In Mayange, Rwanda, rain means hope. In violent downpours when I've sought the shelter of a tree, I've seen kids and adults alike dancing in the puddles. Rainy days there are happy days. Over the last few years, however, rain patterns have become increasingly erratic and crops have suffered as a result. The rains of September - December 2008 never fully materialized and now, yet another traditional crop has failed. Mayange's cracked, dusty terrain remains unfriendly to crops such as maize and beans that rely on regular rain. This year's crop failure was different however, in great part because the Millennium Villages Project has been working on crop and business diversification there for three years. With global food prices up 83% since 2005, billions of poor people all around the world are finding it almost impossible to eat and still make ends meet. In Mayange, on the contrary, the community is thriving.
The deepening worldwide food crisis isn't something Americans think about very often. They don't have to. In the States, countless supermarkets provide consumers more choices than ever. And today, the nation's sky-high food prices from less than a year ago are only a memory.
In contrast, some people go hungry on a regular basis here in Rwanda and other developing countries. There simply isn't enough food to go around, and since more of the world's poor now live in crowded cities, the option of eating what they grow no longer exists. The most vulnerable victims of hunger are children. For them the margin of failure is especially slim. Kids can suffer impaired mental development and stunted growth from lack of a balanced diet. Bad rains and corresponding malnutrition hit the youngest hardest. Imagine having a weaning child shift from breast milk to nothing more nutritious than mashed cassava and bananas: that's the reality for millions of the world's children today.
Climate change and rapid growth are twin factors making matters worse here in Rwanda and even more dire around the globe. In over three dozen developing or poor nations, food shortages have caused riots. In Haiti, the rioting even managed to bring down a prime minister. According to experts, the present global crisis will have even more dismal and far-reaching consequences going forward.
But there are reasons to be optimistic, and finding a solution to this perpetual crisis requires nothing more than a shift in perspective. First, governments around the world should give small farmers title to their land as an incentive to develop much of the unused fields. This is a controversial proposal, but it could save lives and create prosperity quickly. With legal ownership of the land they work, small farmers have the option of legally acquiring more land, selling land to other farmers to raise money quickly, or developing their holdings into something other than farmland. It's an attractive approach because it creates real wealth and equity overnight.
Second: governments, NGOs and local farmers must now endeavor to work together in support of more productive and profitable ways of farming. In the Millennium Villages Project, we are helping Rwandans grow drought-resistant crops by providing new varieties of seeds adapted to their new rain-poor conditions -- not only to feed themselves but also to feed the country.
Third: poor, subsistence level farmers need a variety of interventions to help them get on their feet and begin creating prosperity. From micro-finance to primary health care to education, they need to be invested in. People don't start up businesses readily when they expect 20% of their children to die from preventable disease. Furthermore, they certainly don't start up the types of businesses that will employ others without access to capital. At a time when the stock market is providing dizzyingly negative returns, it may be time to look at the conservative but positive returns that can be had by investing in poor subsistence-level farmers. They might be one of the greatest undervalued assets in the world today.
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