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Are you poor? May 7th, 2017 by

Big smile with banana bunch on head copyWhen Jeff, Paul and I write these blogs we chose our words carefully. We want to paint a positive yet realistic picture of development, reflecting an optimism founded on first-hand experiences. Yet it can be difficult when writing about the poorer regions of the world to avoid emphasising poverty and creating a spiral of despair, however unintentional.

The recent vogue in development is to classify countries by income, the latest in a long list of attempts to find a neutral way to describe poor countries. We have come a long way since Henry Kissinger’s crude and infamous description of Bangladesh as a “basket case”, back in the 1970s. “Third World” countries prevailed for a while, but its use faded as political divisions between East and West began to disappear.

In 1987, the Brundtland Commission on Environment and Development proposed the use of North and South to distinguish rich and developed nations from their impoverished counterparts. This has never quite caught on, though “the global South” is still in current use. “Under-developed” countries had a patronising ring to it and though “developing countries” has a more positive connotation it has never really conveyed a strong sense of transition out of poverty.

Now we have low, middle and high income countries, with rankings monitored by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Donors find this classification a convenient way to separate countries in terms of needs and to target funds at the most deserving. Ranking by income matters a lot because it determines where projects will be funded and allowed to work.

Caravan at petrol staton copyBut there are still anomalies, particularly in large countries such as Brazil and South Africa, where regional disparities in income and life prospects are particularly marked. Even low income countries have wealthy people, and middle income countries have pockets of poverty. When I drove from the Western Cape into the Eastern Cape, in 2000, it was like entering a different country. The landscape became bleaker, towns more ramshackle and the mobile phone signal disappeared.

The OECD list classifies South Africa as “upper middle income”, so there are drawbacks to this method of deciding which countries do and don’t deserve donor support. Fortunately, South Africa is able to fund its own development projects and I was intrigued to experience a few years ago  an initiative that used the expertise and knowledge of white farmers to train black farmers in maize production. Maize has been a popular smallholder crop for many years, but on a small scale and with poor yields.

Hat lady with samples and Richard copyI got to know the white farmers, mostly Afrikaans-speaking, when I ran a course on plant clinics in Drankensville. I assumed that most of them belonged to the rich world, yet although they had undoubtedly benefited from apartheid-era privilege, there was no simple division between them and the black farmers they worked with. At a plant clinic, I watched in admiration as the Afrikaaners gave advice on maize problems in fluent Zulu. Many of the (white) people on the course had been given additional Zulu names, probably by domestic staff. I saw a genuine rapport between the two groups of farmers and an obvious mutual respect. It made me think hard about the way we decide who is poor and who is not.

Later I learned that some of the Afrikaaners had left school with minimal qualifications. They’d been in the army and then worked the land. Yes, they clearly had more material wealth, but to label them rich and the black farmers they worked with poor seemed wrong. This bleak division did little to emphasise the dignified way in which the white and black farmers treated each other.

Remo consultation copyAid agencies and international NGOs learnt long ago that pictures of suffering children attract funds, but they over-emphasise misery at the cost of hope for a better future. A poor country is a poor country, whichever way you look at it. But we should think carefully about how we describe their farmers, people who strive hard to do better. Their ambitions, perseverance and creativity deserve respect, hence the importance of choosing the right labels for the countries where they live.  Our blog stories will continue to feature the successes of farmers and entrepreneurs in poor countries. Publicising their achievements is the simplest way to enrich the lives of everyone.


I’m grateful for the support of the Agriculture Research Council of South Africa and for the support of my colleagues at the Plant Protection Research Institute.

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