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Simple Strategies That Help Poor Regions

US-based group uses everything from donkey carts to jet boats in effort to spur development. INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT

VISITING a Somalian refugee camp in 1982, Paul Polak noticed that its residents carried their supplies on their heads and backs. Although many of the former nomads had started to grow crops, they could only take to market what they could carry. ``There was no wheeled transport in the camps at all,'' recalls the former psychiatrist who is now president of International Development Enterprises (IDE), an organization on the lookout for simple ways to stimulate economic development in some of the poorest regions in the world. ``But the traditional thing in Somali lifestyle in the villages and cities is donkey carts, and there were plenty of donkeys.''

Enter the donkey cart, built from car wheels and axles found in dumps all over Somalia. Staff members of the fledgling nonprofit organization organized workshops to teach camp residents to build the carts. The $450 carts were paid for, usually over a period of months, by the refugees, who had been displaced as a result of a decades-old land dispute between Somalia and Ethiopia. The project was so successful that some refugees started earning more than $200 a month hauling goods for hire in a country where the average per capita annual income is about $110, Mr. Polak says. IDE left Somalia after three years, leaving six donkey cart manufacturers supplying a market that was ``by no means saturated,'' according to Polak.

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Recognizing appropriate, sustainable solutions to poverty is key to the work of IDE, a seven-year-old organization based in Lakewood, Colo., with an affiliate office in Winnipeg. With a staff drawn from careers as diverse as real-estate development, theology, and dog-food marketing, IDE has been known to find solutions where experts have come up empty-handed. For example, it has aided hundreds of thousands of small farmers in Bangladesh in starting to grow crops during the dry season by helping to market a $30 manual water pump.

Since IDE is a small organization, a larger group, the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) took the lead in introducing and distributing the manual pumps in Bangladesh. Franck Wiebe, manager of the MCC agricultural program from 1986 to '89, says that IDE's straightforward business approach avoided the pitfall of starting a development project that no one wanted.

``Helping people catch business opportunities is a safe approach in that you're not undermining the natural motivations people have,'' Mr. Wiebe says. ``You also avoid the danger of white-elephant projects that you do and no one wants.''

IDE is currently working to introduce a river-based transportation system to the remote mountain valleys of Nepal and is developing methods to make extraction of nuts and oils from the Brazilian rain forest more profitable for the people who live there.

``They're not technocrats,'' enthuses Anthony Anderson, an ecologist with the Ford Foundation in Brazil, which is providing seed money for IDE's projects there. ``They're generalists who can look at problems from a different perspective.''

When the donkey cart project was still in the planning stage, it was greeted by skepticism from the international nongovernment organizations working in the camp, says Terry Jeggle, the director of CARE in Somalia from 1982 to '84. CARE was responsible for the reception and transport of goods that arrived for the refugees in the camps. CARE wasn't financially connected with IDE, but Mr. Jeggle observed the donkey cart project.

``There was a lot of skepticism at the time whether all these little donkey carts running around could do what a water truck could do,'' he says. ``And quite surprisingly, they did.''

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In Nepal, millions of people don't have direct access to roads. The jet boat, which costs $120,000, is a far cry from the simple solutions IDE usually favors, and the organization has been criticized for introducing a technology that is both foreign and expensive. But it is the simplest solution they've come up with for Nepal's transportation problem so far, Polak says.

The 320-horsepower, 31-foot aluminum boat skims across the surface of the water, letting out a powerful jet of water behind.

Nepalis familiar with the fledgling jetboat system are enthusiastic, according to Capt. Iswar Man Singh, a pilot with Royal Nepali Airways. ``All the people are interested,'' says Captain Singh, who often flies passengers, food, and construction materials to remote parts of Nepal. ``Road transport is very, very hard.''

Two jet boats are now in Nepal, funded by the US Agency for International Development's Bureau of Private Enterprise, the Nepalese government, the United Nations Development Program, and private donations.

IDE has recommended that the system run as a private business, with bank credit available to small farmers. The Nepalese government will have the final sayon how things are organized.

IDE's latest project is in Brazil, where its staff is formulating a method to allow villagers who pick brazil nuts for a living to vacuum pack them in the field. Shelled Brazil nuts spoil quickly when they are exposed to the air, and the villagers have historically had to sell the nuts to a processing plant in town, which sealed them and sold them for a much higher price. But if villagers put the nuts in a plastic bag along with a smaller bag of iron powder, the oxidizing iron consumes the oxygen, IDE has found. Result: unspoiled nuts, wealthier villagers, and more incentive to save the forest where the nuts grow wild.

``We want to make it perfectly clear that they're much better off with standing forests than cleared forests,'' says Michael Edesess, a natural resources consultant who is the stateside manager of IDE's rain forest projects.

IDE is also working on village-scale technology to shell and extract oil from the babassu palm, whose fist-sized nuts can yield soap, shampoo, and cooking oil. Traditionally, this hard-shelled nut is broken by women who hold the fruit against an axe blade and hammer it until it breaks. IDE is working with a Brazilian government extension agency to develop a machine that breaks the nuts. It is also developing plans for the extraction of oil at the village level.

``Nobody's thought of that,'' says Dr. Anderson of the Ford Foundation. ``It seems so incredibly obvious.''

Polak acknowledges that IDE's projects can have negative as well as positive affects: Nepal's tightly knit mountain culture could be abraded by increased contact with the outside world. An increase in the number of Brazilians picking Brazil nuts will spell the demise of parts of the forest cleared to make room for their homes. Some refugees in Somalia profit more than others by the donkey carts.

``Everything you do causes problems as well as solves them,'' Polak says. ``So none of these things are clean; it's just a question of what causes fewer problems.''

IDE has an annual budget of about $800,000. If the projects in Nepal and Brazil grow rapidly, it could be up to $2 million in a year, Polak says. Most of IDE's money comes from governmental aid organizations (in Switzerland, Canada, and the United States), with about $60,000 per year in private donations and $50,000 from private foundations. It has a handful of stateside staff (four people in Colorado, all working part-time; one in Winnipeg), and 54 abroad (of which four are North Americans and the rest are locals).

The organization developed out of a process that began in the late 1970s. While working as a psychiatrist in Denver, Polak noted that the poorer people were, the more likely they were to experience mental and physical illnesses. He found himself changing his focus to social and economic factors in illness.

At one point, he went to Belize in search of the perfect scuba diving vacation. There, he and a friend met lighthouse keeper Willard Young, who lived on an island off the coast. Mr. Young was a sometime shark fisherman, and Polak and his friend decided to help him make his shark business more lucrative. Within three months, they were making jewelry from the teeth, leather from the skin, and serving scrap meat to a few pigs they had been brought from the mainland. It worked very well, Polak says, except for Pancho.

``Pancho was a little pig when we brought him to the island and he became a very big pig. And he was a very mean pig. There was a group of tourists that visited the islands once, and the end result was that Pancho bit one of the tourists on the rear end and ran him up a tree and so poor Willard had to shoot Pancho. ... But that's one of the things we learned - any simple idea takes a lot of working through before you get it to be self-sufficient.''

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