Fast-tracking development: A Ugandan village’s experience

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Ruhiira village in Uganda

As you climb up the winding reddish-coloured gravel road to Ruhiira - past endless dense plantations of matoke bananas - it can feel at first sight as if it is a world largely unchanged from when I was first working in Uganda close to 50 years ago.

Bananas were a staple then - for family consumption and as a mainstay of the local economy - and they still are today.

But the 50,000 or so people who live in this hilly district of small trading centres and scattered homesteads have been part of a high-profile aid initiative over the past nine years.

It is one of the locations across Africa chosen by the US economist Jeffrey Sachs to establish Millennium Villages - intended to be a model for accelerating the end of global poverty.

The Millennium Villages concept has been backed by the United Nations, preparing a string of summits this year as the world marks a transition from the Millennium Development Goals to broader and more ambitious Sustainable Development Goals.

The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, says the Millennium Villages are "showcasing how effective an integrated strategy for education, health care, agriculture and small business can be".

It is when you reach the ridge where Ruhiira's main trading centre has developed that you get a sense of how the area is changing.

Clustered around a crossroads, there are now several small grocery stores, shops selling medicines, hardware stores and eating places. There is a bar with a well-used billiards table on the veranda.

There are shops where you can draw money with a mobile phone. And there is a co-operative bank with customers queuing up for loans but, for now, with all too little capital to meet the demand.

There was scarcely any electricity in this area a few years ago. Then solar power started to make an appearance and now the grid is extending into the area too.

A large water tank at the Ruhiira trading centre - fed by piped water - shows progress, too, in the critical area of providing more people with access to clean and safe water.

Mr Sachs said that at the peak, the Ruhiira project was investing around $60 (£40) per person per year on health, education, water, sanitation, agriculture etc.

Ruhiira in numbers:

  • Proportion of population living on less than $1 a day down from 58% to 10% from 2006-2011
  • Improved access to clean water rose from 8% to 42%
  • Proportion of births attended by skilled health workers up from 8.5% to 79%
  • Proportion of pupils who complete primary school has risen from 30% to 80%.

(Source: Millennium Village project)

The funding is due to drop down to zero by the end of this year. But Mr Sachs believes even modest resources, if very well directed, can make a "huge" difference.

But the Ugandan government is stepping up its spending in the area, with the help of some funding from Islamic Development Bank and they are negotiating with other agencies.

Some people say they have seen far-reaching change in their lives during the period of the Millennium Village project.

Take Robert Nkunda, a 35-year-old farmer. He has been able to build a more substantial home and has wooden sheds for his livestock. In the fields around he grows maize, bananas, coffee and beans. But he could have felt that he had no future in this part of Uganda.

"My father died when I was still very young," he says. "We didn't have enough land. Only a plot where we lived.

Media caption,

Farmer Robert Nkunda has been helped by training in new agriculture techniques

"That is the reason I didn't go far in education. But I worked hard to buy this land where I am farming."

He hopes his children won't forget the land.

In the past many children used to drop out of primary school - girls, in particular.

Nyakamuri primary school packs 580 children into its single storey classrooms - one of which is now a solar-powered computer room.

The head teacher, Florence Kakiiza, describes the everyday challenges her pupils face:

"Most of them have to walk long distances," she says. "They don't have light to do homework and most don't have enough food at home.

"It is still a struggle but we are moving a bit on education… nearly every child is going to school."

Ms Kakiiza says one of the biggest challenges in education now is to see more girls in impoverished rural areas like this going to - and staying in - secondary school.

"Most rural girls still drop out of secondary schools," she says. "They get married when they are very young. They have many children from as early as 14."

The Community Health Workers who now provide a "front line" of health care across the Millennium Village area include family planning in the advice they give to villagers as they do their rounds - on bicycles.

But where they appear to have had most success is in helping in the effort to bring down once notoriously high levels of child and maternal mortality.

They have modern technology on hand for this - carrying smartphones with a special app to feed in data when they visit a pregnant mother or a newborn infant.

The Ugandan government has been investing about $8 per person in the health sector of the country, says David Siriri, a development expert working for the government.

"We came with a proposal that we invest at least $30... If the government mobilised its resources and prioritised it well that money can be got".

He said one thing already translated into policy at the national level is that the government is willing to pay more to doctors in rural, hard-to-reach areas.

This helps to keep them working there, and is already happening and paying dividends in Ruhiira, he added.

Critics of the Millennium Villages maintain they have achieved little in narrowing deeply rooted inequality, which is often exacerbated by the amount of land people have.

Project officials argue that they are showing the way to reducing inequality - and that progress is as much about changing mindsets as it is about aid.

The Millennium Voice radio station in Ruhiira airs villagers' concerns and offers advice and help.

Media caption,

Radio presenter at Millennium Voice, Hope Natumanya, says her show helps bring about change

The Millennium Village projects have provoked much debate. They will clearly prove their value by whether their achievements are sustained and shared by everyone - and are taken up elsewhere.