By Professor Dennis Shaughnessy
While watching the news coverage of the tragedy of Malaysia Flight 370 over the past three weeks, I was reminded of a compelling analogy used by author Roger Thurow in his book “Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in An Age of Plenty”.
Based on information provided by the United Nations World Food Program, Thurow writes in his compelling book on global hunger that the number of people throughout the developing world who die every day from hunger, malnutrition and related diseases is the equivalent of sixty jumbo jets crashing each day.
That’s 25,000 people dying from largely preventable conditions each day. Sixty jumbo jets, representing countless family tragedies.
That number is perhaps a bit dated now, and we know that in general the lives of many poor people in the developing world have seen some improvement. For example, organizations like The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and The Clinton Global Initiative have accomplished a great deal in the area of public health for the poor, specifically in terms of funding research and innovative treatments for malaria and HIV/AIDS. We can be grateful that there are many new social enterprises entering into a variety of other development sectors each year, working alongside established NGOs to improve and often save countless lives.
It’s inarguable that more needs to be done, especially in the area of hunger and food production. Many college students who study social enterprise neglect to t think about the potential for agricultural productivity improvements to make enormous change in the lives of more than 70% of the world’s poor that live in rural, agricultural farming communities. Ironically, many poor farmers can’t feed their families, a small tragedy among many larger ones in the developing world. Historically, the developed world’s answer to this critical problem has been aid, and all too often in-kind food aid that has the unintended consequence of harming local agriculture and food production in the poorest countries.
What began with Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug’s “Green Revolution” that saved millions of lives through the development and dissemination of new hybrid seeds is now being followed by numerous social enterprise initiatives in the agricultural space. In addition to the important work of The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in agricultural development, social enterprises like One Acre Fund are providing poor farmers in Kenya, Rwanda, and other East African nations with the inputs, information and access they need to be able not only to feed their families, but the tools to increase profits through the surpluses created by higher yields. Root Capital is another social enterprise leader in financing poor farmer cooperatives, especially in commodity products like coffee and cocoa, changing the lives of many poor farmers for the better.
The Social Enterprise Institute’s weeklong field practicum to Jamaica allowed our students to study the challenges and opportunities confronted by poor farmers struggling to succeed. There, we met a start-up called “FarmUpJamaica” which is determined to assist Jamaica’s poorest farmers through a variety of interventions, including land access and titling, improved access to inputs from seed to fertilizer to irrigation. Another start-up called MicroCredit Limited Jamaica is developing microfinance loan packages for poor farmers in and around Kingston. We also met with leaders in the Jamaican coffee industry, including producers of the premium Blue Mountain variety , who are working to help poor farmers increase productivity on their small mountain plots.
As the news surrounding the tragic Malaysian Air flight begins to subside, we can hope that those interested in social enterprise as a pathway to poverty alleviation and development will remember the daily tragedy of those “sixty jumbo jets” and what we can do to prevent those tragic crashes each day.