The fruits, the roots, and the soil

We social justice types spend a lot of time examining the fruits and the roots. But what of the soil?

Humanitarians generally focus on the fruits, i.e. physical needs such as food, water, clothes, and medicine. Development types generally focus on the roots, i.e. infrastructure, agriculture, education, and various government or multilateral programs.


But send out an agronomist to analyze a section of land for agricultural fertility, and his primary focus will be on the nature and fertility of the soil. We can have all the fancy technology in the world, we can genetically engineer seeds for pesticide resistance and higher yields, we can till the land with the powerful machines, but if the soil is sterile, nothing will grow. 


Microfinance pioneer Muhammad Yunus touches on the soil issue in his poignant metaphor of the bonsai tree:


If you go and look at the tallest tree in the forest and pick the best seed of the tallest tree and plant it in a flower pot, you get about a meter high or less than a meter high plant, exact replica of the tall tree that you saw in the forest.  So what is wrong with this little one? Is it the seed, no, we picked the best seed possible, planted it on that. So what is wrong? The wrong thing is the flower pot. Because you didn’t allow the base on which it could grow. If you had planted in the real soil, it would be as tall as the tree you saw in the forest. Poor people are bonsai people; society doesn’t provide them the base … Human beings are not animals, animals are the ones who go around and look for food all day and then get tired and sleep and the next day begin in search of food.  Human beings are created for much bigger mission, to take care of the whole planet and to take it forward. 

This illustration has always resonated with me, but we can’t stop here. Yunus’ efforts through the Grameen Bank, along with the efforts of the myriad microfinance organizations around the world, aim to increase the size of the pot (i.e. the availability of capital) for the world’s poorest. Such efforts have indeed bettered the lives of many, though, as we discussed in a previous post on SMEs, microfinance does have its limits when it comes to big-picture sustainable development as characterized by rising employment levels and the meaningful economic growth. But there is another limit on microfinance: the size of the pot is not the only matter of importance; even more critical is the quality of the soil.


The persistence of abject poverty around the world demands our attention to soil quality. How are we to evaluate it and how do we then channel our energies toward the cause of improving it?


We asked this question repeatedly in our more than 150 interviews conducted around the world over the past several years and observed a thematic repetition of the following: property rights; rule of law; political, economic, and religious freedom; cultures of trust; access to networks of productivity and exchange. Today, let’s take a look at just a few of them.


Property Rights, Rule of Law, Economic Freedom, Access to Networks of Exchange

We take property rights for granted. We take for granted that we can own land, own possessions, and own our labor. If you earn something, if you pay for it, you own it, and nobody can take it away from you. People in developing countries don’t always have that; often times certain people have it based on political, social, or racial class, while most do not.


The same goes for the rule of law. We take for granted that if we are wronged, we have recourse. If you start a business and somebody steals from you or cheats you, you have an appeal to justice via a legal system that is — while not perfect — extremely reliable relative to the rest of the world.


Then there’s economic freedom and access to networks of productivity and exchange. If you want to start a coffee business and you want to buy from a certain group of farmers, hire a certain group of roasters, and sell to a certain group of people, you’re free to do that. People in developing countries don’t always have those freedoms and access, or if they do they are often choked off by corruption or the barriers of entry are often insurmountably high.


International trade agreements are rarely friendly to the poor. Why? Because they are negotiated by wealthy political and corporate elites and tied to special interests. Trade negotiations are often tied to aid agreements or other types of favors, which are ways that we, the powerful nations, end up strong arming poor countries into accepting policies that are unfavorable for their people. That’s not freedom; that’s cronyism. The problem with the current so-called “free market” capitalist system is that it isn’t authentically free at all. That’s not a bash on the ideal of free markets; that’s a bash on false advertising.


These are some of the foundational elements that prosperous countries have and underdeveloped countries lack. These are the axes of growth and human flourishing, as evident by the unprecedented levels of prosperity achieved by the United States and others who have benefited from these commonalities. They are so fundamental to our system that we forget they are there. We forget how we got here. Those who that lack these key elements, however, often have a much more vivid appreciation for their value.


Soil Pollution

Soil cultivation is not sexy and the science of fertility is complex, but we must be vigilant in these pursuits. If we shirk this responsibility and take short cuts, we risk everything. Just as certain pesticides and GMOs produce a positive short-term effect but can do harm in the long run by corrupting the land and water supply, social engineering of imported poverty programs can yield quick visible gains and photo-ops but ultimately do harm to the soil in which people are trying to grow.


We see clear examples of this in politics, business, and culture. Some of the negative unintended consequences of the predominant charity and aid models on local businesses, especially small and medium size enterprises, have been well documented. There’s also the effect of aid on political climates to consider.


Author, entrepreneur, and development mogul Michael Fairbanks outlines the problem well.

Whenever you have an aid agreement, those consultants come into the country, and they don’t work for the country, they work for the foreign-aid establishment. And so what you find is that the aid-establishment severs the sovereign link between the leader of a country and its people. Because you’ve got all these consultants running around doing their thing, purportedly to work for the people, but in reality, their masters are in Washington and Tokyo and London and Paris.

The more dependent a government is on foreign institutions, the more accountable it is to those foreign institutions. The more dependent a government is on its own people, the more accountable it is to its own people. For Ghanaian entrepreneur Herman Chinery-Hesse, this isn’t some theoretical assertion; this is life:

To a large extent our governments have been held captive by the donor agencies, International Donor Community, who are not, in my view, particularly interested in seeing the growth of local business, because then the tax base will represent a revenue source for the government and therefore put them out of business.

When elephants fight, the grass suffers … So we’ve got this to fight. You cannot imagine how petty the political parties could get … And they can do this, once again, because they are not depending on tax revenue. They are more interested in a smile on the World Bank country director’s face than the success of my business, because, they really are not depending on me as much as they are depending on the World Bank for their livelihood and their survival. And this is an issue.

This is just one of many ways that, despite our best intentions (and truthfully there are many times when the motives of the government are far more strategic than altruistic), we can end up corrupting the soil of development instead of enriching it.


Modern data mining had made it much easier to identify historical correlations and suspected causalities in economic development. Such trends allow us isolate and identify a number of the catalyzing elements characteristic of a prosperous ecosystem. Contrary to popular belief, foreign aid, which touts investments in infrastructure and social service programs as primary, demonstrates no positive correlation with economic development; in fact, it often illustrates a negative correlation as seen by the graph below.

Proponents of aid point to numbers of lives saved and/or improved by specific projects and initiatives. Such stories are not inconsequential; every life is noteworthy. But ultimately, anecdotal data is both insufficient and, more important, a distracting from the bigger picture. We can’t evaluate cost in mere dollars and cents. We must also evaluate the opportunity cost of tying up resources in programs that fail to demonstrate widespread sustainable development. We must also be honest with ourselves about a possibility we seldom consider: what if our aid is actually holding people back? What if our help is hurting?


Myself, I used to brush this notion off as trademark conservative resistance to government funded programs. Then I started listening to more voices from the developing world. Many denounce aid outright. Some qualify their criticism by proposing improvements. All advocate for major reform.


The Misdiagnosis

There exists a common trait among models that hurt: a misunderstanding of the problem itself.


How we understand the nature of poverty is paramount. PovertyCure director Michael Matheson Miller often draws on Aristotle: “A small mistake in the beginning leads to a big mistake in the end.” The mistakes we see in development most often derive not merely from improper prescriptions, but from misdiagnoses of the problem itself. This is where I find the analogy of the fruits, the roots, and the soil particularly helpful.


The problem is not that people don’t have the fruits i.e. food, clothes, roads, education, healthcare, etc. The problem is that people lack the fertile soil necessary for attaining those essentials for themselves. More succinctly put, the issue is not possession but acquisition. The former is the origin of the persistent notion that if we just raise X number of dollars and marshal Y amount of resources, then we can end extreme poverty by year Z. Its diagnosis is material; its prescription is collection and delivery; you get to be the hero. Conversely, those who properly identify and prioritize the latter are the ones who assume instead the posture of the servant leader, get down on their knees, and plunge their hands into the mud. Their diagnosis is immaterial; their prescription is soil cultivation sustained over time; they play the far less glamorous role of the supporting actor. These are the rare, unsung servant heroes who recognize the internal nature of the growth process, and I have had the immense privilege of meeting a few of them. In fact, it has been those encounters coupled with the conversations with developing world leaders and friends that gradually helped me distinguish between these two very different approaches and the various models that derive from each of them.


We can deliver, deliver, and deliver until the end of time, reassuring ourselves of our worthy mission, or we can listen to the voices of those we are trying to help. Our friends in the developing world don’t want our leftover fruit; they want to grow their own. Instead of focusing on collection and delivery, let’s our hands dirty. Let’s come along side them on our knees and work with them to cultivate the soil so that the seeds of potential in developing countries can grow the way they were designed and destined grow – organically, independently, sustainably.




















Apr 112013
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