13 Jul 2016 21:27 IST

Fighting poverty? Make sure your ideas are culturally right!

Benefactors must avoid an over-simplistic understanding of the challenges of poverty eradication

When Bill Gates wrote in his blogpost that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to gift impoverished families living in poor countries a brood of hens to help lift themselves out of poverty, little would he have realised that he was, in the process, causing a flutter among politicians of the kind seen among pigeons when a cat approaches them.

Politicians tend to see such acts of benevolence as somewhat patronising, for the reason that most benefactors, in their view, have a narrow and overly simplistic understanding of the challenges of poverty eradication. Not surprisingly, therefore, a Bolivian minister, whose country is saddled with over 30 per cent of the population living below the poverty line, wasn’t very amused.

The Reuters news agency had César Cocarico, Bolivia’s minister of land and rural development as saying, “He (Bill Gates) does not know Bolivia’s reality to think we are living 500 years ago, in the middle of the jungle, not knowing how to produce.” The irony is, Bill Gates wasn’t even thinking of Bolivia but rather of some countries in Sub-Saharan Africa when he made the suggestion. He even mentioned some charity organisation working in that region on a similar project.

Fowl play?

Bill Gates was only supplementing that organisation’s resources with his offer. Yet, for some reason, Bolivia took exception to it. The newspapers certainly made a hearty meal of the initial offer and the subsequent rejection by Bolivia, using a number of catchy headlines to report the news. One came up with the headline, “Bolivia rejects Gates’ offer citing ‘fowl’ play”. Another publication featured the news as “Bolivia ‘pecking’ holes in Gates’ offer”. A third was more innovative. “‘Cluck’ says Bolivia to Bill Gates’ offer”.

The Bolivian Minister might have felt offended at what he thought was a patronising offer from Gates. But a larger question is this: is Gates’ offer an over-simplification of the problem of poverty eradication? How credible does such a solution sound from the perspective of generally accepted principles of development economics? The foremost thing that strikes one is the relatively modest cost of eliminating poverty. Gates talks of a $5 cost for a chicken. He doesn’t mention the size of the brood an average household needs to lift itself out of poverty. But it is fair to say a brood of 10 should do nicely.

So, that makes the total cost of intervention $50. The actual cost will vary from country to country. Take India, for example. You could get a layer bird for half that cost. However, for the sake of argument, let us assume it costs the same as Gates suggests. What would it take to lift 400 million (even its worst critics do not put India’s below-the-poverty-line population at more than 30 per cent) of India’s population out of poverty? By Gates’ calculation, it would cost roughly $20 billion to procure and supply a brood of 10 chickens for all of those individuals living in poverty. That translates into roughly ₹1,30,000 crore.

When you consider that India will be spending roughly ₹20 lakh crore in 2016-17 on a whole lot of things, you will have to say that India’s planners missed a trick in allowing vast sections of its population to wallow in poverty all these years. Or did they? Now, it has to be admitted that the problem of poverty eradication is a lot more complicated then raining money — or chickens, if you will — from a helicopter. That said, some kind of a framework that provides the poor with the wherewithal to put some food on the family’s plates is certainly welcome.

Reducing hunger

The Rotary International, in one of its monthly newsletters, spoke about its recent development initiative in Madhya Pradesh. It involved supplying seeds to poor rural women, who can use them to grow vegetables in their kitchen garden. The story spoke of how it helped greatly reduce hunger, especially among the children.

Viewed from that perspective, Gates’ idea of supplying the poor with a stock of hens is not without merit. It will certainly go some way towards bridging the calorific gap in the consumption basket of the poor. But, as a solution to the problem of poverty, it is flawed on two counts. One, in assuming that it is a sustainable model and, two, that a vibrant market structure exists where you can exchange surplus produce (eggs) for other necessities of life. The average economic life (laying eggs regularly) of a bird would be no more than a couple of years. So the brood has to be replenished from time to time. Now how is that going to be done in an economy without any of the infrastructure in place to sustain a robust poultry industry?

The modern poultry industry operates on the back of a robust supply chain involving ‘breeders’, who produce day-old chicks in their factory farms and supply it to hatcheries, which then rear the birds to lay eggs or for meat. These are also bred to suit the local conditions better. As the birds grow old, the hatcheries cull them for meat and then go back to breeders for a fresh stock of birds. Along the way, an industry has sprung up to supply veterinary medicines and feed and, in no time, an eco-system has evolved. Absent these conditions, the cottage poultry industry has simply no chance of sustaining itself over any length of time.

Of course, Gates speaks blithely of the neighbour’s rooster lending a helping hand to keep the family genealogy of hens going. While the rooster may be able and willing, the neighbor may have something to say about it if he does not benefit monetarily from such a strategic union.

Cultural attitudes

Even if, by some miracle, the initial gift of chickens somehow sustains itself in the face of a severe shortage of other elements that go to make a poultry eco-system vibrant, members of this model household would still be deprived of so many other necessities of life that mark their existence of deprivation. True to the old biblical saying, ‘man does not live by bread alone’ the poor households in Bolivia or Sub-Saharan Africa cannot live by chicken alone. The produce of this chicken economy must be integrated to the larger market economy of the nation. This is where Bill Gates’ generosity can come up against the harsh reality of conditions in these poor countries.

If surplus eggs have to be sold in some distant market and the cash used to buy clothing for the children, is there a transportation infrastructure available to take the eggs to the market? Again, if every baker, butcher and the candlestick maker is raising chickens in their backyards (it shouldn’t be beyond the scope of Gates’ monetary capacity to keep a whole nation supplied with one-time free chicken), who is going to buy the surplus produce of eggs?

If, somehow, against all these odds, a poultry economy happens to take root, does it mean poverty will be eliminated? As Amartya Sen put it rather eloquently, “poverty is absence of choice”. If the average woman in Sub-Saharan Africa or Bolivia is not empowered with all the additional egg money, she would still be regarded as poor. She would continue to be denied choice on a whole range of issues in her society. After all, it isn’t easy to change cultural attitudes and gender inequalities that have cemented themselves solidly over centuries of practice, in one generation or even over many generations of hunger-free existence.

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