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The world's 'bottom billion' cannot live by bread alone

Issue: "Africa, Inc.," Oct. 10, 2009

In this issue of WORLD are multiple examples of good ideas that help lift people out of poverty and anguish. Our neatly told stories, however, should not mask the long hours, hard work, and gifts of grace that lasting change requires.

In the summer of 2001, with heavy fighting in Sudan's south-central oilfield region between government forces and Sudan People's Liberation Army, I spent a night and two days in one of the villages not far from the oilfields. A dirt airstrip there made it possible for relief flights to bring in supplies, and clusters of people displaced by the fighting had gathered nearby-about 30,000. I arrived via one of those relief flights.

The plane was stripped of seats. I and others traveled atop bags of maize in a cargo hold also loaded with water cans, cooking oil, mosquito nets, fishing line, and medical kits. The plane landed between two crude poles flying UN grain bags that were used as landing markers-faded reminders of the last substantial food shipment nearly eight weeks before. The Sudanese government had forbidden more UN food transports to the airstrip, and a few brave private relief groups had stepped into the gap, bringing in supplies at great risk and cost, and carrying out some of the sick and dying.

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Hardship was everywhere: mothers with small children living in makeshift shelters built of branches; charred circles in the dirt where larger mud huts had been burned to the ground by militias; children without parents leaning against a tree, eyes vacant; and signs of malnutrition setting in here and there.

Nearby ran a branch of the Bahr el Ghazal river, and sounds of laughter broke the desperation at the water's edge, where children had created a swimming hole in a quiet eddy lined by reeds. I watched as the bigger kids swam underwater and came up with roots and seed pods. They were diving to live, eating the rhizomes of the water lilies, which were plentiful and seemed to satisfy the steady burn of hungry bellies inside growing bodies. But the more they ate, the more deadly this "food" would become. Once in the digestive tract, too many rhizomes turned into something like concrete, and several children had died of intestinal blockages.

This to me has been a lasting image of the hard work of relief and development. Nearby the plane just unloaded had been full of necessities made possible by Christians committed to word and deed ministry. But it was clear that no amount of jerry cans, cooking oil, and grain would make a lasting solution. Worse, a homegrown sub­stitute born of desperation actually could undermine all the good deeds sitting on the airstrip behind me.

It is not enough to feed those diving for food. And it's actually not enough to give them a fishing pole instead of a fish, as the old adage says. Experts say they will need four pillars of economic development: infrastructure, healthcare, water, and education. They will need human capital, skillfully applied. And that has to mean local workers who can be trained to own their community with its successes and failures. And then they need something else: They need not to be measured by the standards set by the rest of us.

One development specialist told me, "Benchmarking economic progress by GDP or earnings per capita is a meaningless concept under Stone Age conditions." It's better to think of improving a community like this one in Sudan to the level of the earliest settlers in America, then to that of the pre-steam era of 1850s farmers in the Midwest, and hopefully forward era by era. But eras don't happen in a day, a week, a year. Dennis Bennett's Servant's Heart Relief has been working in one remote corner of Sudan for seven years and has seen one village of over 1,000 go from "1 iron ax, 3 cooking pots, and 4 goats" to subsistence farming, a school, even a market. In this way, he says, it's possible to move the "bottom billion"-that one-sixth or so of the world's population whose poverty seems to defy a solution-to economic self-reliance without large government programs, "if people and donors are willing to be persistent and somewhat creative." And if they are willing to recognize that it won't be easy.
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