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Recurring questions on
Third World development
by Carrol Joy

Discussion of several commonly held beliefs about hunger, poverty and other issues of Third World development, which distort and delay attempts to address human suffering.


By now, many of us involved in educating about hunger, poverty and related development issues have discovered there are certain questions that inevitably arise when we discuss these issues with the public. Struggling to respond, however, it has become increasingly clear to me that, while the questions may remain the same, the answers — like development itself — are constantly changing. This is all to the good, I believe, for it bespeaks the kind of openness to new ideas, insights and experience without which we could not solve the massive problems of underdevelopment which imperil our survival as a world community.

So with the caveat that there are a multitude of perspectives on these questions, and, of course, many other important concerns about development I cannot begin to address in a short article, I’d like to frame some responses. My hope is that you will be stimulated to look more deeply into these matters and to wrestle your own way to a more satisfying understanding of this most crucial global issue.

Q. Why can’t people in these Third World countries grow enough food for themselves?

Actually, they used to. Mass hunger on the scale we see today is a relatively new phenomenon. It has arisen from a combination of factors. In many nations, it can be traced directly back to the effects of colonialism, when nations like Britain, France, Spain, Portugal and The Netherlands essentially invaded large parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America so as to meet the needs of their own ideologies, countrymen and trading partners. During their colonization of these regions they imposed drastic changes on the traditional cultures, including the ancient ways of finding and growing food. They converted land that grew a healthy variety of crops for local inhabitants into land that grew a single crop (like sugar cane or tea) for export, not only forcing many farmers out of the business of providing for their own people, but pushing others onto less fertile land. Thus was set in motion a cycle which gradually led to widespread poverty, an increased birthrate, and severe environmental damage.

The powerful industrialized countries have also pushed their own export crops (like wheat) on Third World nations, thus competing with local farmers who cannot afford to produce such massive amounts of food as cheaply as we can with our heavy machinery and chemicals. A majority of developing countries could grow much of what they need, or at least earn the capital to buy it from elsewhere, if the power brokers, both without and within their own nations, weren’t exploiting farmers and other workers for their own ends.

Distorted view

Q: These Third World governments seem so corrupt and violent. What would it matter what we do if they are oppressing their own people?

It’s true that there is corruption and violence in some governments in the Third World. But we have gotten an exaggerated and distorted view of this matter. People from the Third World often comment that we hold them to standards we ourselves cannot meet, and with all our own corruption in the developed world we’re in no position to criticize them. Certainly we have no Idi Amin. But we have had Hitler and other notorious despots. And when you consider that many of the developing countries have had to create governing structures from scratch in 20-40 years, it’s remarkable how quickly they are passing through and going beyond the inevitable problems all nations must endure in learning to govern themselves.

Just think about Africa. After the Second World War, the continent Africa was subdivided into a whole set of new countries. The Western powers did the subdividing, of course, drawing arbitrary national boundaries between ethnic and cultural communities that had for millennia considered themselves one people, and forcing traditional antagonists to become members of new nations to which they had no real allegiance. To make matters worse, whole new systems of government — based not on the historical patterns of governance in these regions, but on the structures imposed by colonial powers — had to be learned and mastered.

Finally, we have to look at the kind of media reporting we are getting. It’s the media, after all, which has provided most of us with whatever impressions we have about the Third World. And these impressions are about as accurate as the ones Soviet citizens get of the United States. Just as their media have (at least before glasnost) often depicted Americans as either evil profiteers or impoverished beggars, so our media have tended to depict people in the Third world as either violent and corrupt, or totally dependent and helpless. The fact is that Third World governments and people come in all varieties and types, and no simple generalizations can be any more true of them than of us.

Q. Why doesn’t the food and aid we send to Third World countries actually get to the people who need help? So much of it seems to be wasted, or siphoned off by those using it for their own ends.

Again, where do these impressions come from? Most people tell me this idea comes from what they’ve seen on television or read in newspapers and magazines. But this is a one-sided picture, a parallel to the tendency — at least in the United States — to see the whole welfare system in terms of the relatively few welfare cheats who misuse it. The question I would ask anyone who is tempted by that kind of one-sided picture is this: why are we so willing to believe that most Third World people — both within our own borders and abroad — cannot, or will not, use resources we have shared with them, intelligently? Why do we focus on, expect, and believe, the worst?

Of course there is some waste and some mismanagement of development assistance: any time you are trying to move a lot of resources through bureaucracies over distances, a certain percentage is misdirected or misused. Development assistance to the Third World is not unique in that respect. But there are special problems in the Third World that compound the usual logistical and institutional challenges. Food may be rotting on docks, for example, not necessarily because of ineptness, but because there may not be trucks to transport it — or roads to transport it on, or because there is no place to store it while it’s waiting to be moved. The recipient countries are simply too poor to afford such an infrastructure.

Some of the distribution problems are as much the fault of the donor governments as the recipients. The United States government, for instance, usually opts to funnel assistance through political channels in the recipient nation, rather than through grassroots groups working directly with the poor. And just as in the developed nations, governmental bureaucracies in the Third World are strongly affected by special interest groups — particularly the wealthy who help politicians maintain their power. As we know all too well from our own experience in the First World, when the wealthy control resources, they do not necessarily trickle down to the poor.

Still, for every such problem there are probably 10 successes most people never hear about. Grassroots groups are making truly astonishing progress, using often minimal help proffered by the wealthy nations to invent new, appropriate technologies, restore their land, educate their children, and improve their agriculture. Thanks to the capacity people have to learn from past mistakes, both ‘donor’ and ‘recipient’ nations have by now come to a fairly sophisticated understanding of what good relief and development activities require, and they are moving to a new stage of collaboration to put these learnings into practice. Anyone willing to believe there must surely be good news about the Third World will find it. Once you start watching you will wonder why you never noticed it before.

Population growth

Q: Isn’t the rate of population growth in the Third World destroying any chance for things to get better there? Can’t anything be done about it?

The growth rate is indeed high in many parts of the Third World, and this is of tremendous concern to their own leaders, as well as to us. There’s an increasing effort within these nations to find ways of decreasing this growth; in some areas it has actually been going down for some time, though it is still high by our standards. I should point out, however, that if the world’s economic resources were distributed more fairly, there would be no trouble feeding this projected population increase. People who have money — no matter how many of them there are — can get food, while the poor — no matter how much food there is — can afford it.

Poverty is also strongly associated with the occurrence of large families. Without the capacity to pay for help, families must rely on children to work the land (so that the farmer does not lose it), earn income for the family, and care for ageing parents and relatives. But it is also true that the poor people, like many rich people, often deeply love children, consider it a blessing to have a lot of them, and may consider it a sacrilege to try not to have them.

Specific population control measures must be geared to the cultures and lifestyles of the many diverse peoples who are having large families. But there is good reason to believe that, whatever these measures, family size will decrease spontaneously if three things happen: if the standard of living improves (which means people have more income, children survive infancy, and are not chronically ill); if women have access to educational opportunity, and if they have more say in the decision-making of their society. We now have statistical evidence to demonstrate the linkage between these factors and a decrease in population.

We also have evidence in our personal and national histories: if you are middle-aged now, how many brothers and sisters did your own parents have (compared to the number that you have)? Your grandparents? How many of their siblings died when they were very young? What was the overall standard of living in your nation at that time? How much education did the women in the family have? It’s sometimes a revelation to realize that ours were developing nations, our birth rate too was very high.

Developed countries like ours have small families because we are well-off; developing people within our well-off countries — our own poor — tend to have larger families. It is not the breakthrough in birth control that is responsible for a decline in the birth rate: we ‘discover’ or select birth control methods because our economic and social condition is such that we feel hopeful about our future and the future of our children. If the people of the Third World can look forward to living better lives, the kinds of lives we take for granted now, they will solve their own population problem.

Q: Why don’t we show them better ways of doing things? We’re experts in growing food and using all kinds of technologies. If they’d try some of our techniques they would do much better.

One of the most painful lessons well-meaning donor nations have learned is that you can’t simply transplant technologies and techniques from one culture and environment to another. We tried, but many such efforts failed because local conditions — ecological, social, economic and political — were not right for methodologies developed in very different situations. After all, most of the techniques that enabled our own countries to reach their high standard of living evolved from within. Technologies need to be appropriate to the situation in which they will be used. Otherwise they destroy other vital elements of the society or environment and ultimately self-destruct. Besides, why should Third World people be any more anxious to have outsiders tell them how to solve their problems than we are? We have problems too; to solve them, we may be interested in entertaining suggestions, getting help from people with special knowledge, or adapting others’ ideas to our own use. But it is not a natural function of human nature willingly to surrender our own decision-making and problem-solving capacity to outside experts or authorities. Happily, the Third World is rapidly producing some extraordinary innovations that will not only lead to long-term improvement in their lives but contribute to ours as well. There are new techniques in farming, health care, community development, ecology, scientific research, finance, and many other areas that we are beginning to adapt to our own situations. We can help this dynamic process move even faster by providing capital and resources, responding to requests for help with training and education, and by experimenting collaboratively with our counterparts in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Q: Why aren’t we more actively working toward improving life for the poor? We have them in our rich nations too. Why do we feel so apathetic and uninvolved?

We do indeed have Third World problems here at home, and we’re not doing any better at dealing with them than we are with poverty in the Third World. The real answer, I think, is that while we’d like to see people’s lives improve, we’re not at all eager to make the kinds of structural changes in our institutions and systems this would require. On top of that, we don’t really know what changes will be needed or exactly what these changes might do to our own lives. So we cling to the status quo, to what we do know.

One of the greatest impediments to making these changes is the perception that "they" are having problems that "we" can neither relate to nor do anything about. It’s as though we were members of a modern village looking across a chasm at a primitive people struggling for survival on the other side. We might wish to help, but the gulf — internally and externally — is just too wide.

But suppose we see ourselves as being on the same side of the chasm, members of related clans, aware of an encroaching desert at our backs and looking longingly across the abyss at a beautiful green land of great abundance. Our clans may be different in many ways. But we know that all of us love our children and grieve when they suffer; we all crave the self-respect that comes with doing meaningful work and making a contribution to our community; every one of us is joyful when we marry, when we see our children master a new skill, when we create something lovely, or when we experience the presence of God. We sense our commonality and yet celebrate our uniqueness. We realize we are one even as we are many.

And imagine that some of us have been driven to the edge by the consuming fire of hunger and poverty; others, by the deadly oppression of meaninglessness in a world where there is nothing worth getting and nothing inside to give. But bearing down upon us all are the warning winds of impending disaster, of a confluence of crises: the global environment being stressed to the breaking point, the global economic system which is fracturing and will collapse on rich and poor alike, the global war-machine devouring resources as fast as they are created.

Only if we join together, pooling our human and material resources, each contributing what we can, will we be able to build the bridge that could carry us across to the new world. To do so we must recognize the special strengths each of us brings to the task. We must share and supply those unmet needs that prevent some of us from having the strength to take on the task facing us all. We must be sure we have the kinds of leaders within our individual clans who understand the challenge and are willing and able to tackle it. And we must work together at every level to find methods that work for all — and not just to convey us out of our dilemma and into the abundant future that beckons.

At this moment in the world’s history we are indeed standing on the precipice. But we have yet to recognize we are all on the same side. Of course just saying this is so does not convince anyone. The truth of the matter will only come home to people who learn to identify with others very different from themselves, who are able to discover our shared humanity in the context of our many differences. For if we can make this discovery, we will immediately grasp the need for just and equitable systems that support this global family relationship. And when we begin building these new systems on the bedrock of our love for one another and for the earth that supports us all, the world will work and we will find we’ve made it, over to the other side.

From the July/August 1987 issue of Share International


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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005