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Tap a neglected resource -- the world's peasants

If the hunger that afflicts 800 million of the world's rural poor is to be eased, more than aid and technical advice is now needed. The energies of the peasants themselves -- that vital, but often forgotten resource -- must be enlisted on a vast scale.

Until now money and responsibility for development has been put overwhelmingly in the hands of advanced agriculturalists. To be sure, such worthwhile investment has had its results: new high-yield seeds, fertilizers, pest control. Used in commercial farming operations in many rich and poor countries alike, these have increased food production enormously.

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Yet the experts are "pricked by a twinge of conscience," as a United Nations official recently put it. They realize that massive hunger persists -- even though the technology exists to end it, and even where political oppression is not an obstacle to its use. In short, there is a gigantic gap between the means to end hunger and conditions on the ground in the world's impoverished villages.

But bold new experiments have been springing up like wildflowers in a number of developing countries. To have the chance to succeed -- and they should be given that chance -- far more serious attention and financial support will be required from the world community.

Planners of some of these experiments recently gathered in Puebla, Mexico to share the fruits of their efforts to date: Africans designing so-called "Food Corps" projects in Tanzania, Mali, Senegal, Upper Volta, the Gambia and Niger; Mexicans from the Colegio de Postgraduados in Chapingo; Sri Lankans of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement; Filipinos of the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction.

Characteristic of these experiments is determination to enlist the peasant farmer's widescale participation. The aim is to channel technical information and supplies to the farmers while at the same time teaching them how to use them and training them to take greater responsibility for spreading them throughout their regions. The goal is not sheer economic growth, but the human development of those who live in the countryside as measured in such things as skills and education. Without this, the experts are learning, all the technical advice and aid from the world community will, in the long run, be to no avail.

Even the World Bank, which for years has focused almost exclusively on the economic components of development, is now placing unprecedented new emphasis on all-round human needs. Education and health, says the Bank's latest world development report, are equally essential for raising productivity and incomes of the poor.

For the Africans' Food Corps programs in their present tender, fledgling stage, financial support is now particularly crucial. While the concept behind these projects has been well received by the US Agency for International Development and members of Congress such as the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Africa, Rep. Stephen Solarz of New York, so far little money has been forthcoming from the US or any country.

Time is of the essence. Surely the hour has come for the peasant to be allowed his full share of participation in the future.

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