Holidays in the Sun?

“Cheap holidays….in other peoples’ misery!” screams Johnny Rotten at the start of the Sex Pistols song Holidays in the Sun. Aid sceptic Bill Easterly seems to think that the Millennium Villages project, the brainchild of his sparring partner and aid champion Jeffrey Sachs, has gone beyond the pale by apparently taking the Sex Pistols’ message to heart and touting the poor as a tourist attraction.

Easterly was picking up on an earlier article in the Huffington Post by Magatte Wade, a Senegalese entrepreneur, that fired the opening salvo against the tourism initiative. Wade picked out rule 1 of the brochure for prospective visitors to Mayange, the Millennium Village in Rwanda: “Please do not give anything to the villagers – no sweets, cookies, empty water bottles, pens or even money.” “Condescension towards Africans is both offensive AND a sign of a counterproductive approach to development,” grumbled Easterly.

Millennium Villages have drawn plenty of criticism, particularly from commentators from the developing world, for being top-down, white-man-knows-best projects, with too much celebrity glitter (Madonna is one of the sponsors). In the book, we quote Indian social entrepreneur Bunker Roy, who claims, with what looks like considerable poetic licence, that he could use the money from one Millennium Village to feed 100,000 families.

Yet the tourism project has been defended with vigour by the Rwandan head of the Millennium Village at the centre of the controversy, again in the Huffington Post. Donald Ndahiro says that, rather than being imposed by Mr Sachs or his wannabee Albert Schweitzer minions, the tourism project was the brainchild of the community itself, with most of the money going back into projects such as building houses. Telling tourists not to hand out gifts, he says, was a deliberate decision by the villagers themselves, for fear of creating a dependency culture in Mayange.

Sachs has staked his reputation on the Millennium Villages project. He is not trying to lift a billion people out of poverty one village at a time, as some critics claim. The goal, in typical philanthrocapitalist style, is to lever wider change by piloting new ideas to create models that can be scaled up. According to Ndahiro, this is already happening, with ideas from Mayange now being adopted as part of the Rwandan government’s Vision 2020 national development plan. If the tourism works, let’s hope it gets adopted. If it doesn’t, let’s hope that Sachs will be open about it.