Striking at the root

Eradicating poverty, whether it is through climate change adaptation projects or any other method, is not a straightforward task. We do what we can, but we are also aware that there are macro level economic and political forces that drive poverty. We feel weak in comparison, it is easy to feel resigned and resolving to just dealing with the consequences. Especially if your are as small as TGT; as one of our T-Shirts says 'If you can't beat them, adapt'.

But we mustn't remain blissfully (or willfully) ignorant of the bigger picture or leave claims of progress unquestioned. 

Dr. Jason Hickel from London School of Economics explores this and more in his recent book 'The Divide'. The most urgent question he raises is whether charity is working or whether, in fact, we have a 'development delusion'? The delusion being that poverty is falling and that we are on course for the UN Sustainable Development Goal of eradicating poverty by 2030.

According to Hickel, the benefits of charity and aid are hugely outweighed by the problems caused by sovereign debt and the linked system of ‘remote control’ power. These two structural factors are preventing countries from developing. Hickel implies that richer countries know this and are engaged in a deliberate ploy; they prevent true development, to stave off competition. He makes a very persuasive case.

The NGO sector, too, is implicated in spreading the 'development delusion'. Charities like Oxfam are, by coercion, compelled to continue telling the story that 'development' is working. They do so to protect their very existence, they are tied into funding streams that demand continued allegiance to the status quo of the global economic order. But by spreading the delusion, they mask over the reality of sovereign debt, structural adjustment, imperialist hangovers and the workings of the World Bank, IMF and World Trade Organisation. The combined impact of these is a world of rising inequality, both between countries and within them.

Aware of all this, what is an NGO to do? Charities, large and small, should stop doing what they are doing. We are able to lessen the impact of economic failings, environmental disasters and so on through our work. And until the system changes we must continue to enable change as best we can - if you can't beat them adapt. But we must do this with our eyes open and take care not accept the current economic order as a 'fait accompli'. We must not leave UN / World Bank / large NGO assertions that poverty is declining unchallenged. There are things we can do, sharing Hickel's book and articles is a start[1]. 

Chapter 8 of The Divide, opens with this quote from Henry David Thoreau, it is as cautionary as it is challenging:

There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce misery which he strives in vain to relieve. 

So how do we 'hack at the branches' of poverty and climate change (those twin and related evils), while also 'striking at the root'? Indeed, can we do both? To be honest, we are unsure, we are exploring this. What follows is where we've got to so far, we'd love to hear your thoughts too.

Small charities, like ours, are only ever equipped to 'hack at the branches' - we enable remote mountain communities to adapt to the impacts of climate change. But, we can maybe 'strike at the root' a bit too.

Coffee - a crop we are supporting farmers to cultivate, harvest and sell - is sold by developing countries to developed countries in green bean form. A green bean is one which has not yet been roasted. But, it is during the roasting process that value is added to a raw material.

The process of converting a raw material into a final product is key to profit making in any manufacturing process. It is why, at the beginning of the industrial revolution, raw cotton was imported to the UK and then turned into fabric. The cost of converting cotton into fabric was far less than the price at which it was then sold. The same is true for coffee, a roasted coffee bean commands a far higher price than a green bean.

We are in the early stages of coffee production in Deusa and Waku, but we are already in conversation with Not1Bean a social enterprise that has a unique guarantee. Not one of the coffee beans that they sell has been roasted outside the country in which it was grown.  As a consequence, the financial value added to the coffee bean during roasting stays within the community that grew it. This arrangement also supports jobs at roasting facilities that wouldn't previously have existed. Not1Bean are currently only working with farmers in South America, but they hope - and we hope - they will be able to set farmers up with roasting equipment in Nepal soon.

This will 'strike at the root' of poverty as it strengthens the manufacturing sector in Nepal, driving up economic activity and income into the country. It is a model that can be replicated in other areas of agriculture and other economic sectors. Of course, unfavourable trading relationships will still be an inhibitor and Nepal still needs to cope with the impacts of decades of structural adjustment, but it is a programme of work that shines a light on an economic system that badly needs reform. 

The Glacier Trust, working with partners like Not1Bean and with our eyes wide open to the dangers of the 'development delusion' will continue to do what we can to strike at the root. But, we are also pragmatic; we must continue our climate change adaptation work with great energy and commitment. Maybe we should change our T-Shirt to 'Until we beat them, adapt'? 


1. Hickel's writings are very accessible, as well as The Divide, we recommend the following articles:
Could you live on $1.90 a day? That's the international poverty line ;
It will take 100 years for the world’s poorest people to earn $1.25 a day ;
Time for degrowth: to save the planet, we must shrink the economy ;