Fri, May 30, 2008 - Page 9 News List

Poor farmers have a lot at their disposal — if others will help

The biggest — and eminently solvable — problem facing farming communities in poor countries is the continuing use of crude techniques and equipment

By Jeffrey Sachs

Still, the financing of inputs played a huge and positive role in helping the poorest farmers to escape poverty and dependency on food aid.

During the debt crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, the IMF and the World Bank forced dozens of poor food-importing countries to dismantle these state systems. Poor farmers were told to fend for themselves, to let “market forces” provide for inputs. This was a profound mistake: There were no such market forces.

Poor farmers lost access to fertilizers and improved seed varieties. They could not obtain bank financing. To its credit, the World Bank recognized this mistake in a scathing internal evaluation of its long-standing agricultural policies last year.

The time has come to re-establish public financing systems that enable small farmers in the poorest countries, notably those farming on two hectares or less, to gain access to needed inputs of high-yield seeds, fertilizer and small-scale irrigation. Malawi has done this for the past three seasons and has doubled its food production as a result. Other low-income countries should follow suit.

Importantly, the World Bank, under its new president, Robert Zoellick, has stepped forward to help finance this new approach. If the bank provides grants to poor countries to help small peasant farmers gain access to improved inputs, then it will be possible for those countries to increase their food production in a short period of time.

Donor governments, including the oil-rich countries of the Middle East, should help finance the World Bank’s new efforts. The world should set as a practical goal of doubling grain yields in low-income Africa and similar regions (such as Haiti) during the next five years. That’s achievable if the World Bank, donor governments and poor countries direct their attention to the urgent needs of the world’s poorest farmers.

Jeffrey Sachs is professor of economics and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

Copyright: Project Syndicate

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