The Challenge of International Development

Will You Be a Part of It?

Ending poverty is the challenge of our generation. Our country is no stranger to challenge.

During World War II, the world made a choice to oppose fascism and bring democracy to all corners of the earth. During the Civil Rights movement, everyday citizens decided to stand up for what was just and right and brought about one of the most profound changes in American society.

At the beginning of the 1900’s, ordinary men and women stood up for the right of women to vote and pressured the government to pass the Nineteenth Amendment, giving the right to vote to all women in America. These challenges were met by ordinary people like you and me realizing their potential to create extraordinary change.

Let me tell you a little bit about this challenge. In 1950, over half of the world lived in extreme poverty — defined as living on less than $1.25 per day in 2008 dollars. Now, one in five people live in extreme poverty, with over one billion of them going hungry every day. These are people who don’t know if they will have enough to eat next week. These are people who often have to make the choice between feeding their families and feeding themselves.

We can make the choice to change their lives. This is not an impossible challenge. There is enough food already to go around. In developing countries alone, there are over 2,700 calories of food available per person per day, more than enough to permanently eliminate hunger.

What stands in the way of putting an end to world hunger? The list is long: trade distortions between developing and developed nations, lack of a social safety net in developing nations which makes them vulnerable to small changes in price in the world market, not enough emergency assistance provided during natural disasters, lack of infrastructure and technology, corruption in government programs, and so on …

What can be done? Promoting school feeding programs that tackle the problem of hunger and education simultaneously, investing in transformational programs that bring farmers out of sustenance agriculture, researching new yield-enhancing agricultural technologies, bringing the least developed countries into the global economy on an equal footing, the list goes on and on — there are many possibilities for our time!

Take, for example, creating yield-enhancing agricultural technologies. In the 1960’s, India was on the verge of experiencing a disastrous mass famine. In comes Norman Borlaug, an American agronomist who spent the previous 15 years in Mexico developing a high-yield disease-resistant wheat crop that promised an end to famine in India.

Initially resistant to the idea of using Borlaug’s newly developed wheat strain because of cultural opposition to the new technology, the Indian government realized the potential for massive famine and gave the go-ahead for the project.

Most experts predicted global famines in which billions would die due to the population explosion of the preceding decades and didn’t believe it was possible for anyone to bring an end to famine. In spite of the dire predictions, wheat yields in the Indian subcontinent doubled by 1970.

India went from being an importer of cereals to an exporter, all by harnessing an agronomists’ high-yield disease-resistant crop. The predicted famine was averted, and billions were able to lift themselves out of extreme poverty.

There are still one billion people out there who have difficulty feeding themselves every day. The end of poverty is in sight, but we are not there yet. After making gains in life expectancy in Africa from 38 years at birth in 1950 to 48 in the late 1980’s, the AIDS epidemic alone has reversed the progress that has been made and resulted in a decline in life expectancy in Africa for the past 20 years.

The potential to develop a vaccine that ends this epidemic is in our hands. The percentage of people living in extreme poverty in Africa has remained at about 40 percent for the past few decades. We have the ability to design high-yield crops and lift sustenance farmers out of extreme poverty across the continent. Our hands hold the power to make a difference.

Ending poverty will be the greatest challenge of our generation. It won’t happen automatically. It won’t happen without our help. We can be the ones that make the difference. We are the revolutionaries of our time. Do not let this opportunity pass us by.

This is OUR problem, this is OUR challenge, this is OUR time to be great. Will you be a part of it?

Spencer Skates ’10 is a member of the MIT Global Poverty Global Initiative.