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In the Farmers Weekly of 6 September 2002, David Richardson argued that sustainable development is local development, and Western leaders must learn more about "Third World" food production if they are to offer the meaningful, long-lasting assistance which is best applied at the local level.

I believe many of the government ministers, administrators and their economic advisers who have been meeting in Johannesburg mean well. They care about the starving millions in the Third World. They hope their deliberations will help them.

They want the policy statements they publish to provide food for the hungry. The trouble is, most have little or no practical experience or understanding of what is required and what will work.

Our own top team of Tony Blair and Margaret Beckett, whose contributions have not been reported as I write, will doubtless repeat the mantra that the West, meaning Britain among other countries, must open their markets to developing nations. The trade generated, the theory goes, will provide the wealth to build the economies of such nations and they will begin to catch up with the developed world.

The fact that many developing nations are run by corrupt dictators who cream off most of any wealth created for themselves and their cronies is conveniently ignored.

Further, that by encouraging greater access for cheap commodities from such nations, they risk a run-down of their domestic production and of creating an underclass at home among those whose products the imports replace.

In the current climate of globalisation that is not a risk perceived worth bothering about, of course, especially with regard to farming. But it is one that may return to haunt them if they fail to take it seriously.

I am fortunate to have traveled widely. I have visited farms in developing countries whose produce already comes here. I have seen how it is produced, packed and marketed. I have followed it all the way to the supermarket shelf. I offer a few thoughts on the flaws in some of the arguments put forward in Johannesburg.

In almost every developing country there are a few entrepreneurs who recognise the advantages of producing goods at Third World costs and marketing them to first world outlets. As air transportation systems (which use massive amounts of fossil fuel and make greenhouse gasses) have developed, such enterprises have expanded in scale and number.

Often, the prime movers are expatriates. In other words, incomers ready to exploit the climatic advantages and cheap labour found in most developing countries to create agribusinesses for their personal profit. In many ways the activities of such people are to be admired. Although it is, to say the least, paradoxical that agribusiness in the Third World is regarded by the politically correct as OK, while in the first world it is condemned.

However, the main point is that while such businesses, producing commodities like fruit, vegetables, flowers and so on, provide premium employment for perhaps hundreds of local people, there are millions who do not benefit. And because all the goods are exported they do nothing to alleviate starvation in other regions of the same country.

Another favourite ploy is to call for investment in infrastructure to enable native people to produce commodities for sale to the west. I remember seeing the remains of one in Tanzania a few years ago. The World Bank had spent millions of $dollars setting up an enormous farm to grow maize, flattening many traditional villages as they did so. Tractors, sprayers, combine harvesters and so on had been shipped in and local people put to driving them. For the first year or two western managers supervised the growing of good crops for local people to eat as well as to export.

But then the managers left. The locals who had no previous experience with machinery and had not learned about maintenance thought it would work forever without attention. After less than a year most was broken down and left to rust. The entire area soon became deserted because the timber the native women needed for their cooking fires had been uprooted to create big fields.

Their situation was worse than it had been before. For western methods can seldom be successfully imposed on Third World communities -- not without continued first world supervision anyway.

By far the best way to tackle starvation is to deal with it on a local basis, a village at a time, as Farm Africa does in spite of inadequate resources.

To villages that traditionally live from the produce of herds of goats they introduce better breeds that yield more milk and produce better meat. Where those same free-roaming goats have been eating saplings that would otherwise develop into trees and provide shelter, and fuel close to the village, they suggest keeping the goats confined.

They design cooking pots that use less fuel; yet another development to reduce the need to cut down trees and the associated risk of desertification. They help to find wells of clean water that will serve whole communities. Those are the kind of changes to which native people can relate and respond.

They are not grand gestures to be bragged about at international conferences. They require the long-term dedication of a great many volunteers to go and rough it in native villages, sometimes for years, to teach the locals better ways to survive. They also require funding. A little of the cash spent on the Johannesburg jolly would have helped a lot.

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