Geographic factors do not change easily. Yet programs of targeted investments by outside sources can break poverty traps at surprisingly low cost. Begin by focusing investments on raising food security and agriculture productivity; enable farmers to gain access to fertilizers, high-yield seeds, small-scale water management technologies and improved livestock management. The result can be a rapid boost in food production and farm incomes, commonly called a green revolution. Africa is primed for such a breakthrough, if donors support it.
A second area for targeted investment is disease control. The tropical diseases, especially malaria, worm infections and many other water-borne and insect-borne diseases, are readily preventable and often completely treatable. What is needed is a supply chain of crucial commodities, the construction and availability of primary health units in rural areas and trained village health workers. The results can be dramatic, with a sharp drop in child mortality and a sharp uptake of family planning in as little as a few months.
Investments in infrastructure can also break economic isolation. Such improvements include all-weather roads, wider cellular phone coverage, the extension of power grids to rural areas (like the New Deal program of rural electrification in the U.S.) and the extension of broadband Internet services through fiber-optic cables and satellite connections. Connecting formerly remote villages to regional and world markets enables them to earn much more cash income through sales of agricultural commodities, processed goods (such as textiles) and services (such as tourism or even IT-based rural services).
The Earth Institute at Columbia University, in partnership with the United Nations and the nongovernmental organization Millennium Promise, is putting these targeted investments to work Millennium Villages in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The early results are enormously positive with respect to food production, disease control, connectivity and confidence in the community (learn more at www.millenniumvillages.org). Governments around Africa, including some in former war zones, are now requesting such projects in their countries. The World Bank, the U.S. government, the European Union, Japan and other donors would be wise to respond favorably, because such investment is the best hope for peace, security and long-term prosperity in impoverished regions.
States, Scarcity, and Civil Strife in the Developing World, by Colin H. Kahl (Princeton University Press, 2006)
The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It, by Paul Collier (Oxford University Press, 2007)