In 1978, the Independent Commission on International Development Issues whose chairperson was Herr Willy Brandt started its work in the problems of developing countries and their relationship with the industrial North.
The report it issued in 1979 titled North-South: A Programme for Survival contained a special chapter on the poorest countries of the world.
For member to see what one of the poorest countries of the world looked like, the commission held one of its meetings in Mali, West Africa, not in Malawi because those days Malawi was better than Mali and several other countries.
Nowadays international experts inform us that Malawi is either the poorest of second to the poorest. Most countries which were poorer than Malawi have made progress whereas Malawi’s economy has deteriorated or made only marginal progress. This should be a course of soul-searching and self-criticism by the people of Malawi and their leaders. Self praise is of no value when indicators are so visible.
The commission noted that the least developed countries, numbering 29 in all extended across the middle of Africa from the Sahara in the north to Lake Nyasa (sic) in the south. The other one began with the two Yemens and Afghanistan, stretched across South Asian and some East Asian countries.
These countries shared the same characteristics and handicaps. Each had a slim margin between subsistence and disaster. They were circumscribed by their ecology and their dependence on international market forces beyond their control. They suffer from population pressure, endemic diseases, droughts, floods, soil erosion and creeping desert.
The following programmes of action were discussed:
(a) Structural and ecological change: What might elsewhere be an awkward period of low rainfall becomes in these regions a period of famine and reversion to desert, a flood can take away the top soil. There must be immediate intervention to attack the root cause of poverty. In trying to escape poverty, greater attention should be paid to education, water and soil management, improving health, reforestation, developing energy and minerals.
(b) Water and soil management: Unpredictable rainfall makes agricultural planning difficult but once water is available all the year round the farmers are protected from the vagaries of the climate. Growing more food will depend on research which can improve input of fertilisers. Research is also needed into seed varieties of crops which can flourish in the soil and climate of these areas such as millet and sorghum tubers.
(c) Health: Human energy and innovation depend on good health. Sleeping sickness, river blindness and bilharzia hold back farming of rich lands. The most expensive items in disease control are the chemical compounds which are used to attack the disease vectors.
(d) Afforestation and energy: The firewood crisis is intimately linked to the food problems in at least two ways. The destruction of the forests accelerates soil erosion, increasing severe flooding and creeping deserts; secondly the diversion of manure for use as fuel leads to a loss of agricultural nutrients damaging the soil structure by failing to return manure to the field. The introduction of commercial solar energy into these areas would be a major catalyst for structural changes.
(e) Transport and communication: Effective development must call for extending transport and communication into the more isolated areas. International economic cooperation must involved harmonisation, coordination, modernisation and developing communications, radio, television and postal services.
(f) Mineral exploration: The isolation of the poorest countries together with their lack of funds and political problems have made it especially difficult for the poorest countries to survey their mineral resources. The necessary financial resources and technical know-how are in the hands of transnational corporations and government agencies. The commission recommended increased finance for exploration to these poorest countries.
(g) The landless: The commission discussed problems of the landless in Asia only because in Africa during that period, this problem was less acute. The commission recommended that investment in irrigation and flood control could provide the condition for multiple crops which might generate higher demand for labour.
These observations were made 40 years ago. Let us take stock of what we have been and done. n