There is a neglected aspect to efforts to eliminate poverty: industry. At least according to economist Erik Reinert of Tallinn Technical University in Estonia, who argues that the best way to feed more people is to make sure that more of them have industrial, non-agricultural jobs. "The smaller the percentage of agriculture in [a nation's gross domestic product, or GDP], the smaller the chance of famine," Reinert said today at the State of the Planet conference. "That should tell us something."" According to him, the fact that countries gripped by famine have more farmers tells us that developing countries need more protectionism for nascent industries (an approach that worked to bring Asia in recent decades as well as Europe after World War II out of poverty) and a less myopic focus on improving agriculture. "The way to solve poverty is to make agriculture a smaller part of GDP," he said. In other words, Africa needs fewer, better farmers and more people pursuing other types of work. Economist Jeff Sachs of Columbia University's Earth Institute noted that a country cannot have industry until it has bountiful agricultural yields (and that countries like Kenya don't have as vast domestic markets like those that India and China harnessed to develop). Nevertheless, the rapid spread of mobile telephones in the developing world--and the entrepreneurial efforts it triggered, such as giving farmers access to information so they were no longer at the mercy of traders for price data--proves that focusing on agriculture may be too narrow. And that is something that has been borne out by the experience of Ericsson, the mobile telecommunications company. As Ericsson CEO Carl-Henric Svanberg explained, the Swedish company has been in the business of rolling out telecommunications networks since 1876: traditional telegraph and phone lines in the 19th and 20th centuries and mobile platforms in the 21st. Already, more than three billion people worldwide have mobile phones--and this has unleashed new opportunities to enhance education, eradicate disease and make money. Neither technology or industry alone will be enough, however, to halve poverty or curb starvation--as the global community set out to do with the Millennium Development Goals in 2000--said John McArthur, co-director of the Millennium Villages Project, an effort to combat the many problems facing 79 villages in sub-Saharan Africa. At least in these 79 villages the U.N.'s ambitious goals may be met. On a broader front, there is also good news: worldwide measles infections are down, millions more people have access to anti-AIDS drugs, and there are 20 million more children in school now than in 2000 in developing countries. But there is far more bad news; most of these goals--clean water, hunger, child mortality--are nowhere close to being met. Bringing all the peoples of the world out of poverty will require major effort on all fronts: industrial, agricultural, education, health and the like, according to McArthur. "When child mortality comes down, through access to health care," he said, "and as food production goes up, that's how you see a transition away from agriculture." And that diversification away from seasonal, rain-fed agriculture alone could prove as important in bringing the people of sub-Saharan Africa out of poverty as it did in remedying the poverty of Asians over the last several decades. Asia's Green Revolution proceeded on a wave of fertilizer, improved crop varieties and, perhaps most important, credit. The simple banking that cellphones have opened up may not suffice to remedy the soil fertility crisis in Africa.
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.