updated 9/13/2006 8:56:28 AM ET 2006-09-13T12:56:28

Billionaire financier and global philanthropist George Soros has dedicated $50 million to the anti-poverty work of the Millennium Village project in Africa, his largest commitment to a single entity in almost a decade.

The donation, to be officially announced Wednesday, is being matched by other donors to bring in $100 million for the project, which works to reduce extreme poverty in African communities through a multi-pronged approach covering areas such as health, education and food productivity.

“He just empowered us to do something that is incredibly important,” said Jeffrey Sachs, the anti-poverty expert who heads up the United Nations Millennium Project.

“The real payoff would be if it sets an example that can be replicated on a much larger scale,” Soros told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “If this prototype can be built on, then $50 million would be just a very small seed money for what might come out of it.”

The Millennium Village project covers 12 sites in 10 African countries, a total of 78 villages. Each village, averaging about 5,000 people, gets five years of support from experts to help lift itself out of poverty. That support includes cleaning up water sources, provision of basic education, and teaching people how to diversify crops and make the best agricultural choices.

For about $60 per villager per year, or about $1.5 million per village over the five years, the U.N.’s poverty reduction goals can be achieved, Sachs said. The first village started with the program about 2 years ago, with most of the rest starting up this year. That first village, Sauri in Kenya, has already seen a surplus in food production and an increase in school test scores.

Sachs said that after a fundraising goal of $100 million was set, he approached Soros, who through his Open Society Institute gives out hundreds of millions of dollars to a number of causes every year.

Soros agreed to commit $50 million over five years if matching donations could be found. Millennium Promise, the non-profit that manages the project on the ground, was able to tap into its network of supporters, and has almost all of that money raised, Sachs said. Soros contributed his first-year donation recently, said Laura Silber, director of public affairs for the Open Society Institute.

The overall donation from Soros, whose fortune is estimated at more than $7 billion, is the largest to a single entity since 1997, when he gave $50 million to advocate for the rights of immigrants, Silber said.

The knowledge that Soros’ support was imminent helped the Millennium Village project get off to a much bigger start than otherwise would have happened, Sachs said. The money from Soros and the matching donations funds 66 of the 78 villages in the project.

By having more villages involved, organizers can affect change on a larger scale in areas such as rebuilding health clinics and improving power grids and road systems, Sachs said.

Soros said the project was outside the usual scope of activities that he funds, which tend to fall under political development, but that the goals were in line with what he wanted to accomplish.

“I think that this is an ambitious enough program that it justified this size of commitment,” he said.

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