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ND joins ranks of Columbia with African effort

Amanda Michaels | Thursday, January 18, 2007

For an institution steeped in tradition, Notre Dame’s venture with the Millennium Villages Project has it treading on relatively fresh ground – so fresh, in fact, that only one other university in the world has been there before.

Though it has already sparked a worldwide effort, the Millennium Villages Project (MVP) is a very recent development, created by the Earth Institute at Columbia University – directed by economist and Notre Dame Forum speaker Jeffrey Sachs – in response to a set of Millennium Development Goals issued by the United Nations in 2002. Those goals include the reduction of extreme poverty, disease and hunger by 2015.

The Project’s first two research villages were established in 2005 – and, in addition to Notre Dame’s village in Nindye, Uganda, 10 more have already been added.

Commitment and connections were what allowed Notre Dame to become involved in MVP, according to Father Bob Dowd, director of the Notre Dame Millennium Development Initiative (NDMDI).

“Although other universities in the United States have expressed interest in participating in the project, only Notre Dame has actually made that commitment real at this point,” Dowd said. “We are blessed with a generous trustee and benefactor, Mr. Ray Chambers, who has offered to support the project in the name of Notre Dame.”

Chambers is chairman of Millennium Promise – the non-profit corporation behind MVP, whose declared mission is to end extreme poverty worldwide by 2025. University President Father John Jenkins also sits on Millennium Promise’s Board of Directors.

Notre Dame has also forged connections with Sachs and others at Columbia, who helped provide a model for university involvement in the MVP. Dowd said he and NDMDI assistant director Tim Lyden have spent time both with Sachs and the faculty and staff of the Earth Institute in order to learn from their experiences, and intend to keep in touch to share their own findings.

“That’s another great aspect of this project [NDMDI],” Dowd said. “We are not only collaborating with Uganda Martyrs University, but we are also working hand-in-hand with other universities so that we can learn about and contribute to human development as much as possible.”

While receiving guidance from other universities, Notre Dame will also be charting its own course with NDMDI. Dowd noted that not only does Nindye (the village where Notre Dame will be involved) present different challenges and situations than Ruhiira (where Columbia is involved), but that Notre Dame and Columbia themselves are very different institutions.

“There really is no template carved in stone that we attempt to replicate. […] Our strengths are different than Columbia’s strengths and our involvement in this project will be distinctive,” he said. “I cannot emphasize enough that what we make of this opportunity is up to us.”

And while Notre Dame’s Catholic character is perhaps its most notable difference from Columbia, Dowd said it was not a driving force in determining the University’s involvement.

“Religious affiliation should never be an issue when it comes to a project like this. Many members of the Notre Dame family may be involved in this project because we are motivated by our faith. This is great,” he said. “[…] However, this project is about human development, not about Catholic development, Protestant development or Muslim development. Religious sectarianism has absolutely no place in this project.”

Education, however, does have a place. Though MVP has other sources of funding and support – including everyone from individual donors to national governments – Dowd said educational institutions like Notre Dame and Columbia can play a unique role in the project.

“I think the distinctive contribution that a university makes has to do with research that is devoted to identifying and explaining change,” he said. “For example, as a social scientist, I want to know if Millennium Villages Project is actually empowering people as it is intended to do. If not, why not? … As students and professors, we can make contributions to the goals of the project through our research.”