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Why Bill Gates Gets It Wrong

NEW YORK – In his review of Nina Munk’s error-filled and out-of-date book, Bill Gates oddly abandons the rigorous approach to measurement and evaluation that defines his foundation’s invaluable work. He simply accepts Munk’s assertion that the Millennium Villages Project – an ongoing development project across more than 20 African countries – has failed. In fact, it is flourishing.

This credulousness is puzzling. Munk’s book covers only a sliver of the first half of a ten-year project, and only two of 12 villages. And she never “lived for extended periods in the Millennium Villages.” Munk spent an average of around six days per year – around 36 days over six years – actually visiting the villages, and usually at a stretch of 2-3 days. Moreover, she came to the story as a reporter for the magazine Vanity Fair, with no training or experience in public health, agronomy, economics, or African development.

Worse, Munk’s observations frequently seem to have been, at the very least, greatly exaggerated for narrative effect. Does Bill Gates really believe that I advocated specific crops without worrying about whether there was a market for them, or that I failed to consider national taxation in my ongoing advice to government leaders? Moreover, the agricultural strategies and choices in the MVP have been led by African agronomists, some of the very best in Africa – often working hand in hand with Bill’s own agricultural staff in the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).

Bill will be happy to know that the MVP will be properly and professionally evaluated next year – on time at its conclusion (and at the end of the Millennium Development Goals in 2015). The assessment will be based on the very considerable data that have been collected over the past decade, and on extensive new survey data that will be collected in 2015. Moreover, the evaluation will include comparisons with areas surrounding the Millennium Villages. In fact, I hope that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will help to carry out the detailed, independently supervised survey work needed for a full evaluation of this complex project.