Review of George W. Norton's (Colombia 1971-73) Hunger and Hope

hunger-hope-140Hunger and Hope
by George W. Norton (Colombia 1971–73)
Waveland Press, Inc.
179 pages
$18.95 (paperback), $9.99 (Kindle)

Reviewed by Ronald A Schwarz (Colombia 1961–63)

In 1961 Sargent Shriver relentlessly cornered members of Congress to establish the Peace Corps. His assets were vision, passion, charm and chutzpah. If he returned to the agency today, he would have other tools in his box. One of the most useful would be Hunger and Hope by George W. Norton.

In the early 1970s, George and his wife Marj were volunteers with the Coffee Federation in Colombia. Later he earned a doctorate in Agricultural Economics and began his career as a professor, international consultant and author (his list of scientific publications covers 20 pages).

Hunger and Hope addresses the complex factors related to poverty, hunger and agricultural development in a readable and deeply personal manner.  Anecdotes drawn from Norton’s Peace Corps years complement his observations throughout the book. For example, the prologue begins in Colombia with him traveling on a motorbike, leaving it at a farmhouse and climbing up a dirt trail for two hours to help a peasant couple build a vegetable garden. Eighty pages later, he addresses the importance of roads and other infrastructure as part of the effort to reduce poverty.

The book is filled with personal experiences that illustrate how agricultural research, Integrated Pest Management (IPM), extension education and balanced development strategies can reduce risk and increase farmer income. His advocacy of modern agricultural interventions, specialization and international trade is partially balanced by a few examples of how traditional, centuries-old farming methods have nutritional benefits, are ecologically sound and can – effectively and efficiently – reduce risks.

The later chapters identify policies and behaviors that promote — and those that undermine — agricultural and economic development. They include low prices paid to farmers, corruption, corporate collusion, crop subsidies and credit policies.  But while Norton identifies the obstacles, he lets multinational food companies off the hook. A few firms have annual revenues greater than 100 billion dollars and help write most of the rules and regulations. Their scorecards don’t include points for reductions in hunger or poverty.

Hunger and Hope is a sensitive and readable introduction to the challenges and rewards of being a volunteer — and a professional – engaged in international development. It illustrates why most RPCVs say, “being a volunteer was the most important experience of my life.” And why, for tens of thousands of PCVs, the completion of two year of service is just the beginning of a lifetime that includes helping others.

Ronald A. Schwarz is an anthropologist. He was a faculty member at Williams College, Colgate, Tulane and the Johns Hopkins University. Between 1990 and 2002, he was the Director of Development Solutions for Africa, based in Nairobi, Kenya. He is an author, the co-editor of three books and was the principal investigator on projects for the World Bank, USAID, the U.N., the European Union and the development agencies of Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom. He lives with his wife in the south of France.

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  • As an agriculturalist with over 40 years of experience in Africa, I am delighted to see this book about the challenges facing agricultural development. What Norton describes is even worse in Africa. We have all the obstacles he notes plus others and the situation has not improved that much over the past four decades. The people remain poor and agrarian based. Soil fertility levels continue their long decline. Very hard to build a rising standard of living on declining soil fertility levels. Much of what is mentioned in this book review reminds me of A.T. Mosher’s 1969 book, “Getting Agriculture Moving.” This thin book outlines the essentials of getting agriculture moving and keeping it moving. I still refer to it.

  • I would like to hear Wentling’s, Schwarz’ and Norton’s views on foreign leasing of agricultural lands in Africa, e.g. the large leaseholds held by China, India and Saudi Arabia in Ethiopia.

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