Image: Children study under a tree
Khalil Senosi  /  AP
Children study under a tree in a makeshift settlement outside the village of Dertu in northeastern Kenya. Dertu looks no different from thousands of villages that dot the impoverished landscape of sub-Saharan Africa, except for the cell phone tower that keeps it in touch with the outside world. This is one of 14 "Millennium Villages" envisioned as launch pads for a mass leap out of poverty, one of the targets which the U.N. set itself a decade ago, and which will be reviewed at a summit opening Monday.
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updated 9/19/2010 5:30:22 PM ET 2010-09-19T21:30:22

This village of straw huts sits on a sea of sand 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the nearest paved road. Camels and girls with jerrycans crowd around the watering holes. There's little electricity and not a single TV.

But on the edge of Dertu stands a shimmering sign of progress — a new cell phone tower. And that means farmers no longer have to travel for hours to learn the latest market prices; they can get them by text message.

It's one of many innovations that have come to some 6,000 people in eastern Kenya and to 13 other such villages scattered around 10 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. They are called Millennium Villages, designed to show how aid and smart, simple technology can advance the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals of dramatically reducing global poverty and boosting education, gender equality and health by 2015.

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The U.N. is hosting a summit in New York starting Monday to review progress since the goals were set 10 years ago.

About 70 percent of Dertu's people earn less than $1 a day, and most depend on food aid. The two-room hotel charges $1.25 a night. Generators and solar energy provide some basic needs, like charging cell phones, but the school's nine donated computers aren't yet connected to the Internet.

Not surprisingly, the advent of Millennium Village status four years ago generated exaggerated expectations, and now some villagers feel disappointed. There is also sharp debate between supporters and detractors about whether the idea can be "scaled up" into sweeping solutions for the world's poorest region.

Yet improvements can be seen in Dertu: four new health care workers, free medicines and vaccines, a birthing center and laboratory under construction, bed nets to ward of mosquitoes. In 2006, 49 percent of 916 individuals tested had malaria. That rate has dropped to 8 percent.

School attendance has doubled for boys and tripled for girls, there are high school scholarships and a dorm for boys. Each village gets $120 in spending per person per year, half from the villages project, the rest from the government or aid groups.

As a result, Dertu, which barely existed until UNICEF dug a well here 13 years ago, has become a magnet for surrounding villages.

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"A lot has to be done still to meet the Millennium Development Goals. A lot has been done and for that we are thankful," said Ibrahim Ali Hassan, a 60-year-old village elder with dyed red hair who waves a cell phone in his hand as he talks.

Of the complainers, he remarks: "They think now that we are a Millennium Village they will be built a house with an ocean view."

Mohamed Ahmed Abdi, 58, heads the Millennium Village Committee, liaison between the project and the villagers. He gripes that there are too few teachers, and that the well water is salty and unhealthy.

"There is a difference between what we have been told and what really exists. We have been told that 'Your village is the Millennium Village.' We have been told that 'You will get roads, electricity, water and education,'" he said.

The Millennium Villages are the brainchild of Jeffrey Sachs, the Columbia University economist who is special adviser to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the Millennium Development Goals.

Sachs readily acknowledges that Dertu hasn't made a breakthrough, calling it "one of the most difficult venues on the whole planet." But he points to other advances in lifting villages out of extreme poverty.

"I think on the whole they've been a tremendous success, not only in what they are accomplishing on the ground but also opening eyes to what can be accomplished more generally," Sachs told The Associated Press. "They're a proving ground of how to create effective systems in health, education, local infrastructure, business development and agriculture."

The project's report for this year says bed net use by children under 5 has risen from 7 percent to 50 percent across the 14 villages. Malaria rates have dropped from 24 percent to 10 percent. Maize yields are up, chronic malnutrition is down, more babies are delivered by health professionals.

Among the critics is Nicolas van de Walle, a fellow at the Center for Global Development and a professor at Cornell University.

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He says he admires Sachs for putting development on the agenda, "But, no, in general I think these villages are largely a gimmick and a substantial waste of money."

"The idea that if you spend a lot of money on poor villagers in Kenya, their lives will improve, is not seriously in doubt. The real issue is how to do this at a national level, in a sustainable way that builds individual and institutional capacity, empowers citizens and their democratically elected governments. It seems to me that in that sense the villagers have failed."

But Sachs singles out Nigeria as a nation that is taking his idea to the next level.

He said sub-Saharan Africa's most populous country is launching a major initiative next year, largely based on the Millennium Villages, that will reach 20 million people.

Dertu's ripple effect is felt five kilometers (three miles) away, in a temporary community of 250 nomads, where children were learning the alphabet under a tree fenced in by thorn bushes that keeps the lions away at night.

Eleven-year-old Ibrahim pointed at the chalkboard as 12 barefoot children recited "A is for apple, B is for boy..."

It was Sachs who hired them a teacher — 28-year-old Abdullahi Bari. He lives in a backpacker's tent, and when the nomads leave their straw huts to lead their camels, cattle, goats and sheep to greener pastures, Bari will go too.

"Whenever they move I move with them. I have my own camel," he said.

Bari faces a host of difficulties. None of the parents can read. Their kids herd animals and miss class. His oldest first-year student is 21. He hopes to teach the kids for three years, and send them to a boarding school in Dertu.

"It's hot during the day and there's not enough water. The water point is far away," Bari said. "It is a big challenge ... but we will try our best."

Mohammed Qumane Omar, the community's chief, a turbaned man with deep gray eyes, said he wants his children to have a better life than his. "I'm illiterate. I move around from place to place. The reason I settled here is so they can be closer to schools. I want them to be doctors, teachers, or even more than that."

One problem mentioned by Hassan, the tribal elder, is corruption, which critics of international aid often point to.

The Dertu project's previous coordinator was fired this year for misappropriating funds. Acting coordinator Patrick Mutuo, says his predecessor didn't follow procedures and visited the village rarely.

"With these weak procedures it is likely that money was lost," Mutuo said. He said he had no figure.

Still, Hassan says he gives "special thanks" to Sachs, while Sofia Ali Guhad, the head teacher at the Dertu school, reflects the problem of exaggerated expectations and the pitfalls of success. Because school enrollment is up, she needs more classrooms, desks and dorm space, plus quarters.

"The expectation was very high for the community, but we have received very little," Guhad said, but later added: "Life is good. In fact it has improved. They are assisting us as much as they can."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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