Africa’s food crisis: Can sustainable agriculture be the answer?

Reading time: 6 minutes

Food crisis has been a reality in Africa for many years, and at this point images of malnourished African people, although still shocking, are no longer news. In 2020, due to the pandemic, we saw a tremendous worsening of world hunger. This calls for an urgent change in the primary sector, mainly to more sustainable practices.

If we don’t change the way we are operating in the agri-food systems we won’t be able to achieve the SDGs (sustainable development goals), and the goals for 2030

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States Chief
Mother and child in Nigeria suffering from hunger and malnutrition

The primary sector still stands as the main driver of African economies. Modernization and research on this matter are, however, far from its potential, as most workers are still unqualified. Aligned with this is the lack of farmers commitment to change their practices and see the long-term results of overexploitation. Consequently, responsible and fact-based agriculture is rare, especially in rural areas. These damaging agricultural and pastoralist methods, alongside climate change and its resulting extreme weather conditions, will be unsustainable for African ecosystems. As consumers begin to value organic and chemical-free production, a greener approach could improve both the environmental and economic situation of African nations. Sustainable agriculture is an almost perfect fit with Africa’s current state.

But what is meant by sustainable agriculture?

This concept consists of managing renewable natural resources in such way that provides food, income and livelihood for present and future generations, while maintaining or improving the economic productivity and ecosystem services of these resources. This type of farming combines environmental safety with economic profitability and efficient use of non-renewable resources. Conserving water resources, reducing the use of chemicals, developing ecosystem and crop biodiversity are just some of the goals of sustainable agriculture.

Over the years, value and demand for organic products has increased, thus by adopting sustainable agricultural practices, Africa would distinguish itself from most of the developing world that, unfortunately, has been increasing its use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, as it is the case of Brazil and Bangladesh. In addition, to purchase those same pesticides and fertilizers, farmers need to request loans, limiting household budget as debt accumulates. Thus, unlike their counterparts, organic farmers have increased their earnings and food security.

Graph 1: Increase in pesticide use, from 1990 to latest data (2007-12)

The benefits of sustainable agriculture

An example that clearly illustrates the benefits of sustainable agriculture is Ethiopia. In the degraded region of Tigray, a 10-year experiment, starting in 1996, provided evidence that organic and sustainable agriculture does have benefits to poor farmers and communities. To do so, ecological agricultural practices were introduced, including composting, water and soil conservation activities, among others.

The impact of compost on crop yield was rapidly visible, and data collected from 2002-2004 indicated that, on average, composted fields gave higher yields, sometimes double, than those treated with chemical fertilisers. Moreover, the positive effects of compost can remain up to 4 years, opposite to the latter that must be applied every year. With this, farmers have not only been able to cease debt resulting from fertilizers purchases, but also, since they are obtaining higher yields, it leads to economic returns. All this just by changing from fertilizers to compost.

Furthermore, since organic production focuses on smaller and more diverse crops, communities have access to a wider variety of nutrients and vitamins that help fight hunger and malnutrition. This also has a positive impact on HIV/AIDS patients that when malnourished, develop the full symptoms of the disease at a faster pace. Other health benefits include the reduction of illnesses and deaths due to agrochemical exposure.

A more independent continent

Nevertheless, as we all know, foreign aid is a very present reality for Africa, which contributes for it to be overshadowed by other nations. Thereby, offering local people work-for-food opportunities allows them to take care of their immediate food needs, while ensuring that they feel ownership of a project they have built themselves. This type of model encourages long-term participation for a truly sustainable system, and it improves physical capital, since market accessibility becomes a requirement. By building a network between farmers, NGOs and the government, many infrastructures would improve, as the agriculture industry tends to move forward in these African nations.

An indirect benefit would be African communities’ view on education, as their traditional knowledge builds up with new information. Educational programs on agriculture have been proven effective in other regions. In China, for example, farmer field schools helped reduce pesticide usage while raising crop yields. By seeing their educational and technological improvements literally bear fruit, governments can value sustainable agriculture differently and ensure children attendance at school. An increase in productivity can benefit the latter, since selling production surpluses will help paying for school fees. Similarly, an increase in labor demand for related activities could increase women’s participation in the economy and generate different sources of income for households.

However, it is not that easy…

Some challenges arise for African countries when seizing opportunities regarding the adoption of sustainable agricultural practices, especially in terms of market access difficulties and building productive capacities. This happens mainly due to the absence of economic incentives from the African Governments and their decision to implement policies, such as agrochemical subsidies, which makes the transition even less appealing.

UN calls for more funding for organic farming in Africa

A further constraint is the lack of awareness, not only at the farm level but in the whole society. The fact that this type of agriculture is completely absent from its agricultural education and R&D leads to massive misinformation barriers that inhibit its implementation. Related to this is the fact that no system can become operational if it is not institutionalized: in many African countries, research and development in agriculture are inadequate and suffer from lack of trained personnel, facilities, and motivation, making it difficult to build satisfactory research traditions and local expertise.

Additionally, there are three conditions that are crucial to analyze when studying the possible implementation of sustainable agriculture in a country: reasons for non-sustainability must be known, there must be sufficient information on the resource base to target activities that will foster sustainability, and the resource base can be monitored to evaluate sustainability. The problem is that these are uncertain in almost every African country. Another relevant restriction is the fact that developing countries do not have the appropriate research methodology to implement sustainable agriculture. Fundamental questions, such as what treatments to implement, what measurements to consider, how the data can be analyzed and how long the experiments should be conducted, are yet to be answered.

African farmer using pesticides

The challenges are worth surpassing

All in all, sustainable agriculture is assured to have a positive impact in Africa, but it requires appropriate incentives and intensified financial and technical assistance to ensure food security and social stability. It is essential for African governments to create awareness on the subject so that private organizations can contribute to the implementation of sustainable agricultural practices.

In a time where the world population does not seem to cease increasing, additional land will have to be cultivated, which gives even more importance to this issue: since all the major causes of land degradation are the result of poor land management, sustainable agriculture will do a great job preventing it.

Sources: The Borgen Project, Vox, African Wildlife Foundation, Stein T. Holden, Regional Office for Africa, African Business, Rainbow for the Future, Science Direct, Taylor & Francis Online, UNDP, Agence Française de Développement (AFD), The African Exponent, African News, Africa Center, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, Third World Network.

Madalena Andrade

Magda Costa

China’s Victory on Absolute Poverty

Reading time: 6 minutes

On the 25th of February 2021, President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) announced that China had achieved an outright victory in eliminating absolute poverty in the country by lifting 770 million people out of poverty in the past 40 years. It was also stated that over 70 percent of the total global reduction in absolute poverty was attributed to Chinese efforts, for the same time frame.  

Nevertheless, there has been plenty of scepticism from western media regarding these achievements, especially concerning potential differences between what the World Bank and the PRC consider to be absolute poverty. With this article, our aim will be to analyse the veracity of these claims by examining the statistics concerning China’s poverty alleviation efforts, while also assessing what policy measures were adopted to reduce abject poverty. 

What does the PRC consider to be poverty? Concerning China’s poverty line, there have been three different standards employed by the Chinese government to characterise poverty: the 1978, the 2008 and the 2010 ones, the latter being 2300 yuan per person per year, meaning 6,3 yuan ($0,94) per day. For the World Bank, the most recent standard for poverty sits at $1,90 per day (at 2011 Purchasing Power Parity (PPP)). Unfortunately, for the untrained eye and sensational media, this glaring 1 dollar difference implies that it exists a discrepancy in criteria between the two institutions. However, this thought process has a crucial failure: it fails to put China’s poverty line value in 2011 PPP prices. 

Figure 1 – China’s 2010 poverty line at constant prices

From the graph above, it can be observed that China’s poverty line value is not a constant 2300 yuan for each year, but rather one that has adapted to price changes, with a poverty value of 2536 yuan per year, equivalent to 6,95 yuan per day, for 2011. According to the 2011 PPP, 1$ would be equivalent to 3,52 yuan, meaning that China’s poverty line would be approximately 2,00$ day (2011 PPP), which is in fact a higher value than the World Bank’s. 

Figure 2 – China’s Population living in poverty throughout the years (2010 standard) 

Regarding the second claim made, the data indicates that it was in fact in China where most poverty alleviation occurred: in the 1980–2018 timeframe, the 750 million Chinese who were lifted out of poverty represent approximately 63% of the total change in the poverty population, which went from 1926 million people in 1980 to 698,4 in 2010 (at the $1,90 Standard). 

One might still think that the 1,90$ standard is still too unambitious for a person to be considered lifted out of absolute poverty, because even if an individual does earn this minimum amount of money, he/she might still not have access to clean water or proper medical care. In fact, while the World Bank claims that in 2018 there were around 700 million people living in extreme poverty, the UN reported a whopping 1,5 billion people as being food insecure and unable to conduct normal human activity. 

Two assurances and three guarantees

Consequently, the Chinese government, when establishing the 2010 poverty line, deemed essential to include in the poverty alleviation objectives the “two assurances and three guarantees”: the two assurances, also called the two no worries, being adequate access to proper food and clothing, which would be assured if the 1,90$ benchmark was to be achieved, whereas the three guarantees are the following ones: 

The access to compulsory education, which was boosted by investing in new public-school facilities in poorer regions, especially for pre-school children who lack the independence to go to distant schools on their own. In addition, the PRC government established a subsidy program where families only gained access to extra income if their children attended compulsory schooling.  

The access to basic medical care, which, once again, was boosted by investing in new health care facilities and in the number of medical personnel employed by the state. For remote impoverished villages, a program was created where poor families were ensured at least a visit from a state physician each month.  

Figure 3 – Chinese Government’s investment in Poverty alleviation measures 

Finally, the access to secure housing, as most of the previously impoverished counties, in this past decade, were in mountainous regions, such as the Sichuan or Yunnan provinces, which have limited potential for economic growth. These citizens’ decrepit homes, which lacked access to essential amenities, combined with their low incomes derived from old-fashioned agricultural practices, possessed a significant challenge to their lives’ improvement. Thus, the Chinese government subsidised the construction of new houses where the access to clean water and electricity was assured in areas with less arduous conditions, allowing these citizens to relocate to them for free. 

Figure 4 – Newly built relocation homes for Sichuan’s impoverished families

The Job-Placement

Evidently, when establishing these new communities, the necessity to create new job opportunities for the relocated citizens arose. For those that were re-established in different rural areas, they were able to maintain their agricultural practices, albeit with renewed tools and machinery funded by local governments. For those that were moved into urban areas, most were able to find new jobs in the secondary sector, many of which were propelled by the e-commerce sector.

The prevalence of e-commerce in China means that it has never been so easy for local firms to ship their products to other parts of China, which increases their potential consumer pool and allows for remote regions to have more profitable firms. As such, local governments were able to cooperate with the private sector in establishing new factories to employ these relocated citizens. 

This job-placement example demonstrates what has been a continuous process in Chinese society for the past 40 years: the organised cooperation between the government/public sector and private enterprises. As a market-socialist nation, China’s economy is organized in a considerably different way than Western Countries’: if not for the prevalence of Public State Enterprises in the economy, then the regulatory hand of the Chinese government vastly outweighs the West’s, who more often adopts a laisse-faire style approach to solving economic problems. 

Nonetheless, despite running these government projects, China’s debt-to-GDP ratio has remained at relatively low levels, although it has recently risen, mainly due to COVID19. Likewise, its GDP growth rate has remained positive throughout this period, meaning that these types of projects are not some sort of far-fetched utopian idea, but rather they are feasible projects that tackle poverty problems at their core

Figure 5 – China’s real GDP per capita (at 2017 dollars PPP)  

China as an example to follow 

In conclusion, it is vital for policymakers, especially those working in the field of development economics, to understand how China’s implemented policies could be adopted in other parts of the world, because, as it stands, it was in China where most progress has occurred. Furthermore, as the UN 2030 goal is to eliminate absolute poverty, the effective way to achieve it will surely involve getting a better grasp on past data and policy decisions guiding the world towards a better future. 

Sources: The World Bank, National Bureau of Statistics of China, The Guardian, Beijing Review, BBC, CGTN, Council Pacific Affairs, Xinhua News Agency 

André Rodrigues

The ugly truth about palm oil

Reading time: 5 minutes

Palm oil is a silent presence in most of our daily lives. It can be found from bread to ice cream, from toothpaste to chips and from soap to fuel, but do we really know the truth about it? 

Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil original of a palm tree named Elaeis guineensis, native from Africa, even though most plantations nowadays are in south-east Asia, with Indonesia and Malaysia representing 85% of global production. Due to its characteristics, such as high saturation, oxidation resistance, stability at high temperatures, low cost and versatility, it is widely adopted on a globe scale.  

It can be found in more than a half of packaged products consumed in the US, in 70% of personal care items and it can be used as animal feed, as a biofuel or as cooking oil, and it is estimated that we consume, in a global average, 8kg of palm oil per year, making it the most used and demanded vegetable oil in the world.  

On the one hand, this crop is the most efficient when compared with others, such as soy, coconut or sunflower. Also, its costs of production are lower than every other animal or vegetable oil, making it very cheap and accessible to the consumer, allowing it to be the used widely as a cooking oil in Asia, where the economic and demographic growth would lead to the increase in demand in the future (today India, China and Indonesia account for 40% of the world’s consumption). In the west, it was adopted in some diets, because it is healthier than other fats, and its use as a biofuel corresponds to more than half of its importation into Europe. 

To supply all the palm oil demand with alternative vegetable oil, it would take almost five times more land than coconut, sunflower and rapeseed, and more than eight times soy. Due to this, palm oil supplies 35% of the world’s vegetable oil, on just 10% of the land. Thus, the suppliers were encouraged to increase production, and, for that purpose, they counted with the support of private funds, bank loans and the IMF (International Monetary Fund). 

This industry has a considerable impact on the economies of its producers, accounting for 13,7% of Malaysia’s gross national income, and it is the product more exported by Indonesia, the world’s top producer, accounting for nearly 40% of the worldwide production, providing employment to over two million Indonesians directly. 

Between 1995 and 2015, its annual production quadrupled, from 15.2m tonnes to 62.6m tonnes and by 2050, it is expected to quadruple again, reaching 240m tonnes, which lead the production to spread through Africa and Latin America. This production expansion promoted an increase in employment in this sector and, consequently, could lead to a decrease in poverty. However, this is not what has been happening

The workers in Malaysia and Indonesia complain about gender inequality: “The women on the plantations have no rights, not even the right to a salary in many cases” says Herwin Nasution, president of SERBUNDO, a trade union alliance representing mainly agricultural workers in Indonesia. The inexistence of an official employment contract makes these workers vulnerable to illegal conditions, turning the plantations into a place where labour exploitation and human rights abuse are a reality, and where, sometimes, child labour is found.  

In fact, the working conditions are very poor, with long shifts, limited access to clean water and use of toxic chemicals without adequate protective equipment, and the workers receive no support from their employees regarding health insurance, maternity license or school facilities.  

Additionally, palm oil production has a devastating impact on the environment. In order to produce the palm trees, tropical forests were burned and cut down, in one of the regions of the globe with more biodiversity and making it responsible for about 8% of the world’s deforestation between 1990 and 2008 (only in Indonesia there was recorded a loss of 25.6 million hectares of tree cover, during the period from 2001 to 2018). By burning these forests, greenhouse gas is released, namely CO2, having a severe contribution to global warming, and it is the main reason why Indonesia is the third country in the world with more gas emissions. Moreover, the intensive cultivation method without planning or care for the environment could lead to soil erosion and water pollution.  

Furthermore, it destroys the habitat of hundreds of species, even when it is considered illegal, as it happened in Riau, Indonesia, one of the most affected regions, where 84% of elephants living there died after losing 65% of its forest, in the last quarter a century. But Bornean Pygmy elephants weren’t the only ones affected by the deforestation. More than 100,000 Bornean orangutans, a critically endangered species, died between 1999 and 2015, and almost 75% of Tesso Nilo National Park in Sumatra, that secured the habitat for the endangered Sumatran tiger is now covered with illegal palm oil plantations.  

You could think that a way to solve this would be if we stopped producing or consuming it, and instead started buying other vegetable oils, such as soy. However, the problem would remain, because the need to make way to the plantation would stay the same. Also, these other plantations would need more land than palm oil, making these alternatives possibly worse, and, besides that, none of them would be a perfect substitute since none of them has the same versatility, utility or functionality as palm oil.

Despite this, the palm oil problem could still be lessened. The solution to this problem could be to change the way it is produced to a more sustainable one, that respects the rights of workers, recognizes the responsibility with the environment and uses the effluents and waste to other activities, along with the increase of inspections in order to close all the illegal plantations. The consumer could distinguish the products produced in a sustainable way through the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) certificate (around 20% of the world’s production), that forbids deforestation and promotes the conservation of these highly diverse habitats.

The awareness regarding this topic has increased and, as a consequence, several companies and countries demand the production of this vegetable oil to have a certification of sustainability or are applying measures against it. In Norway, all importations of this oil as biofuel were banned, and in the UK, the supermarket chain Iceland started a campaign[1] to ban palm oil from their label products until it is proven to be of sustainable origin. In some cases, we can already see the results, such as in the UK, where 75% of the total palm oil imported was sustainable, by 2016.  

With development economies pursuing an exponential growth in palm oil production, such as Colombia, where fields that were formerly used to coca plantation or to raise cattle are converted to palm trees plantations, making it more sustainable, a new tomorrow to palm oil production arises.

[1] An example of this campaign is the following advertisement:

Sources: The Guardian, Org, WorldWildlife, Statista, Dialogochino, Cell, BBC

Mariana Gomes

The disproportionate effects of climate change

Reading time: 6 minutes

Nowadays, climate change is more and more discussed to a point where one might think that he/she already knows everything there is to know about it. However, there are still many aspects that we are not aware of. For example, many do not know that pollution itself, be it air, land, or water, causes more than 9 million premature deaths, which put into perspective represents almost 3 times more than deaths caused by AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria all together. Therefore, although climate change and everything that can be included in this topic is very much discussed, to this day, it continues to be a very present and important topic in our lives, and we, as  humanity, still have a long way to go. This article seeks to explore the disproportionate consequences of climate change in the developing world and the role that developed countries must take to help reduce the burden.   

But what is the developing countries’ contribution to climate change?  

Primarily, it is important to take a look at the global carbon emissions and realize that developing nations are responsible for 63% of it. Apart from the fact that China and India alone account for 28% of the global carbon emissions, which corresponds to almost 50% of the developing countries’ emissions, the value is still alarming. Asia, Latin America and Africa are the regions that contribute the most to current carbon emissions due to lack of technology and resources to fight pollution, as their economies are still growing, and this must be considered when deciding what policies and measures to be taken.

Figure 1– Annual total CO2 emissions, by world region  

The Paris Agreement indeed acknowledges that the efforts to reduce carbon emissions cannot be the same for developed and developing countries, allowing the less developed ones to emit more carbon until they reach a certain development level that enables them to stop relying on carbon-intensive industries. However, the World Resources Institute shows that it is possible to reduce annual emissions while growing the economy, and the key is to raise the use of renewable resources. This approach looks ideal as it combines decarbonisation with economic growth and poverty reduction, which must remain the priority. Yet, there are still significant barriers preventing developing countries from adopting renewable energies, as many struggle with poor governance, gaps in technical and financial expertise, and lack of resources. The need of implementing specific strategies and policies shaped to each country’s circumstances requires the expertise that only developed countries can provide, reinforcing the importance of a global coordination to shift economies away from carbon-intensive industries.  

The rebound of climate changes   

Besides being the ones that contribute the most to carbon emissions, developing countries are also disproportionately affected by the negative effects of global warming. Observing graph 1, it becomes clear that the developing world has the highest mean exposure to air pollution. According to the World Health Organization, around 98% of people in developing nations live in polluted air areas, while in developed countries the number decreases to 56%.  

Graph 1 – Mean annual exposure (in micrograms per cubic meter) to air pollution  

The vulnerability that defines the less developed countries ends up limiting their ability to prevent and respond to the impacts of climate change. Let’s consider the fast fashion industry to better understand this issue: as to avoid the bans of chemicals that most governments of developed countries set, multinational companies place most of their manufacturing processes in developing countries, where the dependency on the clothing industry does not allow governments to act as a way of prevention. Moreover, these countries are the least able to afford the consequences and it has been shown that climate change can reverse significant development gains.   

Furthermore, one of the main consequences of the high incidence of emissions in developing countries is the increasing number of climate refugees. Although it does not have an official recognition, the term climate refugee is often used to identify people who are forced to leave their homes because of climate change and global warming. It is also common to hear the term environmental refugee, which aggregates not only the effects of climate change, but also natural disasters that may force people to be displaced. The international organisation Red Cross estimates that the number of climate refugees is higher than the number of political refugees, and scientists predict that in 2050 the number of people leaving their homes due to the consequences of global warming might reach 200 million. Since most displaced people move to safer areas within the same country or near the borders, the burden will continue to fall onto the developing world. The scarce resources become even scarcer with the arrival of refugees, which may end up threatening the lives of millions of people.   

The sad reality  

However, as the gap widens between the wealthy and the poor, the unfortunate reality of developing nations is revealed: there is no infrastructure in place to fight climate change. Funds are mismanaged, resources are scarce, and governments have other priorities – feeding their present population, for example. Sadly, the burden of this fight is done through foreign aid.  

Foreign aid has been effective in the past in combating climate change and is an important tool for those most in need. In Africa, there have been repeated efforts to slow down the desertification of the Sahel, a land strip which divides hundreds of millions between the desert and fertile land. On the other hand of the spectrum, preventative measures have also been put in place, such as giving the native population more incentives to adopt more sophisticated farming methods rather than the slash-and-burn one, still used in many African villages today. Michael Hübler, professor at the Leibniz Universitat in Hannover, claims that, in the future, foreign aid will be divided in two branches: short-term emergency needs, and long-term development needs. He argues that foreign aid must be given in equal parts to both societal development and the preservation of the planet’s biodiversity, as only this will foster real growth in the far future.  

Figure 2 – Interdependent dimensions of future foreign aid  

Nevertheless, foreign aid can only last so long. Developed countries have limited amounts of resources that can be used to help other nations in need; developing economies must find a self-sustaining way of fighting climate change. In many cases, foreign help does not account for traditional solutions which have been reliable in the past. For example, in the Pacific Islands, rising sea levels have historically been fought through natural solutions, such as planting more mangroves, a small tree that is more readily sustained in poorer contexts. Foreign aid lacks this nuance. Looking at this from another perspective, as the threat of climate change looms over the world, developed countries will begin focusing retaliatory efforts on themselves rather than developing countries, hence why foreign aid will reach its end date in the near future.  

A change is in order   

It is not known whether humanity will overcome climate change, but the reality is clear: this is the most important issue facing the planet in the 21st century – and, sadly, none will be more affected than those living in developing nations. The consequences will be disastrous if not dealt properly, and we can expect millions of climate refugees flocking to major metropolises in the next 30 years. Poor nations must pollute to grow; developed nations did the same over one hundred years ago – but this is not sustainable. Foreign aid can only do so much to offer alternative methods of growth; sustainable growth may only be achieved in a clean manner by using natural methods, harkening to other times without factories and pollution. It may be hard, but it is possible. 

Sources: The World Bank, Unites Nations, Earth.Org, National Geographic, UNHCR – The UN Refugee Agency, The conversation  

Madalena Andrade

Guilherme Barroca

A New Era for Development Economics

Reading time: 7 minutes

Economics is commonly seen as a theoretical branch of the social sciences – one of its own branches, however, is not. Development economics, which deals with growth of lower income countries, provides, in contrast, a very hands-on approach to the application of its models. Central to this branch of economics is the last mile problem. 

The Last Mile Problem 

Many fail to understand the obstacles towards providing supplies to remote areas in underdeveloped countries. Medical supplies, schoolbooks, and transportation of essential goods (all of which are the basis of human development) cannot be sent to their destinations due to a lack of supporting infrastructure. To illustrate this, let us take the example of a shipment of vaccines to a village in Africa: while it certainly is possible to get the vaccines to the closest regional capital, many times, there is no infrastructure that can safely transport from the capital to the village. This last stretch is the crux of the last mile problem. 

Fig. 1 – Illustration of the Last Mile Problem

Theory vs Experience  

Older development economics theories have sought to fight the last mile problem (decades before the term was even coined), but in a standoffish, figure-it-out-yourselves way, post-WWII economists such as Ragnar Nurske saw that development was to be overseen by the nation’s government, investing in many different industries, rejecting trade with other countries. Others preferred neoclassical models, where a laissez-faire market approach would of most benefit, the government interferes the minimum in economic affairs of both individuals and society. However, what most economists from this era failed to understand were the underlying issues that were at the heart of these countries’ underdevelopment: disease prevention and education. These were crucial points that not just theory could solve. They had to be tested on-field. 

A revolutionizing and experimental approach to Development Economics was introduced to us in 2019 by Michael Kremer, Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee, awarding them the Nobel Prize in Economics. This innovative approach implemented Randomized Control Trials (RCT) experiments, a reliable way to infer and confirm causality relationships, and so much was achieved. When faced with a certain question/concern, through randomised allocated regions or groups of people, experiments are assigned, tackling the problem in many ways. Afterwards, the outcomes between the different trials with or without interventions are compared. With this experimental process one can assess the impact of social policies on poor and middle-income countries.  

Process of Randomized Controlled Trials

So, if in the past, most development economists created their work tucked away in the comfort of their offices, many have now started to complement and base their ideas and deductions in experimental on-field work. In special focus on the work of these three pioneers, their trials were mainly conducted in India and Africa, striving to find new and innovative ways to fight poverty and improve people’s living standards. Some of the problems tackled regarded important old concerns such as health and education.  

The impact of randomized controlled trials 

When it comes to health, immunization rates are the most predominant issue. According to UNICEF, to this day, around 27 million children and 40 million pregnant women are not provided with a basic package of immunizations, yearly. This leads to many deaths that could have been prevented by more efficient practice and supply of incentives for vaccination.  

In India, although vaccination services are offered exempt of any charge, in public health facilities, the immunization rate still remains low in some areas, specifically the more rural and poorer. As a response to this, Duflo and Banerjee randomly grouped 134 villages in rural India into 3 groups: one in which there was a monthly reliable mobile immunization camp, where a nurse and an assistant went to the villages, providing easier access to vaccination services in those villages; another with the same immunization camp, but for each completed immunization, the children’s households received incentives (raw lentils and metal plates); and finally the control group (i.e. with no intervention done).  

The results showed that the second group had the most positive outcome, increasing vaccination rates by six times more than before. This was a result of people having easier access to getting vaccinated and incentives that gave a reason to not postpone their immunization. In fact, it ended up being less costly per vaccination to provide these incentives, since the medical professionals needed to be paid regardless of the services being provided or not.  

Moreover, efficiency in education, in terms of incentivizing children to attend school, was also empirically studied by these three economists. They started by discarding previous objectives/solutions that came from the assumption that the problem was centred around the poor management and inefficiency of teachers, curriculums, and pedagogy programs, and instead focused on the design of the educational system itself. Thus, in contrast, Pathram and J-PAL, the research organisation founded by Banerjee and Duflo, studied a practical and innovative way to teach primary grade children which prioritized and assessed their actual learning levels (not the specific class year they were in). Instead of constantly flunking children that lacked specific knowledge from previous school years, they undertook another methodology, which was evaluated and found effective, known as “Teaching at The Right Level”. Such method grouped students into the same learning levels and provided them with targeted resources to achieve higher levels. This ended up showing that children were capable of learning fundamental skills such as how to read and basic math in just 30-45 days.  

At a 2010 Ted Talk event, Esther Duflo also shed light on how to subsidize education by observing in which interventions a 100$ grant would be more effective in incentivizing extra years of education. Surprisingly, it turned out that just by explaining to people the benefits of education, something inexpensive to do, it increased school attendance by 40 extra years in that community. Furthermore, based on a past field study by Kremer, in regions where it is common to have worm infections, offering deworming treatments to children in schools added up to 28.6 more years, being the second most effective intervention. 

A step in the right direction 

All in all, the world of development economics was forever changed with the introduction of experimental research. For years, most economic reasoning and foreign aid has derived from a neo-classic economic approach in which it was believed that by increasing GDP per Capita through improvements in market structure, technology and public goods would make people automatically behave in a more socially beneficial way. As a result, the impact of this help was never capable of being accountable or fully efficient and most poor countries remained in the same situation. 

However, as one can imagine, these small and geographically exclusive experiments are also restricted by some issues. The broader is the problem we want to solve, the harder it is to draw a specific and effective resolution for it, so this field of study needs to be continuously evolving. Nevertheless, a new collaboration with behavioural economics and experimental approach, through Randomized Control Trials, opened the doors to new ways of unconventional thinking, providing life changing solutions and helped development economists improve substantially causality reasoning.

Team’s note

Dear reader, as we have reached the end of the article and being RCT a very broad topic, if you would like to further explore RCT in the context of economics, then take a look at this article. If you also wish to know what Nudging and RCTs have in common, check this article.

Sources: Brookings, ResearchGate, Journal of African Economies, Habitat for Humanity, Great Britain, J-Pal, MIT News, The Conversation, TED Talk Ideas Worth Spreading, Firstpost, Thebmj, Hindustan Times 

Benedita Elias

Guilherme Barroca

Fast Fashion: what we are not seeing

Reading time: 5 minutes

The term “fast fashion” refers to the highly profitable first world fashion industry grounded on the low-cost mass production of clothing, accessories and footwear in third world countries, which allows consumers to purchase new, trendy and readily available garments for the lowest prices. 

The word “fast” describes how quickly retailers can place new designs into the stores all around the world, keeping pace with the constant demand for more and different styles. Its origins date back to late 20th century as manufacturing became cheaper with the use of new materials like nylon and polyester. Many companies, such as Zara, H&M and Forever21, started building its business models on inexpensive labor industries in Asia, creating seasonal and trendy designs that easily pierced consumers all over the world due to its low prices. But what is the cost of this rapid turn-over of low-cost garments?  

Primarily, we must focus on the significant environmental impacts of fast fashion. Approximately 80 billion piecesof new clothing are purchased every year, leading mass production of clothing to account for 8% of worldwide carbon emissions and placing the fashion industry in the top 5 of the most polluting industries in the world. Moreover, this industry is considered to be the second-largest consumer of the world’s water supply: according to a National Geographic study, each cotton shirt takes 2700 litters of water to be made, enough water to sustain one human being for three years.  

Water needed to do a shirt 

On top of that, fast fashion uses pesticides for dyeing and production, leading to a heavy pollution of waterways in many developing countries. This happens because whilst in developed countries governments ban most of these chemicals, in the poorer ones their dependency on the clothing industry does not allow them to do so, which leads us to the main damage made by this industry: its tremendous impact on the countries in which production takes place.  

Because most multinational fashion companies set their factories in countries with inadequate labor laws and little to no government control, working conditions are dehumanising and dangerous, as many people do not have the luxury to turn down any form of work and have no choice but to work under these conditions in order to survive. 

These conditions include a 14 to 16 hours of work per day, seven days a week while facing physical and verbal abuse from their supervisors and often locked in closed spaces filled with toxic substances and no ventilation. In many countries, minimum wages range from a half to a fifth of the living wage required for a family to meet its basic needs, leading textile workers to be some of the lowest-paid employees in the world. 

However, the main issue taken by the fast fashion industry into developing countries is child exploitation. The race between companies to find the ever-cheaper sources of labor, in order to achieve the common goal of maximising profits, has led them to neglect basic human rights and cope with some of the worst forms of child labor. This happens because many employers in these countries actually prefer employing children, as much of the supply chain requires low-skilled tasks and some are even better suited to children due to their small fingers, which do not damage the crop.   

Bangladesh, India, China, Thailand and Pakistan are some of the 51 countries that use child labor in the garment industry, in which millions of children are subject to long working hours, exposure to pesticides and often paid below the minimum wage, which we have already discussed is far from being enough for living a decent life with basic needs. According to the International Labour Organisation, there are around 170 million children aged between five and seventeen years old in child labor, almost 17% of the global population of children. Of these, half are working for fashion supply chains.  

Children working on factories

But  as with most topics, there is another side to it. While the treatment and compensations of textile workers in developed countries is inhumane and a potential violation of basic human rights, there are positive effects that cannot be ignored. The choice between a life on the streets and a modest-paying job is a choice between life and death for many in developing countries. Not to mention children, without a certain commitment to a place to spend their time, tend to fall towards prostitution and drugs as a way to make ends meet. Despite all its flaws, the textile industry is, at the moment, one of the factors that plays a part in deterring the descent of the younger generation into an even worse life. 

In addition, this industry employs thousands of workers and, in an extreme scenario where people simply stop consuming, it will cause many who really needs this job, despite its atrocious conditions, to lose it and be in an even worse financial situation.  The lesser of two evils.  

Nevertheless, the fast fashion cycle isn’t limited to its production in developing countries; a piece of clothing can travel half the globe in its lifetime. Finished products are shipped and sold to Western nations – this is fast fashion’s first pipeline. In developed countries, damaged or unwanted pieces of clothing are donated to charitable organisations, which redistribute them to developing countries – this is the second pipeline.  

Therefore, the cycle of self-consuming fast fashion is perpetuated across the globe, incentivising poorer countries to keep producing clothing articles at extremely low costs, as the resulting influx of donated clothes from developed countries is a cheaper alternative to clothing than the establishment of a self-serving textile industry within the developing country.  

Let us take the African example: the continent once renowned for its fabrics and textiles, coveted by European explorers, has a dying clothing industry due to overwhelming donations from abroad. The image of an African child in a worn-down graphic tee or a Los Angeles Lakers jersey is all too common. Foreign imports of clothing intensified during the 1980s and 1990s when trade barriers were removed.  

Some East African nations, in an effort to reignite their textile industry, proposed a ban of clothing imports by 2019. This plan was swiftly rescinded due to pressures by developed countries such as the US, which stand to gain from fast fashion’s second pipeline – over 40,000 US jobs would be lost. It is important to take into account the negative effects of donating clothing towards developing countries, as they may be causing more harm than good.  

All in all, fast fashion is a contentious topic; there is no denying that our lives, as developed nations, have benefited from its fruits. Our easy clothing doesn’t come without its downfalls, however. Where do we draw the line? Many turn a blind eye to fast fashion’s vicious cycle – but we cannot keep ignoring it. Perhaps a more conscious choice of clothing is in order.  

Sources: The New York Times & The Guardian

Foto de perfil de Guilherme Barroca

Guilherme Barroca

Foto de perfil de Madalena Andrade

Madalena Andrade

Telecommunications: The next big step for Africa

Team’s note

Dear reader,
The article you’re about to read is the product of a challenge the teams Development Economics and Technology made to each other: to create a relevant article about submarine telecommunication cables. Curious about how can these cables possibly relate to Development Economics? Keep reading!

Every day, we hear about new technologic innovations and digital products and services made to boost our economy and make our lives much easier. This quick access to any sort of information at just a tap of a finger has been considered the new normal. But how is it evolving in developing countries on the African Continent?

Contrary to what you would think, Africa has been evolving quite rapidly in terms of telecommunication infrastructures. Did you know that, in 2019, the number of cell phones per 100 habitants in Botswana was 174? This comes from the fact that cell phones are way cheaper and easier to use than personal computers, for example, making the implementation of the internet in Africa mostly instigated by this.  

One of the key players in enabling Africa to connect countries both inside and outside the continent are the submarine telecommunication cables. With its establishment in some key regions alongside the coast of Africa, such as South Africa and Nigeria, this continent was exposed to a new era of globalization. The purpose of the cables is to transmit telecommunication signals across seas and oceans in order to connect continents and provide easier access to data/internet. As a result, it launched a digital economic expansion and overcame many communication boundaries.

Unfortunately, the truth is that more than 60% of the African population does not have yet access to the Internet and its perks, and there are still many difficulties regarding the adaptation to this new reality that needs to be solved.

Considering these facts, how can this connectivity benefit Africa? And what are the main challenges of it?

Travellers consult their mobile phones in Abidjan, Ivory Coast

Until 2009, only three submarine cables provided the whole African continent with internet. Besides, only one of them was located in the South, meaning that the population in Sub-Saharan Africa was limited to a single outdated cable in order to access the internet. Due to this lack of infrastructure, it was hard to broadcast data within the african continent and between continents. Fortunately, over the past decade, many more cables were installed across thirty-seven countries. Just this improvement led to a great change in Africa’s connectivity. In the regions that are online, we are already able to see the economic impact that these new infrastructures can trigger. For instance, a study from a partnership between RTI (an american nonprofit research institute) and Facebook states that in Kenya there was an increase in employment and job quality in fibre-connected areas, characterized by the creation of new jobs and the replacement of low-skilled jobs for more skilled ones (more specifically, an 8.4% increase in skilled employment). Other outcomes include the increase in foreign investment, governance quality and in the national GDP for many countries.

And yet, almost half of the countries with the capability of having a direct submarine cable connection are only connected to one or two, despite being able to withhold more. Such dependence on a few number of sources made these regions vulnerable to consistent internet outages and slow-downs. For example, it is common for these cables to become disabled by several incidents in particular cuts caused by maritime activities and natural disasters. In June of 2017, an anchor of a container ship damaged the only submarine cable that was connected to Somalia. The Internet outage transpired for more than 3 weeks, causing chaos across the country and economic losses around $10 million per day. Alternatively, digital outages may also come from cable breaks provoked by natural landslides i.e. seaquakes. These incidents tend to be more of a risk to East and Central African regions and are usually more costly to repair as it takes a longer time to reverse the damage.

Submarine cable

Furthermore, African countries also face another big challenge regarding connectivity isolation. The introduction of submarine cables in Africa only reached a small portion of its population, mainly people who lived in urban coastal regions and belonged to an educated and upper class. In contrast, most Sub-Saharan African countries are characterised by vast landlocked territories scarce in infrastructures and a predominant rural population. Although there is a need for terrestrial infrastructure, it seems to be less effective because not only is it more expensive, but also quite complex given the need to cross several borders. In addition, non coastal areas who are digitally isolated are more prone to suffer network outages and take more time to recover, incurring high economic costs. As a result, the deployment of these submarine cables contributed to a digital divide.

Evidently, the problem surrounding rural connectivity will not be solved through traditional solutions, and so some companies like Google and Facebook offered innovative ideas to tackle this issue. In Kenya, Google, through a sister company called Loon, partnered up with Telekom Kenya (Public-private telecommunications entity) and came up with a project that consisted in distributing helium filled balloons above 20km from sea level around the country’s most inaccessible regions. These balloons are powered by a solar panel and have an antenna which provides internet signals within a 5000sq km reach. Moreover, Facebook tried another approach through the usage of drones and satellites and is still to this day studying alongside Airbus various ways of high-altitude internet supply.

Other great examples of landlocked areas’ effort to overcome these boundaries are Botswana and Rwanda. Botswana’s government, alongside with 11 private companies, created a program named “Fibre to Home” with the purpose of offering boundless bandwidth for internet connection in homes. Besides, Rwanda has been partnering up with KT Rwanda Networks and GSMA in order to develop new infrastructure to increase mobile deployment in the country. As a result, between 2014 and 2016, the individual access to the internet increased from 10.6% to 20%.

As we can see, Africa has been on the eye of many private companies willing to invest and solve the problems that this continent is now facing regarding the development of telecommunications. The most ambitious project coming up is 2Africa. Facebook is working with african and global telecommunication operators to create a 37,000km long subsea cable that will connect 23 countries, spanning from Africa to Europe and the Middle East. The joint network capacity that it will offer is three times more than the one that currently exists in Africa. Despite it being expected to improve the continent’s economy and provide a more stable connectivity, it’s difficult to make more accurate predictions since the impact of Covid-19 on the African economy is yet to be analyzed, and it could greatly affect the outcomes of this new project.

Nonetheless, we must not forget that effective and precise regulation needs to be formulated to ensure an open and competitive environment. Without this, cartel agreements and monopolies may appear and thus benefit from an excessive market power and the ability to overprice services and goods. This may deeply affect the growth of the telecom sector. Additionally, we also need to consider the high digital illiteracy across the continent. As a way to combat this problem, ITU and Norway have combined forces to provide training for 14,000 Ghanaians in order to better and strengthen their digital skills, allowing them to undertake jobs in the future that work with this technology and make the most of the internet.

Students of Kibiribiri Church of Uganda Primary school during a Computer Training Meetup at their school

The Covid-19 pandemic has greatly affected our economies, and Africa is no exception. Still, it did not slow down foreign investment nor did it diminish international interests in this continent. In fact, it is anticipated that Africa will grow more than ever after this crisis comes to an end. Investments in fintech, a digitalized way of providing financial services, is among the most important matters that countries and companies are willing to develop.

All in all, Africa still has a long way to go. It will be through the combined efforts of both public and private investment that Africa will overcome the many prevalent challenges and reach its full potential. This way, we believe that the development of telecommunications in this continent will grow exponentially in the upcoming years. The future is bright.

Team’s note

Dear reader,
Having reached the end of the article, we hope you found it insightful and interesting to read. We kindly remind you that this article is the product of a partnership where both the Development Economics and Technology teams challenged each other to write a relevant article on the same topic – submarine telecommunication cables. Don’t forget to check out their article as well. Until then, stay tuned, stay aware.

Benedita Elias

Somaliland: A New Hope

The main purpose of development economics should be to give any country or community hope. Hope for a future they own and where they can grow. But no hope is seen nor given to anyone in Somalia, as the country has been a disaster since the day it gained independence in 1960. With the premise of bringing the major native ethnic group of the Somalis together, the British and Italian colonies were unified. Its government started as a failed democracy, followed by a brutal dictatorship under Siad Barre, resulting in wars and many genocides across the country. The dictatorship lasted two decades, until in 1991, the government was dismantled by rebel armed groups. Afterwards, no government successfully took control. Somalia has been in a civil war with different factions fighting for control, being the perfect hub for terrorist groups, warlords and pirates. An absolute anarchy. The years go by and there is still no hope for the Somalis.

But there is one exception – Somaliland, a region of Somalia that belonged to Britain in the north of the country. It has had relevant developments and it’s starting to have its first foreign diplomatic relations. It possesses its own currency and even its own passport. Its achievements have been considered remarkable. Even though it is not internationally recognized as a country separated from Somalia (yet), it’s developing the best it can to become one.

In this article we will focus on this small wannabe country and try to ascertain if it can indeed become a successful nation recognized by the rest of the world or if it is just another African state waiting for its decline. Is there still any hope for the Somali people?

Map of the faction division in Somalia, as of 2017

Map of the faction division in Somalia, as of 2017

A short story of tragedy

Dictator Siad Barre of Somalia

Dictator Siad Barre of Somalia

Somaliland has always been the odd one out in this unification, being always marginalized by the rest of the country. In 1978, during Barre’s dictatorship, with the goal of unifying other Somali dominated territories, the national government started a war with Ethiopia, which it lost. This defeat destroyed the economy of the country, the lives of its citizens and the image of its government. Because of this, in the mid-1980s, rebellions started rising. Somalia’s military started a brutal counteroffensive, not only against the rebels, but also against the different clans that supported them. It was in Somaliland that the national army marched to the region’s largest cities of Hargeisa and Burao. Using artillery and air strikes, they bombarded the cities, destroying 90% of Hargeisa and 70% of Burao, killing thousands of civilians. This is known as the Isaaq Genocide. Barre’s government collapsed in January 1991, and in April of the same year, Somaliland declared independence. All Somaliland militias were dismantled or incorporated into the new national army of Somaliland, providing a solid stabilization and security in the region. For the rest of Somalia, a long civil war awaited.

On the road to a better future

For Somaliland to become a successful country, there are some key points that must be assured: regional stability, an efficient government and a healthy economy.

Somaliland is considered the most stable region in the Horn of Africa. As the former militias join the national army, this army remained loyal to the new government. After the remaining of Barre’s forces were defeated, many other dangers were still present, such as Islamic terrorist organizations, pirate groups and the other numerous factions in the civil war. All were successfully expelled. Its major stability problem is still with the neighboring Puntland with whom it has some territorial disputes. As of national identity, these were the same people marginalized by the rest of Somalia and the same clans killed in the Isaaq Genocide. We can associate the loyalty of Somaliland’s troops to this strong national identity.

Its government started as a democracy that distributed all major powers between the most powerful clans. Later in 2002, it decided to substitute it for a more ideology-based democracy. This new government had a modern constitution, with full separation of powers between independent institutions. In 2003, the first president of Somaliland was elected, and the subsequent elections have been all considered fair and legitimate internationally, largely thanks to this government architecture that was built with no help from abroad. All of this made Somaliland’s government gain the recognition of most efficient democracy in East Africa.

As for its economy, despite having great potential, it’s still quite underdeveloped as it continues to be based on livestock exports, largely to Arab countries. The government is progressively looking to diversify its economy, investing in its most promising sectors. Somalia is situated in the Horn of Africa, a valuable strategic location since it’s where many trade routes pass through. Somaliland took advantage of this by investing in its ports. Berbera’s Port is one of the biggest and most developed ports in the region and is a booming site for maritime operations, providing access for maritime trade and attracting foreign investment from China and the UAE. Its territory also has an abundance of mineral resources, such as industrial ore like iron and titanium and even rare metals. Oil reserves are also present and have already started being explored in 2018.

To summarize: it’s the only stable region in Somalia, as well as one of the most efficient governments build from the ground that has a promising economy. This great potential is not officially recognized in the world, but in many ways, it is unofficially: it has trading agreements with multiple countries, such as the UK and Taiwan, and is a member of multiple international organizations such as the UN’s Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization.

Somaliland representative Mohammed Omar Hagi Mohamoud meeting Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen

Somaliland representative Mohammed Omar Hagi Mohamoud meeting Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen

Current problems

There are still many weaknesses inhibiting the self-declared country from being recognized. For instance, the ongoing civil war with the north-eastern area of Somalia – Puntland, due to the territorial dispute over eastern provinces, whose control is claimed by Somaliland based on colonial boundaries and by Puntland based on tribal affiliation. Another obstacle is that many countries and international organizations, including the African Union, don’t support a successful separatist’s movement, no matter how efficient it may be, fearing it may encourage other similar movements to seek independence. And because it has no recognition, no foreign aid can be provided to the government. Hence, the government is very dependent on private donors and investment, leaving the danger of corruption of the government wide open.

Apart from its lack of recognition, Somaliland also has many internal problems. It still presents an extremely low GDP per capita of $347 US, making it the fourth poorest country in the world, according to the World Bank. As the effects of climate change increase, it endangers the livestock industry, which is still the backbone of the current economy, resulting in income loss and famine to a part of the population. Despite Somaliland’s efforts and investments towards education, half of the children still have no access to school. Several human rights abuses are still committed, such as feminine genital mutilation, which unfortunately is still very popular in Somalia as it’s estimated that 98% of women have been submitted to it, according to ActionAid.

The Veredict

Truth is, this reality is very complicated. It takes a very long time to see improvements in a country, and failed cases of separation are the most common examples. But against all odds, this government has been achieving all the right benchmarks in the 30 years of its independence: stability in a region globally known for widespread chaos, a complex political system that disapproves and punishes corruption and a promising economy built with investments in infrastructure and education. Moreover, by granting international recognition, the resulting provision of foreign aid would alone solve many of Somaliland’s problems. But one question remains: if the international community doesn’t reward this nation, how can it expect to see more of its kind in the future?

Sources: World Bank, East African Business Week, UNICEF, UN News, The Conversation, Institute for Security Studies, Economist, Britannica, BBC, Action Aid, The Taiwan Times

The Barefoot College

“What’s the best way of communicating in the world today?
Television? No.
Telegraph? No.
Telephone? No.
Tell a woman.”

— Bunker Roy

By definition, development implies an act of change.

However, the current pandemic endangered the traditional flows of humanitarian aid between the developed and developing countries, surfacing an ever existing problem. The usual view of helping by exchanging first necessity goods was also corrupted by the lockdown and the disruption of supply chains. Companies are cutting costs and there aren’t as many supplies to give away as before, and in the unfortunate event of a ONG having to close down, even for a couple of months, the targeted community will go back to needing clothes, food and medicine shortly afterwards as they remain without some self-sustainable, independent way to get those basic products. Consequently, more and more search comes for lasting, self-growing, universally obtainable means, like education, in the hopes of creating a solid ground that can’t be as easily affected by unpredictable world-level crisis such as the present one.

The creation of a physical, usable bridge between the developing and developed worlds was a dream of Sanjit “Bunker” Roy, a young freshly graduate student that decided to make a real lasting change. As one of India’s privileged, Sanjit had a world of opportunities, he could go anywhere and do anything. Instead, he felt that what he really wanted to do was make a change and so he went to one of India’s poorest regions and began transforming it as a single man in a strange place.

One of Sanjit’s most valuable practices was to start small and local. To feed this idea of an impactful project he could not just make huge changes in the local villages of rural India from his perspective of what would benefit the community. As a literate man, he could think for himself, alone, making sole use of his knowledge, but he didn’t. He understood that the key to a measurable transformation was actually speaking with local farmers, children and women, people who could actually explain their needs and dreams.

“Listen to the people on the ground. They have all the solutions in the world.”

— Bunker Roy


Surprisingly, he began realizing that, although without education, these people knew whatever they needed to know to sustain an impressive standard of living given the poor resources available. They possessed incredible tools, knowledge and ideas that would never be reached by the institutional, formally educated brain. In fact, “Bunker” Roy talks about an important woman that couldn’t read but worked as a dentist and had under her care more than 7.000 children. Also, a gentleman that couldn’t read, but challenged the vision of educated architects who said it was impossible to build something sustainable out of the dry “unusable” land, and gave instructions on how to build and grow life in that unfavourable environment. These people and their mentality looked past modern age obstacles and defied contemporary reasoning.

“[The Barefoot College is] the only college where the teacher is the learner and the learner is the teacher.”

— Bunker Roy


With this, Sanjit “Bunker” Roy ended up creating The Barefoot College, a school Built by the poor, for the poor, where they teach groups of women from different, poor villages all around the country how to become solar engineers, innovators and educators. Women who afterwards return to their homes and transform their communities by harvesting solar energy for electricity and becoming teachers to those around them. In these women, Sanjit found a source of real power and lasting, self-sustainable change, so much so that he found best to provide them with all the necessary capacities to transform their realities.

“Our job is to show how it is possible to take an illiterate woman and make her into an engineer in six months and show that she can solar-electrify a village.”

— Bunker Roy

Sanjit knew that giving and installing solar panels himself would have an overwhelming impact in his community, but he chose to go further and gave more than 1,000,000 people in over 96 countries access to clean energy for heating and cooking and clean water to drink.

“We went to Ladakh … and we asked this woman, ‘What was the benefit you had from solar electricity?’ And she thought for a minute and said, ‘It’s the first time I can see my husband’s face in winter.”

— Bunker Roy


The increased quality of life given to all these different villages and communities exceeds the power of one man and it is only possible because there is a system and a mentality already in people’s souls that goes beyond traditional education and degrees. It comes from the day to day living that a “privileged outsider” would never be able to comprehend. So, it is to people as Sanjit Roy that we have to thank every day. Sometimes it is easier to overlook this idea that we need to go out of our comfort zone to find the strategies and change lives but is necessary to confront ourselves and evaluate if whether we are making use of our knowledge to find impossible solutions.

The human race has the power and knowledge to find impossible solutions


If you have time, please visit and watch

Clara Malta - Clara Malta

Foreign Aid: are we doing it right?

Poverty, disease, famine. If we were to ask you which places would you associate with these three simple words, most likely African nations would be the first ones to come to your mind. However, these problems are not by any means limited to this group of nations, but rather to those whose economies are underdeveloped, where many people live under the poverty line. As such, significant efforts have been made in the past decades to try and overcome these issues, generally through foreign aid mechanisms aimed towards struggling nations. Nevertheless, a consensus is yet to be reached on what is the most effective way to help develop these economies.

Sachs – the foreign aid enthusiast

There is a school of thought, defended primarily by Jeffrey Sachs, an American economist, which argues that it can indeed be through Official Development Assistance (ODA) that impoverished households and developing economies can improve their economic paradigms. ODA is what is commonly referred to as Foreign Aid, which is defined as “a set of flows that are concessional in character and are administered with the promotion of economic development and welfare of developing countries as its main objective”. Sachs argues that developing nations frequently fall into a “poverty trap” where households only have enough income to cover for their basic needs, which leads to them both not increasing their household savings and not paying taxes. The absent supply of loanable funds to the loan market and the low amount of money that can be funneled into public investment lead to a situation where there is not enough invested capital to sustain economic growth. This is where ODA can play a vital role. By providing ODA to households their savings can increase and, if there are also other funds that can support public investment and microfinancing to firms, the capital per person can increase and this poverty trap can be overcome (Figure 1).

Figure 1 - The importance of ODA in breaking the poverty trap

Figure 1 – The importance of ODA in breaking the poverty trap

Now, it is easy to quote all these theoretical assumptions, but to verify their veracity in the real world is a whole different story. Fortunately, there have been examples where Sachs’ framework has proven to be effective in developing impoverished economies, the most famous of which being the Green Revolution that occurred in India between 1965 and 1990.

In 1975, 59,1% of India’s population lived in poverty and in 1970 only 18,4% of India’s agricultural area was irrigated, the other part being composed of less sophisticated agricultural technologies. As such, the Indian Government, in collaboration with its International Development partners, launched a massive investment campaign to modernise this sector of the economy and support its struggling population. The adoption and development of irrigation techniques were subsidised, which alongside the creation of new credit and microfinance mechanisms aided the lower-income population (Table 1). These policies allowed small farm owners to have access to cheap inputs that improved their financial situation and, in turn, India’s economic position: in the 1990s the percentage of population that lived in poverty fell to 43,1% and 31,8% of the agricultural area became irrigated.

Table 1 - Decrease in the number of poor people per million Rupees spent in India

Table 1 – Decrease in the number of poor people per million Rupees spent in India


Easterly – the foreign aid skeptic

On the other end of the aid debate spectrum is William Easterly, an American economist specialized in development economics. Easterly believes that the current system to provide foreign aid is neither working efficiently nor achieving its goal, since it’s not being well structured to obtain real effects. He further states that, if not provided correctly, it can be a disincentive to the economy.

The “poverty trap”, first introduced by Sachs, predicts growth per capita of the poorest countries to be zero or negative. However, data tells us another story: according to studies (Table 2), many poor countries verify, in fact, a positive per capita growth.

Table 2 - Testing the poverty trap for long periods

Table 2 – Testing the poverty trap for long periods

Furthermore, one of the characteristics of the “poverty trap” is that savings are very low for populations, leading countries to need large receipts of aid. In fact, in 1990, more than 15% of Africa’s income was from foreign donors. However, as shown in the graph below (Graph 1), as aid increased, per capita growth didn’t necessarily increase, contrary to what would be expected. Furthermore, some infer that it is not the increase in foreign aid that causes a fall in the growth rate, but rather a fall in growth that incentivizes increases in aid.

Graph 1 - Aid and Growth in Africa (ten-year moving averages)

Graph 1 – Aid and Growth in Africa (ten-year moving averages)

Nevertheless, although one can make the case that there is no such thing as a poverty trap, since poor and undeveloped countries show small, but still positive, growth rates, it still cannot be ruled out that these same countries need external assistance in order to reach higher levels of development.

Unfortunately, it’s usually the way this assistance is provided that is the reason why providence of foreign aid isn’t accompanied by increases in growth per capita. In fact, much of the donations’ money is not effectively reaching those in poor living conditions. There exists a chain through which money must travel until it finally reaches those who it’s meant for, and it’s exactly somewhere along this chain where a lot of things can fail and prevent funds from reaching their final destination. In many cases, it’s corruption and embezzlement from political elites that will keep the foreign aid from being correctly allocated. Sierra Leone officials’ stealing of a total of 1.2 million GBP (british pounds), in 2010, and Uganda’s education ministers’ embezzling of a staggering of 16.5 million GBP are only a few of many, many examples.

One way of preventing this misallocation of fundings is to increase monitoring and evaluate the impact of foreign aid. The monitoring allows the aid donor to ensure that the aid is being correctly allocated, while the evaluation enables them to make sure that, after the aid has reached its recipient, it’s being well used.

Then… What should we do to help fight poverty?

Easterly’s answer is simple. Before all, western countries should make peace with the fact that they are not as much a part of the solution as they think they are. After accepting that fact, those who wish to help can focus on the importance of rights: only in an environment where an individual has political rights and economic freedom there is propensity to development. Hence, donors should not try to separate themselves from political questions, but rather fight for a democratic and free political environment.

An unreachable consensus

An agreement between Sachs and Easterly is highly unlikely. An absolutely correct and universal answer to world poverty is even less. But it still is a matter that should be addressed. According to the last estimates available on global poverty (from 2015), 9.9% of the population lives in extreme poverty (i.e. under the poverty line). That is 730 million people subsiding with less than $1,90 a day and without access to basic essentials that many of us take for granted, struggling to survive yet another day. If, on one hand, there is an ongoing discussion about how aid should be provided, on the other hand, whether or not we should help these countries is not up for debate.


  • Business and Economics Journal

  • Green revolution paper

  • Reinventing Foreign Aid, William E., The MIT Press, 2008

  • The economics of international development: Foreign Aid versus Freedom for the World’s Poor,  William E., The Institute of Economic Affairs, 2016

  • The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time; Sachs, Jeffrey D., Penguin Press, 2005

  • The Treasury

  • The white man’s burden: Why The West’s Efforts To Aid The Rest Have Done So Much Ill And So Little Good, William E., 200633

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