Yesterday, I tried to fill out a survey for work, on the economic impact of my employment.  I was going along fine–until the survey asked for the number of hours I “volunteer” per month, and the estimated dollar value of those hours.

I threw away the survey.

If that’s how they measure, I don’t want any part of it.

In much of our society, we long ago reached the point where we judge everything based on monetary value–though some of us (including me) hate it.  Not only is this a debasement of other aspects of our lives (especially our spiritual lives), but it leads to actual, physical debasement of the lives of millions, especially in the “developing” world.

Consider the farmers I was “assisting” when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Togo, West Africa a couple of decades ago.  My project was “Animal Traction”–that is, teaching farmers to use oxen for plowing.  The program entailed helping farmers acquire oxen and equipment, building stables, teaching them to care for the oxen, and teaching them to use and maintain the equipment.  To join the program, the farmers had to take out loans of about $1000.00 from the government.

This seemed like such a great idea.  Anyone who has seen (let alone done it themselves) African farmers tilling the hard laterite soil with a “daba” (a hatchet-sized hoe) knows a bit about how back-breaking that work is.  Anything that can ease the burden of that labor, the thinking went, would be advantageous to the farmers.  Anything freeing time so spent could only be seen as “development.”


Well, not quite.

Let’s step back for a moment and look at just what a “subsistence” economy, like the one of northern Togo, really is.

Things are changing, and there are few villages left that really exist on the old “subsistence” model, but it ran something like this:

Each family in a village had certain fields they could plant, fields enough to provide food for the family throughout the year, when supplemented by a small vegetable garden by the house, and the livestock (chickens, pigs, goats, and sheep) that lived in the compound.  Someone in the family generally had another task that produced value for trade within the community.  Perhaps there was a healer or a carpenter.  As time went on and manufactured goods began to appear in the village, someone might take on the role of bicycle mechanic, say, or repairer of radios.

Even at that level, when goods were beginning to appear in the village (something that actually began hundreds of years ago–but I’m not writing history, just trying to explain something), annual income, measure by money, was quite low.  It would come from sale of excess crops of livestock to traders from the outside and probably would not exceed several hundred dollars a year.

That sounds shockingly low by our American standards, but the people living in such a village would not have thought of themselves as impoverished.  For a thousand years, their ancestors had lived in just this way, and had lived full lives (check out Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, perhaps the most popular book in West Africa over the past half century, for a look at these lives at the time of the coming of the European colonialists).  Not rich, they would have admitted.  But poor?  No.  They had houses, food (most of the time–though there were years of famine), and family.

Sure, this is an idealized view.  But I am talking about two things: self-perception and self-reliance.  The people in such villages did not see themselves as poor–and they could rely on themselves and their fellow villagers when problems arose.  Yes, life was hard, often brutal, and too often short.  But it was a life that allowed for self-respect and community.

Let’s go back, now, to the oxen: When a farmer is seduced by a government agent into the oxen program, that farmer, as I have said, incurs a debt.  As a result, that farmer is no longer able to be self-sufficient in the manner of old times.

To pay the debt, the farmer has to start planting cash crops–that is, crops for sale, not just for home use.  In this case, the cash crop is cotton.  

This has several different effects.  First, the reduction in food-crop production requires the farmer to actually plant even more cotton–for he (and it is a “he,” generally) now has to buy grain to supplement the reduced amount grown.  In Africa, as in many areas of subsistence farming these days, unused farm land does not exist, so it is impossible for the farmer to expand the acreage under cultivation.  In fact, the strain on the land is already over-burdening it.  Few farmers have the “luxury” of letting their fields lie fallow every seventh year, as should be done, if the land is to sustain its productivity.

So, the farmer has to earn more money from the cotton than simply that needed to repay the loan.  The farmer has become ensnared in the monetary economy, has moved “up” from a simple subsistence existence.

Now, cotton is particularly difficult on the soil.  It can only be planted in any one field every third year–and one of the crops in the other years should be nitrogen-fixing (such as peanuts).  It also requires pesticides and herbicides and (not surprisingly) fertilizer–all of which need to be bought, adding to the new commitment to the monetary economy.

In order to keep the soil productive, then, only one-third of arable land can safely be used for cotton in any one year–and the total should really be less (allowing for seventh-year fallow).

A farmer’s expenses, not that he has entered the monetary economy, however, may quickly prove to be greater than what cotton on one-third can bring.  So, either the farmer defaults on debt (debt he took on without a real understanding of the consequences–how could he know, coming from a subsistence background?) and loses the farm or over-burdens his land–and loses the farm through reduced productivity.

In either case, the likely result is real poverty, something much worse than the subsistence life of his ancestors.

Of course, those are the worst possible outcomes.  The farmer may be able to squeak by, producing enough cotton to off-set the new expenses.  But cotton prices may fall, through no fault of the farmer’s (see Frank Norris’s story “A Deal in Wheat” for the danger to a farmer within a monetary economy), again forcing him into real poverty.

All in all, the farmer was probably better off before, when the village was responsible for its own economy and the rest of the world pitied its “abject” poverty.

Some people, when I try to explain this to them, are appalled, thinking me heartless, feeling I am condemning millions to lives of poverty, that I am simply refusing to “help” them.

What they don’t understand is that these farmers really don’t need our help anyway (they are competent enough to get on without us)–but I’ll leave that for another day.  

My point today is that, when we judge solely by money, we err.  We err, whether it’s a judgment of volunteer activity or even the wealth of peoples around the world.

[Cross-posted on BarBlog.]

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