Our journey to the remote region of Gabura in Bangladesh took us down unpaved roads, through meandering rivers and to the edges of the Sundarban mangrove forest. The first thing that struck us was the near absence of trees in the village. During cyclones Sidr and Aila, saline water had destroyed agricultural land and although the place was surrounded by water, it was unfit to drink. The embankment, which was built to protect the area from tidal surges, was in severe disrepair. To make matters worse, once the aid funds had dried up in the aftermath of the cyclones, almost all the NGOs had left and there was little assistance coming from the government.
Agriculture and Rural Development
Here’s something to ponder as we mark World Food Day: In the global fight against hunger, the world’s poorest continue to suffer the biggest losses.
The statistics are staggering. One in eight people are suffering from chronic hunger. More than 1 billion people are undernourished, and under-nutrition is to blame for one-third of all child deaths.
As the population booms, we can expect that the food insecurity challenge will only intensify.
Bangladesh was born on December 16 1971, following a devastating war that cost the lives of 3,000,000 people. They were victorious in their fight for independence, yet the prospects of the Bangladeshi people living in the 70’s were disheartening, earning it the now rather infamous connotation of a basket case, as Henry Kissinger called it back in 1971. Emerging from the rubbles left by the war, the resilient Bangladeshis began the rebuilding of their newly established nation. Economic growth was slow to take off, and it rebounded to the pre-war level about twenty years later, in the 90’s. Yet, it was after the 90’s that the country began to attain palpable progress and only over the 2000-2010 decade that the country achieved great poverty reduction. The depth-of-poverty MDG target of 8 percent was attained five years ahead of schedule, and Bangladesh was set in the right path for achieving the first MDG goal of halving the poverty headcount to 28.5 percent by 2015.
Absentee teachers, negligent doctors, high transport costs, missing fertilizers, and elite-captured industrial policy all stand in the way of poor people’s escaping poverty. While the proximate reason for these obstacles may be a lack of resources or an erroneous policy, the underlying reason is politics.- In many developing countries, teachers run the political campaigns of local politicians, in return for which they are given jobs from which they can be absent. The situation can be described as an equilibrium, where the candidate gets elected and re-elected, and teachers continue to be absent. The losers are the poor children who aren’t getting an education. The equilibrium has no intrinsic force for change, especially if, as in Uttar Pradesh, India, 17 percent of the legislature are teachers.
- High transport costs in Africa are due not to poor-quality roads (vehicle operating costs are comparable to those in France) but to high prices charged by trucking companies, who enjoy monopoly power thanks to regulations that prohibit entry into the trucking industry. High transport prices and monopoly trucking profits are an equilibrium. In one country, the President’s brother owns the trucking company, so prospects for deregulation there are grim.
- Several countries subsidize fertilizer, sometimes to the tune of several percentage points of GDP, only to find that it fails to reach poor farmers. Thinking that the problem is the public distribution system, some governments have tried to use the market to allocate fertilizer, by giving farmers vouchers that they can redeem with private sellers. A scheme in Tanzania found that 60 percent of the vouchers went to households of elected officials. When subsidies are captured to this extent by political elites, their reform will be resisted—another equilibrium.
It is estimated that 1.3 billion people in 2009 were still without electricity. Many rural households in the developing world continue to cook with wood and biomass (mainly dung), and spend a lot of time collecting and preparing fuel for domestic use. Across the world, these time (and resulting health) burdens are thought to be higher for women and the children under their care.
One popular argument is that by relieving time burdens spent in collecting and preparing fuel, household electricity results in rural women engaging in market-based work — judged to be a good thing since women’s empowerment has been linked to having one’s own income. In fact, a number of studies show that the introduction of household electrical appliances accounts for a large share of the increase in married American women’s labor force participation in the 20th century. For the developing world, a recent paper by Taryn Dinkelman finds similar and large effects on female employment (and not on male employment) for South Africa, which are attributed to the use of electric stoves and other time saving appliances.
It is July 2012 and cattle farmers in Nicaragua are worried because Guatemala has enacted a series of laws that restrict beef trade. These so-called “non-tariff measures,” or NTMs, require that beef crossing the Guatemalan border meet stricter safety and labeling standards. The Guatemalan government argues that these measures protect the country’s consumers from health hazards. But the Nicaraguan farmers say they hurt business and unfairly shelter Guatemalan producers from competition.
This is just one example of the debates that arise in the food industry in Central America and elsewhere. While it is laudable and good policy for a government to use legitimate, non-trade related legislation to protect its citizens from certain risks, governments can also use these measures to protect domestic industry. Regardless of their intention, in an increasingly globalized, competitive world, non-tariff measures increase the cost of doing business, impact prices, affect the competitiveness of the private sector, and impact the overall welfare of the economy.
The progress in achieving the target set for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) continues to be diverse across goals and regions. The goals aim at actualizing a universal standard of being free from grinding poverty, being educated and healthy and having ready access to clean water and sanitation. While progress has lagged for education and health related MDGs, the proportion of people living in extreme poverty has indeed fallen. To accelerate further progress in the latter, development strategies have to attempt to increase not only the rate of growth but also the share of income going to the poorest section of the population along the rural-urban continuum.
Economic projections for developing countries prepared by the World Bank state that approximately 970 million people will continue in 2015 to live below $1.25 a day. This would be equivalent to 15.5% of the population in the developing world. Herein, the pertinent challenge of reducing extreme poverty through creation of new income opportunities and better delivery of basic services largely remains in rural areas. In addition, such poverty is concentrated more in Asia (East and South) and Sub Saharan Africa with 38% and 46% of their poor residing in rural areas respectively. Thus, the task of effective rural development remains daunting. But the latter has to be operationalized and implemented holistically, and more importantly, in context of the complexities posed by the rural -urban continuum.
My experiences with field work thus far have been nothing if not adventurous. I seem to attract broken glass – a rock the size of a small coconut crashing through my 3rd floor window in Zanzibar, for instance, or the windows of my taxi being broken with baseball bats by an armed mob in Mali. Just the other day, my boss and I came within inches of dying in a fiery plane crash – we were on our way back to the main island of Zanzibar from Pemba island in a tiny 12-seater Soviet-era plane, and were just about to land in a strong crosswind when the engine on my side failed. We managed to land, somehow, and taxied to a stop right there on the runway to wait for a vehicle (ironically, it ended up being an ambulance) to take us to the terminal.
Many countries use trade policy to protect their own consumers from spikes in international food prices. It turns out that this well-intentioned practice can actually do more harm than good. During food price spikes -- such as those in mid-2008, early 2011 and mid-2012 – governments restricted the export of food staples or lowered barriers to importing them. They hoped to keep their domestic prices of rice, wheat, maize, and oilseed low, reasoning that this would help their poor and stop people from falling into poverty. But there is new evidence that, while the practice kept each country’s domestic prices down relative to the world prices at the time, it contributed to the higher international prices that were the source of concern. In a World Bank Policy Research Working Paper, “Food Price Spikes, Price Insulation, and Poverty,” we explore this phenomenon and find that it did not reduce global poverty in 2008. On the contrary, we estimate it may have increased poverty slightly (by 8 million people).
I landed in Chisinau on a short flight from Frankfurt a mere two years ago. I immediately liked this vibrant and cosmopolitan city built with white limestone and awash with greenery, and remember thinking that it has the potential to attract scores of tourists. But tickets to fly into Chisinau were expensive in 2011.
I also recall so vividly my first trip through the Moldovan countryside shortly after. An amalgam of bright green leaves on walnut trees contrasted the yellow of the sunflowers that grow in fields with some of the most fertile soil in the world. I was immediately struck by the immense potential that Moldova holds in agriculture.
Good things have happened since then.