Why Third World Aid May Make Poverty Worse

The World Bank in its latest examination of global poverty has indicated more than one billion of our fellow human beings live in poverty. In its definition of poverty some 1.1 billion people today live on US$1 a day or less.

Quoting from an Age report of 30/04/93, the bank said it was "increasingly focussing assistance in the developing world on reducing poverty, but faced an uphill battle because of swelling population in many of the poorest regions".

Such an attitude is common today. We are told that people live in poverty because there are too many people. That nature does not provide enough for her children. Such an attitude implies that poverty is the result of nature.

The facts speak otherwise. One billion are in poverty because they are landless. A true story can help illustrate this point. Some years ago, a band of young American and English Quakers set out to assist some villagers in the district of Pifa, on the Ganges Delta in India. Many of these villagers were surviving at starvation level. The Quakers, after outlining their plans to the peasants, fishermen and landowners alike, gained approval and set about their task.

They organised things like:

Signs of progress emerged slowly, but emerged nevertheless. Inspiration grew, health conditions improved, new ideas were put forward.

Five years later, some of the Quakers returned to assess conditions. The day school still existed, but only a quarter of the children were in attendance. The evening school had closed, the clinic hardly used. The villagers had returned to their old ways of agriculture and fishing. "The reason", said one of the Quakers, "was simple but not evident without closer examination."

In the first year after beginning the experiment, both peasants and fisherman earned more than ever before. What was the result? The large landowners at once raised their rents and the smaller land owners soon followed suit. The peasants had to pay more for permission to cultivate the land they worked.

The fishermen had to pay more for permission to cast their nets on the flooded fields. In that way practically the whole increased earnings of the villagers passed into the landowners pockets.

The people of Pifa were unhappy at this. Nevertheless, in the next year they worked hard. Crops were plentiful; there was a rich catch of fish; good prices were paid for the produce. Soon, the landowners raised their rents still further. The people then began to lose courage. What was the use if for all their efforts they got no benefit? The landowners waxed fatter. The peasants and fisherman did not become any thinner, they could not, for otherwise they would die.

The villagers of Pifa soon understood economics. They had found themselves momentarily enriched by the new methods but in the end, all the extra money went to the landowners. If this new idea would not work, what faith could they put in any other novelties? Perhaps, after all, the old methods were the best.

The story reveals a more fundamental problem. But we must not blame the landowners. There is nothing unlawful in "owning" land, and the landowners seek only to do what we all would do to gain as much as possible. It is the ownership of the rent that is more fundamental. By improving their methods of production, the workers of Pifa were getting an increased return for the same application of their labour. Land owners quickly saw that the workers could then "offer" more rent for access to "their" land. The villagers extra efforts increased the rent of land. But rent is not created by land owners. Rent arises quite naturally and spontaneously from the activities of people in a community, going about their everyday business.

So the community created rent belongs to everyone. To relieve third world conditions, redistribution of the land is not a solution. Collecting the rent is all that is necessary.

Meanwhile, the World Bank "has just appealed for the passage of new financing for the International Development Association." The IDA is the Bank's arm that makes interest free loans available to the poorest countries. Approval of US$18 billion in new development funding is being requested.

The bank called for more lending to assist with:

Land price is the enemy of third world aid.

Copyright (c) 1995 Geonomic Services <geonomics@glasswings.com.au>