It Starts With the Land: Tapping Markets to End Poverty in Nicaragua and Beyond

August 1, 2018

Christine Albertini, Chief Operating Officer, Partners Worldwide

Amidst so much political disagreement in Washington D.C., it was enormously heartening to see the US Senate reauthorize the Global Food Security Act for a five-year period. Of particular note was the call for a ‘whole-government strategy,’ an acknowledgment that it takes a systems approach to develop comprehensive solutions to combat hunger and malnutrition.

(Courtesy: Partners Worldwide)

It is now conventional wisdom that the traditional aid model has failed and that markets are a key factor in ending global poverty. Indeed, working with small-scale farmers to link them to regional and global markets is a reliable method of addressing rural poverty and associated issues such as hunger. At the heart of this virtuous cycle is a farming family who owns their land and has access to inputs and knowledge to increase their yields.

However, this is only part of what’s required. Interventions beyond pure market forces are needed, too. Small scale, rural farmers do not have ready access to markets to get viable returns on their participation in those markets. Making markets work for the poor requires public and private support, infrastructure, and investments.

Local partners of Partners Worldwide in Nicaragua have been working to address the rural agricultural system, with some help from a group of farmers from Iowa.

(Courtesy: Partners Worldwide)

At first, the Iowa farmers thought to convey their knowledge of agri-business value chains and how to increase yields to the small-scale farmers in Nicaragua. But they quickly learned that bringing market principles to the rural poor was not enough. First, the farmers must own their own land.

The Iowa farmers helped raise funds to buy the Nicaraguan farmers’ land from absentee landlords, create “land banks,” and provide sizable parcels to small-scale farmers on loan. The farmers were able to pay off the loan from their farm yield, allowing them to become landowners. Their repayment of the loan fuels additional land bank purchases, keeping the virtuous cycle going.

If we look at the history that has made the US farm economy the envy of the world, we see that it took comprehensive interventions to create the systems we know today.

In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt commissioned ‘The Study of Country Life,’ which recommended a whole government approach to addressing poverty and malnutrition in the rural US. Included were support of farm co-ops, extension services from the great land-grant universities, and honoring the role of the local church in helping form hopeful communities. Then, investments in highway and port development brought the harvest to markets across the US and the world.

(Courtesy: Partners Worldwide)

Such inspired systems-building leads to stable economic environments, which are like an artesian well of benefits to all members of a community. This is the basis for free and fair trade and the teeming global commerce we all seek.

At Partners Worldwide we aspire to end poverty through business so that all may have abundant life. We do this through building long-term, hands on partnerships with local leaders to provide business training, mentoring, access to capital, and advocacy tools. In the process, farmers, entrepreneurs, and agribusiness owners are empowered to grow strong, local businesses that sustainably lift themselves and others out of poverty for good.

The Global Food Security Act is an investment by US citizens in systems that ‘feed the future’ and help citizens of developing nations bring about free, fair, and joyful societies. This is an investment that should bring great pride.