am 9. November 2013
*A full executive summary of this book will be available at newbooksinbrief dot com, on or before Tuesday, November 19.
The main argument: In the developed world, the vast majority of us enjoy a standard of living unmatched in the history of humankind—and going hungry is the last thing on our minds. Nevertheless, it cannot be said that poverty and hunger have been eradicated in the developed world entirely (in the United States, for example, 1 in 6 are considered food insecure—including 16 million children). Still, the greatest problems with poverty and hunger continue to exist in the developing world. Indeed, despite substantial improvements over the past 30 years, poverty remains a significant issue, and nearly a billion of the world’s 7 billion people still face chronic hunger (while about twice that number are malnourished in some way)—and millions starve to death every year.
It is not that many well intentioned people and organizations have not spent a great deal of time and money trying to solve the world’s poverty and hunger issues. Indeed, over the past half century the amount of resources that have been poured into these problems is staggering. So, just why do the problems of poverty and hunger stubbornly persist?
Well, at least part of it has to do with the fact that there are several significant obstacles standing in the way—everything from armed conflict, to corrupt governments, to particular cultural practices etc. Howard G. Buffet has been involved in philanthropy for upwards of 30 years, and knows these obstacles all too well. However, Buffet insists that there is yet another reason why all of the well-intentioned efforts have fallen short of reaching their ultimate goal. And that is that many of the approaches have proven to be inadequate (if not downright counter-productive).
The fact is that most of the aid flowing to the poorest parts of the world has been (and continues to be) in the form of projects that are meant to help people in the short-term. For example, NGOs commonly enter an area, drop off bags of seed and fertilizer, and then turn around and leave. This approach may help the area for a season or two, but in the end the seed and fertilizer eventually run out, and the community is right back to square one. Thus the approach acts more as a band-aid, than a self-sustaining solution that addresses the root causes of poverty and hunger.
Thankfully, in Buffet’s 30 years of work as a philanthropist he has learned that there is indeed a better approach, and one that stands a much better chance of rooting out poverty and hunger for good. The more effective approach is much less about aid as development—less about helping people as enabling people to help themselves.
The development approach involves linking subsistence farmers up with the larger economy, and establishing a self-sustaining ecosystem that will allow this connection to be maintained into the future. It involves things like helping to establish agricultural schools and private seed companies; working with farmers to improve farming techniques and yields (and not in a way that assumes that what has worked well in one place—or one’s own backyard—will work everywhere); establishing grain storage systems; physically connecting farmers to markets; and working with governments to establish and maintain the infrastructure (especially roads) needed to make the system work smoothly.
The development approach may be more involved and take longer to get off the ground, but it pays off in the end, as when it is done well, it only has to be done once (Buffet speaks often about NGOs needing to take an approach that ultimately puts themselves out of business).
And helping poor farmers join the larger economy is not just a matter of helping them help themselves. The fact is that the world’s population is continuing to grow, while we are running out of good farmland to farm. The UN estimates that in order to feed the world’s projected 9 billion people by 2050, farmers everywhere will need to increase the planet’s food production by 70%. Part of the solution to this problem must involve helping the world’s subsistence farmers to produce a surplus to help everyone.
But the solution doesn’t end there. Farmers everywhere, including in the developed world, will need to increase their yields to meet the increased demand. However—and this is important—farmers will need to increase their yields in a sustainable way. That is, they will need to do so in a way that does not degrade the soil, or threaten the world’s fresh water or woodlands—as too often happens now.
Thankfully, Buffet’s experience as a farmer (which he has been practicing even longer than philanthropy) has shown him that here too there is a solution. And a big part of this solution is a very straightforward approach known as no-till farming. No-till farming is an approach that eschews tilling the soil in favor of planting nitrogen-fixing cover crops. No-till farming not only increases water retention, saves soil, and reduces the need for chemical fertilizers, it also helps increase yields (and thus it’s a win-win approach). Now it’s just a matter of convincing other farmers of this—which is a big part of Buffet’s project.
This is a fantastic book. Don’t let the fact that Buffet is the son of one of the wealthiest men on the planet dissuade you from taking him seriously. The author may have had a head start in life, but he stands on his own two legs, and he has used his privileged position to help him gain perspective (rather than let it make him arrogant and entitled). Anyone interested in the hunger problem (and the best way to approach it) would be well advised to read this book. A full executive summary of the book will be available at newbooksinbrief dot com; on Tuesday, November 19. A podcast discussion of the book will be available shortly thereafter.