Posted on December 21, 2012 by Randy Wood, Senegal deputy resident country director
The brightly dressed men on horseback caught my attention first, but then I saw the man leading a camel to the front of the stage.
I was in Ndioum, in northern Senegal, where the Prime Minister Abdoul Mbaye and U.S. Ambassador Lewis Lukens were celebrating the groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of a new bridge built with MCC investments. This is part of MCC’s rehabilitation of two national roads that will create reliable, cost-effective and time-saving means of transporting locally produced agricultural products, as well as stimulate domestic and trans-border traffic and commerce.
The sun was high overhead the Sahel, and there was dust in the air.
Few projects are as breathtaking as the construction of a bridge: Where once rural farmers and their families struggled to cross a swollen river to access schools, hospitals and other services, soon they’ll simply walk across a new bridge. Revolutionary! But the most revolutionary changes are sometimes the simplest: The Ndioum Bridge will not only link one of Senegal’s richest agricultural areas to the mainland, but it also will link the people of the area known as the Ile à Morphile to the rest of their country. It’s a riverine island, with branches of the Senegal River flowing around both sides of the island’s fertile fields.
In finally providing the people of Ndioum with a bridge, MCC is helping fulfill a promise made to the people of Ndioum more than 40 years ago.
It’s a promise the people have waited patiently to see become a reality. The horsemen and the camel herder weren’t elaborate props for the event; they were residents of Ndioum with their steeds, turned out in their finest traditional clothing to witness the groundbreaking and express their gratitude for the work and perseverance that led to overcoming Ndioum’s isolation after so many years.
It’s easy to lose perspective in the paperwork of making these projects a reality: the reports, the collaborative process, the endless email, the calendars and contracts, and the elaborate, technical terms of reference. But then you look up, and hundreds and hundreds of people have come out under the hot noonday sun in a swoon of emotion to express their gratitude for the project, and you realize that it’s not just a project and some deadlines. It’s a bit of infrastructure that is going to revolutionize the lives of Senegal’s poorest.
In two short years, the people of Ndioum won’t need to wait for the wooden canoe to take them across the river, won’t need to worry about flash floods roiling the river’s muddy surface and won’t need to worry if they need a doctor in the middle of the night.
That’s revolutionary. And that’s why we’re here.
Posted on December 12, 2012 by Courtney Engelke , Director
Many people in the United States and Mongolia refer to Mongolia’s Energy and Environment Project as “the stoves program.” While it is true that the project has successfully supported consumer purchases of more than 90,000 stoves in Ulaanbaatar, did you know that it also supported the purchase of nearly 25,000 other energy-efficient appliances like insulation, vestibules and energy efficient homes? Did you know that the project also supported small grants for greening and air quality research and the replacement of 15 heat only boilers at 10 student and residential sites throughout the city, representing more than 8 megawatts of heating capacity? And did you know that approximately $6.6 million of the project budget is dedicated to infrastructure and other support for the 50-megawatt wind farm now under construction at Salkhit Mountain?
The project recognized early on that it would not be able to resolve the capital city’s air pollution problem by itself, so we planned to make additional contributions beyond stoves in an effort to demonstrate what works. The Energy and Environment Project intends to provide a short term “bridge” to longer term solutions, such as developing a commercial market for energy efficient products, which we hope might be brought about through the application and enforcement of standards, certification and labeling policies, competition, and affordable finance, and providing more permanent housing and municipal infrastructure.
On my most recent visit to Mongolia, I confirmed that 15 heat only boilers were replaced with more efficient technologies and wet scrubbers to control particulate emissions. I also visited the expanded and upgraded Nalaikh substation, and confirmed the installation of a fiber optic cable that links that substation to the National Dispatching Center control system. I was also pleased to see the first three of 31 General Electric turbines installed at the very windy Salkhit site—a major step toward making the planned wind farm a reality.
The Energy and Environment Project will connect the wind farm to the national grid and train electrical dispatchers to manage variable power with the help of a dispatch training simulator. These achievements would have been impossible without the concerted cooperation of MCA-Mongolia, its consultants, contractors, the Ulaanbaatar government, the national grid company, the national dispatching center, and Clean Energy LLC, the sponsor of the Salkhit wind farm.
Each time I visit Mongolia, I increasingly see the positive impact that stoves are having on air quality and the daily lives of Ulaanbaatar’s poor. What I had not seen until this trip was the project’s larger-scale emissions control initiatives, such as the replacement of the boilers and progress toward the displacement of approximately 50 megawatts of thermal generation that will result from the Salkhit wind farm. As our experience has shown, controlling emissions at the household level in the ger districts is an incredible challenge. Single source solutions represented by heat-only boilers and the Salkhit wind farm demonstrate opportunities to control and reduce air pollution at greater scale, which we hope will help Mongolia more rapidly achieve and sustain its air quality goals.
Posted on December 6, 2012 by Howard W. Buffett, Executive Director, The Howard G. Buffett Foundation
The role of philanthropy is changing for the better, and with the October 24th release of its first five impact evaluations, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) is helping lead that change. For too long, funding for development – both private and public – has not been held accountable on measuring real impact. There are many reasons for this. It can be challenging, time-consuming and expensive to determine precisely which elements of complex aid packages are reducing poverty, and it can be even more difficult to justify investing in building evidence for what works when resources are scarce and the development need is so great. Any philanthropist constantly faces this tension, and we have found that it becomes tempting to look only at easily measurable activities like farmer training or direct measures of success like improving farmer yields – areas where we can directly observe how we are addressing poverty. The truth is, this approach both inhibits creative solutions and confines long-term decision-making. In the end, until we know what really works and why, we are destined to repeat the mistakes of the past and run the risk of missing enormous opportunities to build support for the real “game changers.”
I learned firsthand about MCC’s work when I served in government, and I often find myself gaining new insights from their experiences. Their recent release of the analysis of their impact evaluation is one of those moments. In fact, of the five impact evaluations just released, The Howard G. Buffett Foundation’s interests overlap with four of them: we also do smallholder farming training in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Ghana. Given the scale at which MCC works, we contacted them to learn as much as we could from their experience.
MCC has some important lessons for the development community – other U.S. agencies, donors, multinational corporations working in emerging markets, and philanthropies alike stand to learn a great deal. In the recently released “Impact Evaluations of Agriculture Projects,” part of MCC’s compelling Principles into Practice series, they have identified five key maxims that should be taken into account by all of us:
- Define early the program logic and objectives of the evaluation, and how to integrate the two.
- Engage early and communicate often.
- Foster joint ownership by aligning incentives.
- Match evaluation methodology and program design.
- Focus on long-term impacts but be prepared to show early results.
Gaining these important insights has taken time, expertise and resiliency. As MCC has been bold to admit, in a refreshingly forthright and transparent fashion, it also takes occasional failures. As our foundation has learned, mistakes are unavoidable, but they only truly become mistakes when you fail to learn from them. Our foundation has spent the last 15 years and over $300 million across more than 70 countries, and we have made our fair share of errors along the way. Without rigorous evaluations to understand why goals are not always fully achieved, we can miss out on learning from those mistakes and miss the opportunity to share that learning with others.
MCC’s first set of independent impact evaluations raises some interesting questions about training farmers and how to measure the most important impact we all want to achieve: fostering prosperity and improving livelihoods. For example, in the three projects where MCC’s investments in training and improved inputs led to increased farmer incomes, these increases did not also result in increased income for the household as a whole. How can this be true? MCC has several theories: small farmer households typically derive income from a number of sources and it may be that increased farm income reduces the pressure to produce income elsewhere; it may be a data collection problem where current measures of household income are not accurately capturing reality; or it may be some other reason. MCC does not yet have a definitive answer, but by identifying the question, they can better guide their analysis of existing data and improve the data collection for the pipeline of project evaluations that are in process to find the answer. This will in turn inform program design, which will help all of us investing in farmer training. MCC’s approach and knowledge base has already encouraged our foundation to make a larger investment in agriculture in El Salvador, and it has informed the design of a new initiative that we are beginning in Ghana.
Learning lessons in the absence of a strong evaluation mechanism is a painful, time-consuming and expensive way to learn, but it is not uncommon in development. By focusing on learning as much as we have focused on doing, we can all become smarter, more efficient and more focused on ideas that actually have more lasting impact in the long run. That’s why MCC’s approach is effective: they invest in accountability and transparency upfront so they can learn faster and improve their work more quickly and cost-effectively over the long-run. By sharing that knowledge with all of us, we all have the opportunity to learn.
This transparency and honesty sets an example for our sector, and we all stand to benefit by being more efficient in our investments. MCC’s first five impact evaluations are a landmark step toward smarter, better and more accountable development around the world –and at a time when it could not be needed more.
Posted on December 3, 2012 by Patrick Fine , Vice President, Compact Operations
As the bottom of our vehicle scraped the rutted, dusty path, I found myself hoping it had protective metal plates on the undercarriage. I was in Namibia to see MCC-financed activities in education, tourism and agriculture development, now in their third year of implementation. We were on our way to Nghishongwa, a remote community in the Ohangwena region of northern Namibia that is participating in the community based rangeland and livestock management (CBRLM) activity of the Agriculture Project, part of MCC’s $304 million compact.
The countryside here is wild and arid. The track we traveled went through a forest of scrubby acacia trees. In contrast to the thick grasslands we had passed in the fenced freehold areas to the south, this communal land looked barren, stripped of almost all vegetation except for the acacia; I wondered how cattle could survive at all. And that’s the point, as Dr. Helmke Sartorius von Bach, a Namibian of German descent whose family has farmed the Namibian veld for three generations and who serves as the MCA-Namibia Director for Agriculture, reminded me. “The communal lands are overgrazed and exhausted. We are working with communities to manage communal grazing areas and to improve animal husbandry so that families can shift from traditional methods to livestock management practices that will increase income and sustainability. There is great potential here but it needs to be managed,” he explained.
After nearly an hour making our way, we emerged into a broad clearing. At one end, there was a collection of mud and wattle huts with thatch roofs. Where, I wondered, did they find thatch in this barren landscape? To the side was a traditional cattle enclosure and not far away, a hand-dug watering hole. Sitting under a tall Marula tree was the chairman of the community association and some members and neighbors. The chairman’s lean frame, wrinkled face and gray head gave him the look of a traditional farmer. Like many Owambo elders, he wore a red and white striped shirt. Although I didn’t ask him, I would guess he did not have the opportunity to go to school, due to the lack of schools in rural parts of Namibia during the apartheid era. His deputy was perhaps 20 years old and held the association’s grazing area management book and was keen to answer my questions about life in the community:
“How far do you have to take the cattle to find grazing?” I asked. “At least two hours in each direction, but with the project’s help we are combining our herds with our neighbors so we can protect some areas,” he replied.
“Is there a general store that sells basic supplies like sugar, flour, tea, and agriculture supplies?” “No,” he said. “The closest store is about 24 kilometers away, down the path that brought you here. That is where the clinic is, too.” With no public transportation and no sign that any of the community members had a vehicle, I could picture community members using a wheelbarrow to carry a sick person down that rutted path to the clinic.
“What about a school?” “Oh, yes,” he said. “It’s not far from here. It goes to grade 6. After that you have to go to the town.” I was impressed by the earnestness of this young man and by the fact that this well-spoken, sincere young person had chosen to stay in this remote community. Curious about him, I asked, “Did you go to high school?” “Yes,” he replied proudly; then he hesitated and looked down at the ground, “I only finished grade 10.”
“Your community is fortunate that you have decided to stay and help them improve their farming. Tell me about what you are doing here.” I felt a deep sense of respect and appreciation for this young man’s contribution to his community. On the drive back to the main road I thought about how often in the development community we talk about the importance of education and building capacity and that what we are talking about are people like this young man who bring new skills and ideas to their communities.
During my trip to Namibia, I was fortunate to meet with a cross section of civil society and government leaders. The ministers of education and agriculture and the deputy director of Etosha National Park were impressive, articulate leaders, as were the heads of local NGOs that work on MCC-financed activities. All are just the type of committed counterparts MCC looks for in its partner countries. And while I gained a lot from the high level meetings, it was the sincerity and determination I saw on my visit with the members of the Nghishongwa community that reminded me why U.S. assistance in poor communities so far away really matters.
As we bumped back down the dirt path, I felt a sense of hope that MCC’s investment in community based livestock management will result in a better life in this distant community and for the association chairman’s kids and grandkids to have opportunities that he didn’t.