Taking Concepts to Scale: Achieving the Millennium Development Goals in Nigeria

In September 2000, 189 countries gathered at the United Nations in New York to conceive and sign the Millennium Declaration, a consensus agreement built around eight development targets to be met worldwide by 2015. These targets, or Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), include the elimination of extreme poverty and hunger; universal primary education; reduced maternal and child mortality; gender equity; increased access to healthcare, water, and sanitation; protection of the environment; and global partnerships. Many countries, like Nigeria, fully embraced the MDGs as operational targets around which to mobilize and focus their development agendas.

At first glance, achieving these goals promptly in a country like Nigeria may seem like a pipedream. The eighth largest nation in the world, Nigeria hosts one-fifth of the population of Sub-Saharan Africa, over half of which lives on less than one dollar a day. It also faces a legacy of colonial and military rule that, via the strategy of divide and conquer, effectively transformed what was once a naturally rich and culturally diverse nation of over 350 ethnic groups and 200 languages into a resource-depleted, socially fragmented society with endemic corruption.

Yet, there is cause for optimism. Not only did Nigeria make history in late April with its first ever widely adjudged free and fair presidential election, but it just launched what has been described as the largest scale-up of MDG investment in the world, targeting nearly 25 million of its poorest residents. Perhaps even more remarkable, the initiative will be financed exclusively by the Nigerian government. Once one of Africa's most indebted nations, successful negotiation of debt relief with the Paris Club in 2005 facilitated an annual savings of $1 billion that was to be earmarked for development purposes. Amazingly, that's actually how it's being used.

Under the visionary leadership of Hajiya Amina M. Az-Zubair, Senior Special Assistant to the President on the MDGs -- now advising her third consecutive president -- Nigeria has made bold strides. In 2007, the Conditional Grants Scheme (CGS) was launched, a program that puts matched Federal funds from Debt Relief Gains behind locally-owned state and local government initiatives, thereby leveraging a greater quantum of resources dedicated to MDG-related efforts on the ground. Via its participatory process, CGS seeks to revitalize state and local governments and build capacity for better long term planning, investment, project management, governance, and accountability in key MDG areas.

The first three years of CGS were hugely successful; states designed and implemented jointly-funded initiatives that collectively increased access to primary healthcare for over 20 million people nationwide and improved access to safe drinking water for over six million people. Though difficult to quantify, the results speak for themselves; in the first year of its implementation, 98% of funded projects were successfully completed as planned, a feat that would be difficult to achieve even in the most developed of settings.

The scale-up initiative will expand upon the experience of the first few years of CGS and draw lessons from another program that has been underway during the same period: the Millennium Villages Project (MVP). MVP is a "proof of concept" model for integrated rural development intended to accelerate progress towards the MDGs; leading by example, MVP seeks to inspire governments, like Nigeria, to perceive and pursue the MDGs as achievable targets. The brain-child of Columbia Professor Jeffrey Sachs, Special Advisor to the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (and formerly to his predecessor, Kofi Annan) MVP aims to operationalize international pledges of development assistance from wealthy countries (0.7% of GDP) to achieve the MDGs in rural Africa. MVP budgets an investment of $120 per person, per year, which is consistent with these global targets; half of this comes from MVP ($60), whereas the rest comes from a combination of national governments ($30), other NGOs ($20), and the community itself ($10, in kind).

Working within this costing framework, MVP seeks to build on synergies between sectors via simultaneous targeted investments in the areas of health, education, agriculture, infrastructure, and business development. There are 14 MVP sites in ten African countries, two of which are located in Nigeria. Though only partway through the 10-year timeline for the program, preliminary results have been promising enough to inspire confidence in the value of sharing the experience more broadly. As expressed by a village king in one of the MVP sites, "what the world is doing is giving us something like a 'test case' which you can now work on and propagate throughout the whole country. That will now be a very positive gain for the whole country." Members of the Nigerian National Assembly were similarly impressed; a visit to one of the MVP sites ended up being one of the factors that tipped the scale in favor of the scale-up initiative moving forward.

Reaching the MDGs in the modern day is no longer about developing new technology; rather, innovation is needed in finding ways to deliver what are often simple tools (e.g. medicines, water) in effective and sustainable ways. Decades of failed initiatives have illustrated that development is, and must be, an active process wherein citizens not only participate in, but guide, the development of their own communities. Via this initiative, Nigeria intends to redefine the fight against poverty and, in so doing, permanently alter the development landscape as we know it.