Minor Thoughts from me to you

How to Do Real Social Justice and Feed Africa's Millions

For the last couple of years, I've been unhappy with the "short term missions" model that many churches use. It seems to involve a lot of good feelings about going somewhere else to experience "true poverty", working there for 1-3 weeks, coming home, showing lots of pictures of really poor people, and talking about the great need for Christian generosity. Now, I am a fairly generous individual. And I don't like seeing poor people suffer in poverty any more than you do. Despite the vast concern for social justice that's put into most trips, I don't think poverty will ever be reduced by them.

Poverty will be eliminated in the 3rd world the same way it was eliminated in the 1st world: growth. And that growth often involves taking the best scientific know-how we have, training people to understand how and why it works, and then letting them get on with the business of making themselves richer. (Growth often involves a strong rule of law and a government that doesn't steal from its own people, but I'll leave that topic for another post.)

I quoted from an article, just a few minutes ago, about the need for appreciating the "modern, science-intensive, and highly capitalized agricultural system" that we have her in America. But what about Africa? Will that really work over there?

Yes (from later in the same article).

Africa faces a food crisis, but it's not because the continent's population is growing faster than its potential to produce food, as vintage Malthusians such as environmental advocate Lester Brown and advocacy organizations such as Population Action International would have it. Food production in Africa is vastly less than the region's known potential, and that is why so many millions are going hungry there. African farmers still use almost no fertilizer; only 4 percent of cropland has been improved with irrigation; and most of the continent's cropped area is not planted with seeds improved through scientific plant breeding, so cereal yields are only a fraction of what they could be. Africa is failing to keep up with population growth not because it has exhausted its potential, but instead because too little has been invested in reaching that potential.

One reason for this failure has been sharply diminished assistance from international donors. When agricultural modernization went out of fashion among elites in the developed world beginning in the 1980s, development assistance to farming in poor countries collapsed. Per capita food production in Africa was declining during the 1980s and 1990s and the number of hungry people on the continent was doubling, but the U.S. response was to withdraw development assistance and simply ship more food aid to Africa. Food aid doesn't help farmers become more productive -- and it can create long-term dependency. But in recent years, the dollar value of U.S. food aid to Africa has reached 20 times the dollar value of agricultural development assistance.

The alternative is right in front of us. Foreign assistance to support agricultural improvements has a strong record of success, when undertaken with purpose. In the 1960s, international assistance from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and donor governments led by the United States made Asia's original Green Revolution possible. U.S. assistance to India provided critical help in improving agricultural education, launching a successful agricultural extension service, and funding advanced degrees for Indian agricultural specialists at universities in the United States. The U.S. Agency for International Development, with the World Bank, helped finance fertilizer plants and infrastructure projects, including rural roads and irrigation. India could not have done this on its own -- the country was on the brink of famine at the time and dangerously dependent on food aid. But instead of suffering a famine in 1975, as some naysayers had predicted, India that year celebrated a final and permanent end to its need for food aid.

What if the American church committed to getting over the West's passion for antiquated farming methods and decided instead to take up the mantle that the U.S. government dropped 35 years ago? We might find that we're far more likely to be of some use that way than we currently are. Instead of sending people over to marvel at poverty why don't we fund the same kinds of projects that enabled India to be self-sufficient?