Helping the poor to help themselves

December 02, 1992

Human resourcefulness is one of the world's mos under-valued assets, and nowhere is that truth more evident that in the plight of the world's rural poor. For nearly 40 years, Western nations have undertaken ambitious development programs to aid poor countries around the world. In most cases, those programs have been designed to "trickle down" to the truly desperate people who most need them. All too often, however, bureaucracy, corruption and plain old greed get in the way.

So it should not be a surprise that a new report from the U.N.'s International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) finds that despite the billions of dollars that have been funneled into international aid programs, the number of rural poor around the world continues to increase. About a billion people now fall into that category.

This is not because poor people do not work hard. Anyone familiar with the daily routine of, say, a poor woman in rural India, would have a new yardstick for measuring human industriousness. Even more than men, poor women around the world find themselves working longer and harder just to keep their families fed and clothed. Yet, given half a chance, the rural poor are eminently capable of using their considerable energy to improve their lives. As they do so, they also contribute to the larger economy.

Idriss Jazairy, who in January will end eight years as president of IFAD, considers the 500-page report on rural poverty to be the summation of his innovative efforts to enable the world's poor to help themselves. The report can also be considered a blueprint for improving traditional aid programs by pointing out what actually works.

As the United States enters a leaner era, international aid programs will face tough competition from domestic needs. Yet if taxpayers can be shown that even modest efforts to help the rural poor can produce enormous benefits, they are more likely to agree that such programs contribute to a world that is more prosperous and, therefore, more secure.

Loans as small as $15 can help a rural peasant become self-sufficient, and in many IFAD programs repayment rates on small loans often approach 100 percent. By designing programs that actually reach the people who are desperate to improve their lives, donor countries can help reduce the unnecessarily high level of misery in many countries and ensure a more peaceful world for everyone.

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