Food and Development

Food and development

E. N. Anderson

“The first law of economics is that for every economist there is an equal and opposite economist,… and the second law is that they are both invariably wrong.”  (Paul Sillitoe, 2010:xvii.)


“Hunger claims the lives of 20,000 children a day.  Worldwide, one of every three children is underweight and malnourished” (Gitlin 2006:1252).

Even so, at least the general worldwide availability of food is one of the few problems that have been solved—at least temporarily—in the last 50 years.  The residual problems of impoverished children are serious, but could be eliminated quickly and totally by simply providing access.

In 1967, the United States Government issued a report, The World Food Problem, involving contributions by dozens of leading experts.  They painted a grim picture:  widespread starvation and famine, hopelessly inadequate food resources, and rapidly increasing populations.  Humanity was falling farther and farther behind in its efforts to feed itself.  A book in the same year was titled Famine—1975! The authors, William and Paul Paddock, confidently predicted worldwide starvation by that date.

The date rolled around, and no famines happened.  By 2000, for the first time in all human history, there was actually enough food produced to give everyone on the planet a fully adequate diet.  A billion people were still hungry, but not for absolute lack of food; their problem was that they were too poor to afford it, even at the lowest prices.  They were balanced by a billion overfed people, many of them in Third World countries.  Technology of production had outrun social justice.

Actually, even as the 1967 report was being written, the seeds of change were sown.  These were not metaphoric seeds, but literal ones.  In the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Banos, Philippines, and in the Center for Improvement of Maize and Wheat (CIMMYT) in Mexico, scientists had developed high-yield strains of those crops.  IRRI began with the tough, adaptable, highly productive Taiwanese rices, already bred for higher yield by Japanese and Chinese scientists.  CIMMYT built on the spectacular developments that occurred in the United States in the early 20th century, transferring ideas and techniques, developing new ones, working with creative drive to raise the yields of Latin American grains.  Maize proved hard to work with; Mexico’s incredibly hard-working indigenous farmers had already developed it to a high point.  Wheat, however, went through the same transformation that wheat had recently undergone in the temperate zone: from a crop yielding a mere few hundred pounds per acre to one yielding many thousands of pounds.  The Green Revolution had begun.  A conference in Bellagio in 1969 made it official:  the world had decided to breed better crops to feed more people (L. Hardin 2008).

The first efforts of these two centers did not bring perfection.  The new varieties needed so much fertilizer—and, often, pesticides—that poorer farmers could not afford to grow them.  These farmers were, inevitably but ironically, the ones who most needed the food.  Moreover, many of the poorest farmers did not grow the three “highline” crops at all; they grew barley, manioc, potatoes, sorghum, millets—less desirable and often less nutritious foods.

Back to the drawing board.  The centers were widely copied; centers for potatoes, for tropical roots, for beans and lentils, for millets and other grains arose around the world.  Meanwhile, the two original leaders kept at work, developing high-yield strains that needed less and less fertilizer, less and less pest control.  Crops were developed for deserts, marshes, mountains, bogs.  At the same time, local and commercial breeders were at work, developing more productive or nourishing varieties of soybeans, cucumbers, apples, and hundreds of other food crops.  By the end of the century, the human species had the potential to feed its six billion living members with ease.  Problems of access remained, but they were largely due to local government policies that discriminated against poor farmers, not to Green Revolution technology (this claim has been challenged, but see e.g. Vaclav Smil, Feeding the World (2001)—the best current book on the world food problem (see also environment references below:  Daily 1997; Daly 1997; Ehrlich and Ehrlich 2004; Ehrlich et al 1995; Farley and Daly 2003; Hardin 1968, 1991; Ostrom 1990; Ponting 1991; Van Dieren 1995).

However, getting food to the hungry involves much more than growing it.  Somebody has to harvest it, get it to market, store it, process it, distribute it, sell it to consumers.  These consumers have to cook it and share it among family members.

Half a billion people in south Asia, and a third of a billion in Africa, live on less than $1 a day.  Some of them can raise their own food, but some are urban, or are landless rural poor, and must buy food—at roughly US supermarket rates.  Clearly, they will not be well-nourished; a quarter to a third of the people in those areas are under-nourished, as well as about 10-12% of the rest of the world (Seattle Times 2006).  About 20% of humanity—almost 1 ½ billion people—live in poverty.  This is far more than the total population of the world in 1900.

At every stage, there are problems.  Consider storage:  a large figure—estimates range from 15% to 25%–of the world’s food is simply lost to weevils, rats, and spoilage.  Of course, the worst problems are in the hungriest lands, where storage facilities are of the cheapest and least adequate order.  Consider also sales.  People have tastes.  Most Europeans think maize is fit only for animals.  Chinese hate sweet potatoes (a traditional poverty food).  Americans reject barley (except for beer!) and millets.  Sharing with the family is another problem.  When food is short, the most productive workers get the food—or sometimes just the strongest person at the table.  In much of the world, women and girls are routinely shortchanged (see Elisabeth Croll, Endangered Daughters, 2000).

Much more serious is the problem of government irresponsibility.  Some governments simply don’t care.  Amartya Sen has argued for many years that no natural famines have occurred since the Depression; all recent famines have been due to war or to outright governmental intransigence (as classically shown by Amartya Sen; a recent famine in Ethiopia is an exception, and may mean trouble for the future—Ethiopia is so ecologically devastated that not even peace and relative democracy can save it).  Spectacular examples have been China’s “Great Leap Forward” (a misnamed campaign that claimed tens of millions of lives); Ethiopia’s famine due to political meanness in the 1970s and 80s; famines following the successful breakaway of Bangladesh from Pakistan and the unsuccessful attempt of Biafra to break away from Nigeria.  More recently, famines have accompanied civil war or genocidal violence in Afghanistan, Sudan, Sierra Leone, and several other countries.

Even if famine is averted, governments may not do much for the poor.  It is hard to believe that people are starving in the United States, a country which throws away millions of tons of high-quality food every day.  Yet, approximately 1,000,000 children live in extreme poverty, their parents unable to afford decent food.  A comparable (but unknown) number of old people live in equally desperate want.  Isolated communities in Alaska, South Dakota, and the Appalachians are short of food.

The desperation is proportionately worse in the marginal parts of India, Brazil, or the Sahara Desert borderlands.  These areas have no food to throw away; they cannot feed themselves.  They rely on uncertain aid from elsewhere.

In short, humanity has solved the world food problem.  It has not, however, solved the world food distribution problem.  Technology of production has run far ahead of the social mechanisms that should ensure that every farmer has access to that technology and that every hungry person has access to the result.

As of 2007, 800 million to a billion people are hungry and lack food security.  Most live in the rural parts of the Third World.  Africa has the worst problems, but the Indian subcontinent has the most people in trouble, since it has more people than the whole African continent; of the 146 million underweight children in the world, 57 million are in India, another 8 million in Bangladesh, another 8 in Pakistan.  Similarly, 11.4 million underweight babies are born every year in that subcontinent, as opposed to only 4 in Africa (Pinstrup-Andersen and Cheng 2007).

Famines, and indeed most food shortages, are due to political mismanagement, not sheer lack of food.  Both low production and lack of transportation from more fortunate regions are political, not agricultural, problems, as shown by Amartya Sen long ago (Sen 1973, 1984, 1997; see also, for this and the following sections, Sen 1975, 1992, 1993, 1999a, 1999b, 2001).


At every stage of the process, anthropologists were involved in the efforts to feed the world.  The late Robert Rhoades, for instance, was director for 16 years of the International Potato Center in Peru—the world center for developing that crop, which is one of handful of staples that feed most of the world.  (The world’s most important food crops, by far, are wheat, rice, and maize.  Another tight cluster—barley, potatoes, sorghum, and manioc—comes next.)

Botanists, farmers, and anthropologists fanned out over the world, seeking local strains of rice, manioc, bananas, lentils, ocas, ullucos—anything that would feed the starving.  Indigenous crop varieties, sometimes grown by only one or two farmers, held all manner of rare genes for high yield, for insect resistance, for immunity to plant diseases, for nutritional superiority.  Finding these strains and bringing them to the centers was hard detective work.  Harder still was finding appropriate compensation for the local farmers who supplied these crops (often worth thousands of times their weight in gold).  Thus, for example, the good folk of Chiloe Island, Chile, made a good living from their wondrously diverse potato patches.

More important was the role of anthropologists in understanding the plight of needy farmers and needy consumers.  Anthropologists were probably the most important single group emphasizing this in the early Green Revolution days, when growing the high-yield strains required money to buy seed, fertilizer, and pesticides.  Tougher strains and better government programs for farmers were the result.  (These are still inadequate, though improvement has been spectacular; anthropologists keep up the fight.)  Anthropologists such as Johan Pottier (The Anthropology of Food, 1999) and Elisabeth Croll have written at length on food security, storage, and the local effects of national policies.  Anthropologists have concentrated on the issue of food distribution in families, emphasizing, for instance, the tendency to shortcount the female side of the household (Croll) or the children.  The result has been a flurry of programs, conferences, and resolutions, around the world.  People are much better fed than they were even ten years ago.

In all these cases, anthropologists worked with biologists, crop scientists, sociologists, public health workers, economists, or other scientists.  Never is one discipline enough.  Each has its special areas of competence.  Anthropologists are best at assessing local situations, especially in small communities, and perhaps most especially in the least affluent ones.  It is not that anthropologists have some special affinity for the poor; the problem is that few individuals in the other fields, with the signal exception of public health, ever visit the poor at all.  The financiers who administer the World Bank and other international financial institutions, for instance, spend their time in marble halls, and rely on staff anthropologists for what they know of life in the hills of India or paddies of Laos.

Anthropologists are best at learning good local ideas for working the land and using resources.  All cultures include huge amounts of excellent, accurate knowledge of their traditional landscapes, including plants and animals.  Drawing on this knowledge is vitally important for development; without it, plans fail, but with it, plans can succeed very well indeed.  Thus a huge industry has developed to find and use such local ideas (Bicker et al. 2004; Gonzalez 2001; S. Laird 2002; many references therein).  There are, however, unresolved problems of how to take these ideas out of their traditional cultural context—very often religious—and how to deal with the intellectual property rights questions involved.  If a local community has an idea or a crop that revolutionizes world farming, the community must be compensated somehow, but how to do this presents difficult problems (see the same sources).

The major result of this work has been a revolutionary change in attitudes toward the world’s small farmers.  It has been slow in coming, and thus has been often unnoticed, but it has been none the less dramatic for that.  In the early 20th century, most planners and governments agreed that small farmers were conservative, tradition-bound, “superstitious,” “ignorant,” and even “backward” and “stupid.”  Anthropologists were rapidly learning otherwise.  By the late 1960s, it had become obvious to all anthropologists working in the area that small farmers are, by and large, a very clever and aware group of people.  They leap at any chance to improve their lives.  Their conservatism, when it indeed manifests itself, is due to two things.  First, they have a healthy fear of risk.  Trying something new involves uncertainty.  Failure, for a small farmer, is apt to mean starvation not only of the farmer but of the whole family.  It is not surprising that the poorer the farmer the less likely he or she is to take chances—though middle-income farmers may be less risk-averse than more established ones (Cancian 1979).  Second, small farmers have little money.  Anything new and expensive cannot be tried, unless the farmer can borrow money at reasonable rates of interest.  Many small farmers not only lack money, they have to borrow it at usurious interest rates—up to 100% in three months.  This makes innovation virtually unthinkable.

Armed with this new knowledge of small farmers, the architects of the Green Revolution targeted them, and tried to get them into credit programs that would provide low-interest loans.  This in turn paid off in spectacularly rapid adoption of the new technology.  Critics had previously said that the Green Revolution would never fly because small farmers were too tradition-bound to accept it.  Very soon, the criticism was that farmers were adopting it too fast—without enough consideration of the costs.  These included environmental damage caused by fertilizers and pesticides; nutritional damage caused by improved crops displacing more nutritious food crops such as lentils and vegetables; and, perhaps most serious, social damage caused by rapid change.  The worst social damage occurred—predictably—where cheap loans did not keep up with needs.  In such circumstances (South India was a classic case), only the rich could modernize, leaving the poor literally in the dust.  Once again, anthropologists were the ones finding out most of this.

Anthropological findings about the sophistication of small farmers are really paying off as we move into the post-Green Revolution period.

The Green Revolution was a quick fix.  It massively and dramatically increased world production of staple foods.  But it was a one-time thing, and it is absolutely not adequate for the future.  For one thing, “man does not live by bread alone” (as the Bible says).  Not only do humans need the things of the spirit (which is what the Biblical verse is saying), but they also need protein, vitamins, and minerals, far beyond what is found in grains and potatoes.  As we have seen, Green Revolution crops tended to displace the low-yielding but nutritionally necessary crops that provide those nutrients.  For another thing, the Green Revolution in its initial form carried environmental costs that could not be sustained.  Fertilizers and pesticides poisoned water supplies and killed valuable fish.  Soil erosion and exhaustion followed intensive planting of grain.  Deforestation occurred as people planted more area.  Irrigation vastly expanded, leading to desperate shortages of water in many areas.

Thus, by the 1980s, technologies were being developed that could manage to produce more nutrition with less input of chemicals and water.  Anthropologists and other village-level investigators found countless traditional and local techniques, crops, and social arrangements that were valuable in this agenda.  One dramatic finding, by anthropologists James Fairhead and Melissa Leach (1996), involved tree-growing in West Africa.  Indigenous people had been accused of deforesting the land.  Fairhead and Leach were able to show that the land had previously been grassland with a few groves, and the residents had actually increased the forest cover, by protecting or planting trees.  Another dramatic finding came from Bali.  Green Revolution planners tried to take over irrigation from the religious-based subak associations that managed water there.  Disaster ensued.  Stephen Lansing (1991) showed that in fact the subaks were managing water about as well as could be done.  For instance, they knew how to control water to drown out pests—or, alternatively, to kill them by drying them off.  Lack of knowledge of these techniques had led the Green Revolution planners to create an unwanted pest explosion.  So control went back to the subaks, and order was restored—thanks to anthropologists bringing the value of the traditional system to world attention.  Similarly, Gene Wilken (a geographer, but anthropologically knowledgeable) showed that traditional techniques of cultivation in Guatemala and south Mexico were ideal for local purposes, and had to be maintained if development was to work (Wilken 1987).

In short, anthropologists were particularly important in three ways:

First, bringing valuable local crops, varieties, and techniques to world attention.

Second, showing that local people knew a great deal and were excellent planners.  They would quickly adopt good ideas, if they could.  They even had their own good ideas to give in exchange.

Third, and most important of all, anthropologists could find out how to manage programs at the local level so that local people actually benefited.  Too often in this world—and not just in food production development—the best of intentions lead to the worst of outcomes.  Anthropologists can find out what is wrong, or (better) what might go wrong, and suggest appropriate actions.

Today, literally thousands of projects around the world draw on anthropological expertise in working with local small-scale farmers.

The world food problem continues.  As world population rises, more and more pressure is being put on farmland, water, forests, and indeed all natural resources.  A radical increase in use of traditional crops and techniques is seriously needed.  Yet, also, there must be increases in use of innovations.  Not only new technologies, but new economic and social arrangements, are necessary.  Anthropologists become more and more valuable as these pressures build.

From this story of relative success, we learn several things.

First, the world is in trouble.  Food is only the most obvious and immediate of a whole class of problems.  Far more serious and intractable are social problems.

Second, problems are not insoluble.  As of the 1960s, the world food problem seemed so overwhelmingly massive that many people gave up all hope.  Global famines were confidently predicted.  A relatively small number of scientists and planners carried on in the face of incredible odds.  They won.  Victory is not forever—each generation must fight its own war on hunger—but victory has been very sweet, while it lasts.

Third, anthropologists were effective only when they worked with other experts: geneticists, technicians, agricultural extension workers, economists, on-the-ground people such as Peace Corps volunteers, and so on.  Sometimes the anthropologists worked directly with these other specialists; more often, contact was through publication and electronic communication.  The point is that the information got passed around.  Anthropologists were particularly useful when involved in planning programs for local development.  When anthropologists were not involved in such plans, the plans very often failed.  (Then, often, anthropologists were called in to do a post-mortem—thus gaining an unfair reputation as “mere critics.”)

Fourth, problems can be solved only if the billions of ordinary people on this planet are involved in the solution.  This requires anthropological effort.  Anthropologists are the people who specialize in finding out what is happening in small, isolated, remote, or impoverished communities, and bringing this knowledge to the wider world.  They find real problems, and also valuable knowledge.  The former guide planners in making wiser plans.  The latter—the indigenous and local knowledge—is what is really valuable, however.  The world depends on the accumulated wisdom of those billions of people in thousands of communities.  We do not have time to learn everything from scratch, nor are most laboratory scientists interested in the questions involved.  We have to depend on what we as humans have found out in the last millennia.

Let us consider a few case studies.

Cooperatives in Hong Kong

Producer cooperatives were introduced in the early 20th century, to bring producers together in associations that could eliminate middlemen.  The coop would do the assembling, warehousing, and marketing, thus rendering unnecessary the middlemen, who tended to buy at low prices and charge high fees.  Producers’ coops worked very well in many places, including southern California:  Calavo for avocados, Sunkist for citrus.

In the 1940s through 1960s, British developers often thought that coops were the gold standard for development, and many of their coop schemes worked quite well.  In Hong Kong, the colonial administrator and biologist G. A. C. Herklots was identified especially with building up vegetable and fishery production and incomes through coops.

In 1965-66 and again in 1974-75, I studied the fishery at Castle Peak Bay, in the western part of the New Territories of Hong Kong.  Hong Kong was then a British colony (Anderson 1970 and in prep.; Anderson and Anderson 1978).

During this period, cooperatives flourished at Castle Peak.  They were just coming in as of 1965.  They then involved only a few small-scale fishermen.  However, the government pushed them enthusiastically, mainly through their tireless, honest, and politically savvy local agent Choi Kwok-Tai.

The situation as of 1965 was this.  About 18 large-scale fish-buyer firms, known as laan (roughly, “warehouse”), virtually monopolized fish assembling and dispatching to urban markets.  The fishermen not only depended on the laans for selling their fish, but also for capital; they borrowed from the laans against future catches.  The laans formed a tight association—informal but rock-solid—and agreed to charge exceedingly high interest rates while paying minimal prices for fish.  A free, competitive market would have changed this, but the laans resisted any such idea.

The fishermen’s coops were designed to get around this by providing capital.  Fishermen could pool resources, loan money, and pay back the coop at low interest rates.  This took advantage of a pre-existing pattern of small informal credit rings of the sort found in many small producer communities worldwide.

Naturally, any fisherman who took out a coop loan endangered his ability to get loans from the laans.  This was a real problem at first, because the coops were small and poor (the richer fishermen stayed with the familiar laans), and thus had insufficient capital to deal with needs for a new boat or engine.  However, persistence paid off.  The coops grew until, by 1974, they were formidable competitors with the laans.

Meanwhile, the fishermen agitated for a government market, and that was built in the early 1970s.  By 1974, it was in full operation.  The competition of the coops and the market humbled the laans, who stayed in business by providing much better terms.  Development worked; the fishery flourished.

Unfortunately, success was ironically short-lived.  Overfishing and pollution wiped out most of the Hong Kong fishery, and all the Castle Peak Bay fishery, before 2000.

Moral:  It’s a waste of time to carry out even the best of deck-chair rearrangements on the Titanic.  Better watch for icebergs.  The coops were a wonderful, successful idea—but someone should have been watching what was happening to the fish.  No one was.

Cooperatives in Malaysia

Between stints in Hong Kong, I studied Chinese fishermen in Penang, Malaysia, in 1970-71.  Here, the same cooperative plan was attempted.  It failed totally.  Why?

First, as shown by my friend and helper, the brilliant local economist Ooi Sang-kuang, the fish buyers were in full free competition in Penang.  Competition had forced the price of capital down to a hair, and the prices of fish were forced up to fairly decent levels.

Second, now it can be told (I didn’t dare say it at the time):  the head of cooperatives in Penang was thoroughly corrupt—a crook if I ever saw one.  He was in league with whoever had power and money, and that did not include the fishermen.  He did not serve their interests well.  He and his local agents acted mainly to maintain government power, not to make the coops work.  Fortunately for the fishermen, the government’s Dept. of Fisheries was as honest and hard-working as the cooperative agents were in Hong Kong, so the fishery stayed in business.

Third, the same problems with overfishing and pollution surfaced.  In this case, however, people really were trying to fix them.  Local communities had defined areas of sea tenure—exclusive zones where only they could fish.  They maintained these with ferocious zeal, sometimes even killing poachers.  The government marine police also tried to stop overfishing.  Unfortunately, there were too many poachers, and the overzealous communities that killed poachers did not make themselves popular with the government by their vigilante tactics.  More seriously, the government was not interested in the fishery, partly because it was ethnically Chinese at a time when the government wished to build up Bumiputra (Malay-speaking) economies.  So regulation broke down, and the fishery collapsed, helped not at all by the coops.

Zapotec rugs

My “research” in Teotitlan del Valle was confined to one pleasant day, so I will draw largely on Lynn Stephen’s classic research there (Stephen 1991).

When I was young, the Zapotec of the mountains of Oaxaca wove coarse wool blankets for the cold nights.  (The Zapotec are a Native American group, speaking a cluster of closely related languages.  The name “Zapotec” was given them by their Nahuatl neighbors, and means, roughly, “fruit growers”—which they are.)  These blankets were delightfully rough:  loosely woven of hand-spun wool cut from half-wild sheep.  No one bothered to card the wool much, so the blankets were full of the most fascinating seeds, burrs, and leaves.

At some early point, the Zapotec found they could sell these, and Mexican market people found tourists would buy them.  Naturally, prices were low.  The Zapotec learned within a decade that better-carded wool and tighter-spun blankets would bring higher prices.  Then they found that designs popular with tourists made the rugs sell even better.  A mass of pseudo-Navaho rugs followed.   (Some Navaho took to buying them and reselling them in the US as “genuine Indian rugs.”  Of course they were—the Zapotecs are Indians.  But the Navaho dealers implied that the rugs were Navaho, which would make them much more valuable.)  Oriental designs, and even designs from Miro and Picasso paintings, followed.  Quality bootstrapping continued.  Today, the finest Zapotec rugs are produced under contract for European art museums, and cost many thousands of dollars.   Literally millions of cheap, ordinary ones flood the tourist market, and many of these are superb buys.

The center of the industry is the Zapotec town of Teotitlan del Valle, near Oaxaca city.  Here, Lynn Stephen reported that women weavers were impoverished and exploited, but she also quoted a number of them who said they were doing very well indeed and were proud of it!  I wondered at the contradiction—hence my foray to the town, where I spent a day nosing around talking to people.  It turned out, unsurprisingly, that a few women and men had done very well indeed, while many others were still poor, often living by doing poorly-paid piecework for the successful ones.  So Stephen and her sources were both right.  On balance, the rug industry was stunningly successful.  A desperately poor, hardscrabble community had bootstrapped itself into what, on average, was modest affluence.  However, many ordinary people had been left behind—weaving endlessly for small profits.

The lesson here (as in many other cases I have studied) is that the easiest and best route to affluence is value-added bootstrapping.  Start with a poor-quality, mass-sale product.  Reinvest your profits in making a better product, often costing more to make but bringing higher profits per item.  Reinvest those profits in yet further upgrading.  After four or five rounds of this, you’re rich—if you scrimped and saved to reinvest, and kept exquisitely sensitive track of what the market wanted.  You have to remember to reassess this at every step of the way, because as you break into higher-quality goods, the consumers are a different set, with different wants.  The Zapotec—as well as more than a few other ethnicities that have gotten into the act–have proved incomparable at this.  (For one thing, they knew enough to follow advice from well-meaning First World marketers.)  They knew that peasant buyers just wanted a striped blanket.   Ordinary tourists want flashy, bright-color, simple designs.  Rich tourists often want Picasso and Miro designs that the ordinary tourist would find bizarre.  And European museums want elaborate “Indian art,” often inspired by Pre-Columbian themes.  The Zapotec find all this amusing, but are glad to oblige!

Oaxaca is Mexico’s poorest state, in large part because of the poverty of its large Native American population.  The rug industry, as well as the woodcarving industry (Chibnik 2003), shows that this is not because of lack of enterprise!  Few people can touch the Zapotec and their neighbors in that regard.  Centuries of racism, isolation, and poor market development are to blame for the poverty.

Coffee has also proved amenable to successful development through help with international marketing (Jaffee 2007).

Development Problems

Several conclusions about developing Third World areas follow from the above.

First and foremost, the local people are no fools.  They are smart.  They are good hard-working entrepreneurs (or they’d all be dead—given Third World realities).  Above all, they know the local area better than any outsider can.  They know what works and what does not.  The worst, and commonest, mistake of developers is thinking that the local people must be stupid, because they’re poor.  The truth is:  these people have been making a living under conditions of hardship and oppression that would kill a First World development bureaucrat in about two days.  Obviously they know something.

What they do not know is how to market to a sophisticated urban clientele.  They may find out, by trial and error and sensitive watching, as the Zapotec did.  Usually, however, they have neither the expertise nor the capital nor the infrastructure to do marketing.  This is where governments, NGO’s, and businesspeople can really help!  However, any development agent has to be creative, imaginative, and flexible.

Merely telling local people what to do is a waste of time.  They have heard it before, and learned that they know what works on the ground, much better than any outsider.  Developers have to work with them and listen to them.  Local people know what they want, and it usually includes not only economic improvement but also community solidarity and the traditional festivals that preserve same.  Assuming they want what you the development agent want is a guarantee of trouble.  Even if you have what you know they want, you have to let them plan and decide and talk things out, or their natural distrust of projects (see above!) will take over.

Of course, as everyone knows, doing-things-for people is frequently devastating to their self-esteem and initiative, just as forcing people to memorize mindless lists of facts for standardized tests is devastating to their actual education and learning.  The anti-welfare lobby has exaggerated these points over the years, but they are still true enough (Ellerman 2005).

On the other hand, leaving them to their own devices isn’t going to help.

Thus, working together is the only hope.  Usually, this works only if the local people do their thing, taking the initiative and doing the entrepreneurial work, while the outside helping agency does what the local people cannot do:  marketing, providing capital, providing infrastructure, providing certain kinds of expertise.  If the local people don’t want to take the initiative and do the basic work, find another project to do!  They have their reasons—probably including cynicism caused by a long, long history of being betrayed.

Since WWII, billions of dollars have been spent on development—on trying to lift humanity out of poverty.  Some $60 billion are now spent every year (Dichter 2003:104).  There is now widespread admission that the money has not solved the problem (Ascher 1999; Dichter 2003; Easterly 2006; Ellerman 2005; Stiglitz 2003; see also studies in Faust et al. 2004).

The globalization of the world economy has probably been beneficial, on balance (Bardhan 2006).  Sweatshops are living hell, but the alternatives are often worse; Bardhan quotes cases of sweatshop closures throwing workers out on the streets, to live by peddling or the sex trade.  And most internationalized jobs are above the sweatshop level.  Freer trade, other things being equal, means more jobs for everyone, especially in countries where labor is cheap.  Value-added bootstrapping allows many of these countries to work their way upward.  This has been especially true of East Asian and south European countries, that have well-established business traditions, but it has happened even in some African countries.  Anyone can do it.

At the individual level, street children and urban slum dwellers may have few options, but the rural poor usually have real opportunities.  Everyone who has worked in rural communities agrees that these communities have enough industrious, intelligent, hard-working people to support any level of development.  Poor communities lack resources, but they usually have enough land to provide a base for hope—if there were only capital, or water, or extension services, or some other good whose shortfall produces a bottleneck.

The vast majority of the world’s people, rich and poor, are hard-working, intelligent, enterprising, reasonably honest and reliable, and, in short, “most likely to succeed.”  They want to get ahead and they try terribly hard to do so.  It takes an enormous effort to hold them back.  It is not just that they have no opportunity.  Holding back those billions of anxious entrepreneurs takes an incredible amount of time, effort, money, and above all military repression.

As of 2000, half the human population subsisted on $2 a day or less; over a billion managed on less than $1 (Dichter 2003:26).  The total number in both categories has risen with the population.  Meanwhile, the rich get richer.  “In 1999 the assets of the world’s two hundred richest people were greater than the combined incomes of the lowest 40 percent of the world’s peoples” (Dichter 2003:1).  There are over 100 million street children and over 1 billion people in urban slums (Dichter 2003:1), but most of the poverty is rural.   What has gone wrong?

One problem is the policy history of the major development organizations.  Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz (2003) has described the policies of the World Bank, World Trade Organization, and International Monetary Fund (IMF) in less than glowing terms.  He maintains that these agencies are well-meaning but too dedicated to their extremely conservative fiscal ideology.  They enforce on poor nations an iron discipline: minimal public expenditure, minimal trade barriers (such as protective tariffs), minimal economic incentives to local industries.  Stiglitz sees this as the product of an economic policy that grew from traditional economic theory and was confirmed in the eyes of its backers by the spectacular failures of opposing policies.  From Communism to Latin American populism, government-led development and fiscal gambling on uncertain futures led to ruin.  Tight-money capitalism seemed the obvious alternative.  Stiglitz should know; he worked with these agencies for years.

Similarly, Thomas Dichter (2003) points out that part of the problem lies in the way development assistance is done.  Complex and often byzantine bureaucracies invoke complex and expensive procedures, often badly targeted.  Mistakes amplify through the system.  There are the usual problems of bureaucracy—lack of accountability, top-down control by out-of-touch administrators, and the like.  Dichter sees the rise of a huge “development industry” as the root of the problem.

There are many anthropological studies of particular development projects that make related points.  David Mosse (2005) describes the slow, insidious divergence of on-the-ground happenings from policy, and the resulting complex relationship between policy and effects.  Tania Murray Li (2007) blames top-down, insensitive planning that takes little note of local realities or wants.  Arturo Escobar (2008) points out the oppression that is involved in “modernization.”  In his field area in Colombia, it is often concealed and insidious, but often breaks into outright murder and other savagery.  Like the other authors cited here, he advocates grassroots organization and initiative.

Yet, one wonders.  There are too many signs that the agencies know all too well what they are doing to the world economy, and continue to do it anyway.  Consider the following:

The agencies do virtually nothing about the huge trade barriers invoked by the rich nations against the poor ones (Stiglitz 2003).  Above all, farm subsidies are enormous in the First World—the United States gives every American farmer an average of $55,000 a year in direct payouts, and at least as much again in indirect support.  Yet the international agencies do everything possible to eliminate subsidies in the Third World.  I have seen in Mexico the result of dumping subsidized United States maize on the market:  Mexican small farmers are ruined.  Ironically, their only recourse for survival is then to immigrate illegally to the United States—there to work on the very farms that ruined them.

The world environment continues to be harmed by World Bank projects.  Big dams are still built (Scudder 2005).  An anthropologist who had been highly placed in that agency (he must remain nameless here) told me years ago that he and many others had been involved in studies showing that all such dams had poor cost/benefit ratios; even without taking long-term environmental damage into account, they cost more than they produced.  They also displaced millions of people, mostly poor and almost never given any meaningful help in restarting their lives.  Yet, in spite of the reports of these studies by its own staff, the World Bank goes on building big dams.  The only believable reason I have heard (somewhat informally—shall we say) is that the development agents are not uninvolved financially and otherwise with the giant international construction and utility firms. The benefits of the latter outweigh, in the bureaucratic mind, the far greater costs to the nations that suffer the dams.  Other environmentally damaging megaprojects share the same sorry record.  To their credit, the World Bank has recently refused to be involved in such projects as China’s Three Gorges Dam; their most optimistic studies showed poor prospects.

Much more directly and obviously evil is the World Bank’s and IMF’s support for  evil dictators.  This scandal goes on and on, never changing and never ending.  Graham Hancock (1991) pointed out at length that the World Bank and IMF had poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the Marcos government of the Philippines, the Mobutu government of Zaire, and other dictatorships, even after everyone had known for years that all the money went either into Swiss bank accounts and luxury consumption or into weapons to suppress internal dissent. In the “development decade” of the 1970s, the outflow of money from Mexico into numbered Swiss bank accounts equaled the foreign aid received by Mexico.  Moreover, the agencies then insisted that the countries pay back the debts incurred, even after they had known for years that the governments would do it by defunding basic health and education services.  The Philippines’ once-superb educational system was reduced to poverty to pay for Imelda Marcos’ shoe collection.  Hancock’s book had no effect.  The agencies—not just the two mentioned, but others from aid and health agencies to environmental NGO’s—continue to behave this way in dozens of countries, even when they know their money is supporting outright genocide (as in Sudan in the 1990s and Guatemala in the1980s).  Most of the recent critics of the agencies are oddly silent about this issue.

Finally, it seems a bit too neat that the cumulative effects of World Bank, IMF, and WTO policies are to keep the Third World addicted to commodity exporting and minimum-wage, low-value-added industry (Stiglitz 2003—with some reading between the lines based on my own interviews with World Bank personnel).  The First World has gone on to the information economy, hi-tech, and efficiency—all founded on a formidable education-and-research establishment.  The agencies do everything they can to discourage this, by forcing Third World countries to defund education, research, extension, and indeed all public services.  At the same time, they invest heavily in developing the most primitive and backward sectors of the economy: mining, plantation agriculture, oil extraction.  Whatever the intentions, the effect is to keep these countries as fiefs of the rich nations.

Ultimately, a country reduced to living by exporting its wealth must run out of wealth.  If it has been locked into an economy based totally on such export, it is then absolutely ruined.  Haiti, El Salvador, and a few other small countries have already reached this state, and now live on aid, remittances, and crime (El Salvador’s international crime rings are famous).  Honduras, Guatemala, and several African countries are almost to this state.  Several much larger and more important countries, including the Philippines, Indonesia, and Egypt, are on the ragged edge, and their collapse into Haiti-like poverty could destabilize the world economic system.

Stiglitz (2003) and his World Bank associates William Easterly (2006) and David Ellerman (2005) admit that the agencies’ policies have been frequently distorted by the foreign policies of their major funders, chief of whom is the United States.  American politics has shaped both overall policies and choice of target nations.  The heavy investment in Marcos and Mobutu was directly due to American friendship with the former and desire to outbid the Communist world for the friendship of the latter (Hancock 1991; Stiglitz 2003).  Of course it is no accicdent that the World Bank and IMF are based in Washington.  It is hard to argue against the strong suspicion among anthropologists that these agencies exist to ensure the continued economic dominance of the United States and the continued failure and subservience of the Third World.

In charity, we can assume that Dichter and Stiglitz are right; a great deal of bad development policy is just foolishness at high levels.  (No one who works for a large university system will minimize this possibility.)  But when we know that the higher-ups are fully informed and are not at all fools, we may find it difficult to  continue in this charitable assumption.

In any case, the policies of the giant international agencies have made the plight of the poor far worse.  It seems likely that the damage done by the big dams alone outweighs every mite of good the agencies ever accomplished.  (The full figures are not available—a  suspicious fact in itself.)

On the other hand, Dichter and Stiglitz can argue that there are certainly some assumptions, or defaults in thinking, that set development against itself even without any malicious intent.  In addition to the problems of bigness and accountability, amply discussed by both authors, there are two concerns of particular importance.

First and most obvious is the natural desire for quick results.  There must be some immediate economic payoff, to make backers feel comfortable.  This is counterproductive.  The quickest way to increase the “bottom line” in a Third World country is to open a mine or develop cash-cropping, often of an “industrial agriculture” sort.  This leads, in virtually all cases, to a dead-end economy, where people are paid minimum wages in hopeless, dead-end, back-breaking jobs.  Large extractive enterprises notoriously go with dictatorships and corruption; the powerful and rich owners of the enterprise, relying on uneducated and barely paid labor, have every interest in supporting governments that offer nothing to the general populace and that provide security for the extractive firms.  Most of these owners are giant multinational firms based in the First World; they have no commitment to the nations where they dig, farm, or drill.  If a nation collapses, they can move on.  Yet, all this may seem the best possible option to a development agency, or a government, that is under pressure to show results in a year or two.  A giant mine looks impressive right now.  The future can take care of itself.

Conversely, in the contemporary world, there is little hope for real development in a country without good education and at least minimal health care.  Yet it is precisely these sectors that have a slow and uncertain payoff.  This is at least part of the reason why the IMF has forced nation after nation to run down these systems.  It is true that anyone in international development can name nations whose educational systems ran ahead of their economies, leading to massive brain drain or to university graduates driving cabs and working in gas stations.   (Egypt is one infamous case.)  The same people can name nations with strikingly long life expectancies and dismally declining economies (most of East Europe, for example).  But can anyone think a nation in today’s world can make any genuine economic progress without a highly educated and reasonably healthy workforce?  A few oil countries manage it now, deluding developers into thinking that exporting wealth can actually produce development.  But what happens when the oil runs out?  Contemplating that dismal thought has led several oil countries (such as Kuwait and Oman) to investing a great deal in education and social progress.  The others have a bleak future.

Related to the “quick results” delusion is the main problem addressed by David Ellerman (2005): the “vaccination model” illusion.  This is the belief that developing a country is like making kids brush their teeth and get their shots.  You force them to do it because they have to do it when they are too immature to choose it for themselves.  Ellerman goes into considerable detail in showing why this is a hopeless model for developing a community of intelligent adults.  He points out that it fails not only in development but in education, management, and other fields.  The great innovative thinkers of the 20th century advocated working with people to help them achieve their own goals using their own creativity and good sense.  Paolo Freire and John Dewey argued this for education, Carl Rogers for psychotherapy, Douglas McGregor for management, and Albert Hirschman, E. F. Schumacher, and others for the economy; Ellerman quotes these and other thinkers at length, and shows that the points are made all across the political spectrum from far left to far right with striking lack of dissent.  (Escobar 2008 provides strikingly similar arguments citing another whole galaxy of stellar thinkers.)

Another bad idea discussed by Ellerman is the “one size fits all” theory.  Little need be said about this—the line is self-deconstructing—but Ellerman notes that even the people who insist on gray flannel suits admit that different men need different sizes.

These problems segue into the wider structural problem of a bureaucracy.  As we have known since Max Weber made the term famous (see Weber 1948), bureaucracies reward inaction, unaccountability, nontransparency, and above all social game-playing.  The successful bureaucrat spends maximal time schmoozing and minimal time working; one gets ahead by playing social games, not by achieving anything.  It is possible for a ferociously goal-directed organization to avoid this, through carefully managing motivation and reward; Google and Adobe and some universities show this.  But the great international aid and development agencies, and, alas, even many conservation and environmental NGO’s, have failed dismally (as I can testify from much personal experience; see also all the cited sources above).  The less clearly goal-directed the organization, the more trouble it has.  Given the World Bank’s fluffy mandate and inadequate specification of how to assess results, it is no surprise that it is a particularly dismal case.  Ellerman is not alone in advocating abolishing it—what he calls “decentralization with extreme prejudice” (Ellerman 2005:245), i.e. breaking up its functions and locating many (if not all) of them in bottom-up agencies in the developing countries.

Another bad idea that persists—this time unstated and unadmitted—is the old belief that wealth can come only from taking someone else’s money.  This idea keeps resurfacing because it is common sense.  The way we normally make money is to get it from someone.  Usually, this is through legitimate business:  I sell you a fish and get some cash.  Sometimes, robbery, theft, conquest, or deception are the means.  Either way, cash is transferred from person A to person B, and that is how person B gets rich.

However, in the modern world, wealth is more often created anew (rather than merely redistributed).   Turning raw materials into goods is only one way to do this.  More efficient production, more value added, more streamlined management, more knowledge, more rapid and smooth transfer of information, more streamlined ways of doing business (“lower transaction costs”), and more environment-friendly production techniques all make something out of nothing—or, at least, reduce costs, and therefore improve cost-benefit ratios.  The extent to which this is doable depends on the level of relevant education of the workforce.  (Note that word relevant.)

Yet, when policies are set, many governments act as if they believe wealth is never created, but only redistributed.  They therefore seek after lower wages, less education, less public expenditure, and lower welfare levels among workers.  This is exactly the reverse of the experience of successfully developing countries.  Those countries developed in step with the improvements in people’s lives due to overall wealth creation.  There are many good economic reasons for this.  An educated workforce is obviously more able to do hi-tech jobs, make new inventions, and go into high-value-added enterprises.  Also, rising wages force companies to modernize and become more efficient, to keep other costs down in the face of rising labor costs (Hayami and Ruttan 1985.)

Money for more education has to come from somewhere; it is part of the nation’s labor cost.  A skilled workforce costs a lot.  An unskilled workforce is even more expensive—when opportunity costs are figured into the equation; the problem is that opportunity costs are too dicey for the conservative economists to contemplate.

Resource extraction is another case in point.  Mineral resources taken from Country A are lost to that country forever.  In today’s world of low commodity prices, they do not even bring in much money.  Resource extraction looks good only when one considers the world economy as a zero-sum game.  The rich get it (cheaply), the poor lose it; wealth is redistributed, not created.  To be sure, metals and some other goods are more efficiently and wisely used in a developed industrial system than in a nascent one, so there is good economic sense in taking copper from Papua-New Guinea and bringing it to Europe and America.  But the same can hardly be said for coffee, or sugar, or cattle, whose processing is still a fairly primitive matter even in rich nations.  The money spent developing cattle export would be better spent developing decent schools, or even meat-packing plants, in the exporting country.

This sort of zero-sum thinking underlies what George Foster called “the limited good hypothesis” (Foster 1965).  Foster found that people who see the world in zero-sum terms come to assume that even things like affection and justice are limited goods.  People living in closed economies with widespread low-key competition, or people who have to strive for power (always a limited good), are prone to think this way.  So, it appears, are international bankers and development workers.

What is forgotten is that, given a chance, the poor rural villages of the world could produce more scientists, technologists, entrepreneurs, teachers, and (yes) developers than all the First World put together.  The result would be wealth creation on an undreamed-of scale.

The more naïve environmentalists will, at this point, object that this would trash the planet.  If everyone consumed like Americans…!

The truth is that a world of opportunity and fair dealing would be a more efficient world.  If commodity prices were at all fair, the rich would no longer have access to virtually infinite amounts of virtually free oil, minerals, sugar, and so on.  The huge SUV would no longer be competitive with the small economical car.  In fact, the car would not be competitive with public transport; people would not find it necessary to have their own cars.  If the metals columbium and tantalum were not extracted for pennies from a Congo torn by civil war over the ore—a war that has killed hundreds of  thousands of people—the American economy would not find it so cheap and easy to provide huge, overadequate computers on such a lavish scale.  People like me, who use the computer merely as a glorified typewriter, would have much smaller, more efficient, longer-lived machines.  If Third World countries had decent wages and decent social support systems, the rural people, newly empowered and given a stake in their economy, would no longer be forced to cut down every bush for firewood or to pull up every tuft of grass for fodder.  They would be able to husband resources, control and manage them, use them sustainably.

The problem is that almost nobody thinks this is an achievable goal.  Limited-good thinking is perhaps the major reason for such hopelessness.  Today’s widespread cynicism typically takes the form of a belief that people are instinctively wired to destroy nature or to think in zero-sum terms (e.g. Ridley 1996).  This flies in the face of common experience; it is only in genuinely limited situations (most often, struggles for power in hierarchic systems) that people develop limited-good thinking.  Yet this is enough to make constant trouble for this imperfect world.

In fact, an evaluation of over 11,000 World Bank development projects showed that those with conservation goals were as successful at producing economic development as those that ignored conservation and simply went for the money (Kareiva et al. 2008).

It almost seems as if the world economy is not capitalist but feudalist.  We are back to the world of the robber barons in their castles on the Rhine.  Most of the world’s population is forced, by police or military violence and genocidal repression, to work for pennies.  They work in bare-subsistence farms, they live by their wits in urban slums, or they work in extractive or low-value-added industries that provide cheap commodities for the more affluent.  The affluent, having no economic incentive to conserve, use these commodities in a wasteful manner.  The resulting damage to the world’s ecosystem worsens yet more the plight of the poor.   Far from being capitalist, “Neoliberal,” or some sort of new product of the mystical force of “globalization,” this economy is a throwback to an earlier age.

The cure is to focus first on providing the bare necessities of life:  water, fuel, food, and health care.  In the desperately overpopulated contemporary world, this last has to include the full panoply of contraceptive techniques, made freely available everywhere.  Then we can begin to think about the long term:  education, efficient use of resources, development of whole new industrial systems.  This will require spending money not on quick fixes but on huge systems that have slow and uncertain payoffs—not only education systems, but ecological reserves, sustainable development, research and extension, and the like. Be suspicious of anything that pays off in the short term.  If it is a good idea, private entrepreneurs will rush to do it without help.  Otherwise, it isn’t worth doing.

Above all else, in development as in medicine, remember the first principle of Hippocrates:  First, do no harm (Ellerman 2005, among others, quotes this famous precept).

This now sounds like a radical plan, but it is more or less what the United States and every other developed country did.  Moreover, it is notorious that they did it behind high tariff walls, and often ran up huge debts spending public money on it (cf. Stiglitz 2003).  The United States did indeed help certain extractive industries, and build some big dams, but it usually had the same problems with them that Third World countries have today.  We should have learned.

What We Should Be Doing Instead

There are several things that work particularly well in development.

Obviously, first and foremost is doing everything possible to let local people do their own thing, with appropriate help in areas they cannot handle, like international marketing.  Mostly, local people need, above all, protection from external harm—usually meaning their own governments first and foremost.  Aid that supports repressive governments is clearly counterproductive; aid should begin with the sort of “capacity-building” that invovles getting corrupt and oppressive officials to cool it, not neglecting the possibility of self-protection in courts and elsewhere by the local people (Escobar 2008).  Beyond that, anything that builds local initiative, grassroots organization, and local co-work is all to the good.  Ellerman (2005) and Escobar (2008) have many long and detailed lists and instructions, rendering further comment unnecessary here.

More specific ideas include microlending.  In the early 1970s, Mohamed Yunus of Bangladesh was an economics student in Kentucky.  He went home to teach econ at Chittagong University, way off in down-country Bangladesh.  One day a peasant woman came up to him and asked him for a dollar “to start a little business.”  He gave her the dollar without thinking—he assumed she was just begging, and he could afford a little charity.  Well, a year later, a woman came up to him, and he realized it was the same peasant woman, a good deal better fed and better dressed.  She paid him the dollar back with interest, and said she’d used it to buy a couple of chickens, and now had quite a chicken and egg farm.

The proverbial light bulb lit in Yunus’ mind.  He tried more tiny loans, got more little farms started, and soon developed the Grameen Bank, the first microlending organization.  They loan out tiny sums to peasants—usually women, who are more enterprising and prone to repay than men in Bangladesh—and have dramatically transformed Bangladesh.  The country was written off as “a basket case” previously, but is now quite successful at keeping the poorest alive and well.  The Bank gradually expanded to push other social issues, such as population control and education.  It now has countless imitators, in Bangladesh and around the world.  It has probably succeeded best there, partly because the incredible poverty (the result of population pressure and a dreadful history of conquest and ripoff) meant that even the most enterprising and sharp people were usually poor.

In other countries, where the more enterprising are usually out of poverty already or where poverty is due to other factors (genocide, lack of natural resources, or the like), the plan doesn’t work as well, but it works at least a little almost everywhere, and has now helped millions of poor people.

Less dramatic, but far more effective and important worldwide, is simple education—as long as it’s reasonably well done and teaches useful skills rather than rote knowledge.  Education for girls is particularly important, transforming health and population growth rates as well as improving life.

Most effective of all, in terms of benefit per cost, is simple health care.  Best of these is just getting kids to get their shots—for a few dollars’ worth of inoculations, one prevents billions of dollars in lost lives, lost worktime, etc.  Thus, almost everyone worldwide now gets their shots.  Most Third World countries now have better rates of kids “getting all their shots” than the US does.  Much of this is the work of one man; when James Grant was head of UNICEF, he made it his project to see that kids got their shots, and the percentage—worldwide—of those who did jumped from 30% to 70%.  This has saved tens of millions of children’s lives.

It is thought-provoking that everyone knows of Adolf Hitler, but almost no one has heard of James Grant, who probably saved as many lives as Hitler killed.

There are lots of other ideas that really work.  Even just controlling crime, or providing a road to market, can work wonders in certain places.

The one common denominator that all successful plans have, and that none of the failed schemes has, is that they actually give opportunities to  ordinary people.  It is among the ordinary people of the world that we can and must seek and find salvation.


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