A new look at international development

By  Simon Appolloni, Catholic Register Special
  • March 20, 2008

{mosimage}Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail by Paul Polak (BK Currents, hardcover, 232 pages, $32).

Paul Polak is convinced he has found the solution to help some 800 million dollar-a-day farmers climb out of poverty. So, he wrote a book about it for all to learn: Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail.

It is a fantastic claim — one, perhaps some are apt to dismiss. Yet much of what he suggests is practical, feasible and demonstrably effective. Still, as with most too-good-to-be-true claims, it’s wise to examine it with the aid of wisdom — in this case our Catholic social teachings.

Polak challenges traditional approaches to development that have us hoping to donate people out of poverty, looking to national economic growth to end poverty and relying on large-scale government and business-driven projects to create wealth for the poorest of the poor. He believes the answer lies in working at the grassroots level. He assists small-acreage farmers to invest in labour-intensive cash crops using affordable irrigation, seeds and fertilizers. With successful harvests farmers can participate effectively in markets and ultimately earn more. Throughout all this, Polak believes it’s necessary to treat the farmers as customers (specifically in his case, as micro-entrepreneurs) rather than recipients of charity.

{sa 1576754499}Since water is the single most important factor in achieving crop yields, Polak’s international non-profit organization, International Development Enterprises (IDE), provides access to affordable water pumping and irrigation systems, which farmers can purchase through credit.

Is his approach effective? It aims to produce more crops, thus making more money for the farmer. It seems to work well for these small acreage farmers. Forbes magazine has weighed in favourably, describing Polak’s approach as trickle-up economics. According to the information Polak provides, after 25 years in operation, IDE has had an impact on the lives of 3.5 million dollar-a-day small farm families (more than 17 million individuals).

Another way of judging his approach would be to look at it through the lens of Catholic social teaching. This has been the approach of CIDSE (International Co-operation for Development and Solidarity), an alliance of 15 Catholic development organizations from Europe and North America, of which the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace is a member.

Through the past 40 years CIDSE organizations have been working in partnership with vulnerable communities in the global south — ensuring all interventions are based on the fundamental dignity of every community member, the preferential option for the poor, the common good and our conviction that communities must be the authors of their own future.

In this light, we can see there is merit in Polak’s approach. By starting with the viewpoint of the farmers and communities who are the most disadvantaged and vulnerable, he is in line with the principle of the preferential option for the poor. His insistence that farmers have ownership over their future and that decisions or “aid projects” never be forced on them demonstrates respect for these people as authors of their own destiny.

Of note is his emphasis on designing equipment for almost a billion dollar-a-day income earners, the majority of whom are small acreage farmers. IDE’s affordable drip irrigation system is one example. A relatively simple set up, drip irrigation systems can be cheaply reproduced and ensure 80-90 per cent of the precious water goes directly to the roots of plants. This is good for the farmer (loans for irrigations systems can often be paid off within a year) and the environment.

At the same time, I am left uneasy with Polak’s high faith in a market approach (even one revamped to serve impoverished farmers, as he suggests) to solve seemingly all the complex problems of extremely vulnerable people. The market approach creates wealth by exploiting inequalities and resources. Isn’t this part of the present problem? What of human rights? In a world where 70 per cent of those living in absolute poverty (people presumably Polak is targeting) are women, gender issues receive little or no attention from Polak.

If Catholics have learned anything over the past 40 years of standing in solidarity with vulnerable and marginalized communities it’s to never exclude women or us (the rich nations) from the equation. Standing in solidarity with poor farmers in the Third World calls us to question the very same market system Polak commends.

That Polak’s book falls short in this respect doesn’t mean it’s not worth reading. Although it could be shorter (he repeats himself), his style is engaging and his arguments compelling and hopeful. It’s a good book for changing the way we look at international development.

(Appolloni is assistant director of education for the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace in Toronto.)

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