Soros giving $27.4 million to village project

/ Source: The Associated Press

George Soros has pledged $27.4 million to aid development in targeted villages across rural Africa, the billionaire financier said Monday.

Soros also pledged up to $20 million in loans to support business projects within those villages over the next five years.

The founder and chairman of the Open Society Foundations thanked his board of directors Monday for backing his pledge to the Millennium Villages project despite early misgivings.

Soros says that board members opposed his giving any donations to the project when it was first launched five years ago, considering it risky. But he said he gave money anyway, "because it was my money" and the idea seemed "worth a shot." His $50 million pledge in 2006 was distributed over the next five years.

The project's track record has proved its success, said Soros. "It has been a big challenge, but the project has come a long way," he said.

The Millennium Villages project aims to help 500,000 people in 10 countries across Africa to reach U.N. development goals and offer a model for the remainder of the continent.

The global development goals, set by the United Nations in 2000, call on all member states to work to reduce child mortality by two-thirds and maternal mortality by three-quarters in 2015. Other goals include cutting extreme poverty by half, ensuring universal primary education, promoting gender equality and halting and reversing the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

A report on the project's first five years, released Monday, shows that the proportion of households in the targeted villages with access to improved drinking water soared to 68 percent from 17 percent, and students benefiting from school meal programs grew to 75 percent from 25 percent.

Average maize yields more than tripled during the same period, from 1.3 metric tons per hectare (2.5 acres) to 4.6 metric tons per hectare.

Directed by Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University's Earth Institute, the Millennium Villages Project operates closely with U.N. agencies and with the support of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

"We are thrilled by the rapid gains that the Millennium Village communities are making in the fight against poverty, hunger and disease," said Sachs, Ban's special adviser on the U.N. Millennium Development Goals project.