Agriculture and Rural Development: Lessons for Christian Groups Combating Persistent Poverty
CFAI Journal of Agricultural Economics, Forthcoming
Posted: 1 Sep 2003 Last revised: 4 Aug 2013
Date Written: December 1, 2002
Persistent poverty is one of the core challenges faced by Christians and by development scholars and practitioners alike. There is no question that Jesus was concerned about the poor - both materially and spiritually. From his first public address in the Synagogue in Nazareth, His home town, where He concluded by saying that He had come to "preach good news to the poor" (Luke 4:18), Jesus lived the gospel in word and deed. We, as Christian men and women, whether researchers or practitioners, are called to do no less. When Jesus made His parting remarks to His disciples, He said (John 20:21) "As the Father has sent me, I am sending you." emphasizing that we are to do likewise. This concern permeates the Old and New Testament, another example being the words of the prophet Micah (6:8):
"He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."
We are here to think through together some of the implications of this mandate for ourselves as researchers and practitioners. More specifically, to consider how the work we do as researchers can inform our work in the field as practitioners in such a way as to more effectively help those who are materially poor.
In most wealthy countries, poverty is generally a short-lived phenomenon. This is not the case throughout the developing world. In the United States, for example, less than one quarter of those living below the poverty line remain below the poverty line 12 months later and only 13 percent are still poor 24 months later. Although our cross-sectional poverty of 11.7 percent is relatively high - although it must also be borne in mind that our poverty line is relatively high, too - in the United States, the long-term, structurally poor are a very small minority, roughly one percent of the population.
Elsewhere, long-term, structural poverty is the norm. World Bank figures show that, as of 1999, 2.78 billion people lived on less than $2/day, most of them in Asia, but with sub-Saharan Africa evincing the largest - and growing - share of its population in severe poverty (World Bank, 2002). Unlike in the United States, we do not yet know a great deal about the expected duration of poverty for people in the developing world. While the median time in poverty in the United States is 4.5 months (Naifeh, 1998), the median time in poverty in rural Bangladesh, Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya or Madagascar is roughly a lifetime. Of particular concern to Christians, the expectation of lifetime impoverishment tends to foster hopelessness. Without hope, people find it hard to contemplate or effect change. With hope, many things become possible. The Gospel message and the practical challenges of reducing persistent poverty thus go hand-in-hand with helping the downtrodden to find hope.
We also know that most of the world's poor - by most estimates, 70 percent or so - live in rural areas and most work, at least part-time, in agriculture. For this reason, agricultural and rural development is an essential component of any reasonable strategy to combat persistent poverty. In the words of T. W. Schultz's 1979 Nobel address, "Most of the people in the world are poor, so if we knew the economics of being poor we would know much of the economics that really matters. Most of the world's poor people earn their living from agriculture, so if we knew the economics of agriculture we would know much of the economics of being poor." But the challenge is daunting. To increase incomes by just one dollar a day for the world's rural poor will require an increase of more than $700 billion in annual rural earnings. In this paper, we strive to highlight key issues that Christian development organizations must face as they set priorities and make design choices about how to make progress toward that goal.
JEL Classification: O21, Q12, Q18
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation