funding from big tech, endlessly pitch tech-based solutions to education problems. It doesn’t work — but the money is good. Here’s a look at the most famous of these.

Other stories about karma colonialism

Left: Microfinance, IMF style.Microfinance, microcredit, microlending – they all showed promise once. But the wrong players took advantage of early favorable reports. Today, borrowers — in Cambodia, in this case — suffer heavily from IMF policies.
Right: Chocolate hands. You can buy chocolate hands at shops in Antwerp. So what? Well, one of the colonial era’s great atrocities involves Belgians chopping off the hands of Africans.

Left: AidSpeak: The U.N. and NGOs talk of being “transformative.” In doing so, they reveal the arrogance and top-down mentality behind their smooth facades.
Right: Trojan Aid. The Trojans learned long ago that generous-looking gifts may just cause trouble. This 2-minute video shows how foreign aid pursues the same broad goals as colonialism of the past, but with a friendly-looking face.

Left: Do African perspectives matter? The Global Partnership for Education shapes education policy in 70 countries, mostly in Africa and Asia. Its CEO, chair, and 7-member evaluation team are from the USA, Australia, and Europe.
Right: Slavery and literacy: The U.N. herds African children into schools where they don’t even learn to read. U.S. plantations prohibited enslaved Africans from learning to read. There’s a pattern here. Just coincidence? Or should we pay attention?

Left: Bribes. UNICEF gave vehicles to Zimbabwean officials “to help review the school curriculum.” Nonsense. Thinly-disguised bribes ensure a warm welcome for foreign aid staff, who can then keep drawing big salaries.
Right: Why are schools so bad? For most of the world’s poorest children, school is a disaster. There’s a reason for that. The brief stories listed here explain how this system benefits interests in the West, which aggressively pushes it onto the South.

Left: Can aid be decolonized? Many people have proposed ways to address flaws in the aid system. It doesn’t happen, because the system is ALREADY working well — for those in charge. Here’s a look at why reform efforts won’t work.
Right: Why not just give them the money? Cash transfers — just giving aid money directly to those you wish to help — has a proven track record. Why does the aid industry dislike this approach?