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Of mangos and plastic crates

Sometimes the things that keep people in poverty seem so small and so insignificant, and the remedies seem so simple, that it’s hard for people from rich countries to understand why they remain impoverished.

Jelen, a Haitian farmer living on about $2 a day, can’t get enough water to her mango trees, even though there is a river just beside her property. She needs a simple canal dug from the river to irrigate her trees. But this investment remains out of reach for her.

Many small Haitian mango farmers, including Jelen, could increase their income if their fruit didn’t get bruised and damaged on the way to market. If the farmers would just protect their fruit by storing and transporting it in basic plastic milk crates, then one of Haiti’s biggest mango exporters says he could sell twice as many mangoes to picky American consumers.

This is the story told in a segment of this week’s This American Life. I’ve always loved this National Public Radio program for the way it tackles big, complex issues by weaving together the stories of ordinary people, and I’d always hoped they would take on foreign aid.

In this particular segment, produced by Planet Money, we meet the mango exporter, named Jean-Maurice, who first tries simply driving out to the farmers and giving them the plastic crates. This fails completely, as the crates get broken, or used as chairs or in schools as bookshelves. The farmers probably don’t know where their fruit ends up, and can’t easily imagine the American consumers for whom it would be so important that their mangoes arrive unblemished.

The business man Jean-Maurice overcomes his distrust of NGOs to partner with an organization that will train farmers how to clean and store their fruit using the crates. The NGO’s job will be to explain why they should change the way they harvest and store their mangos, connect that to a future increase in profits, and distribute the crates.

But once the NGO is involved, Jean-Maurice—known to friends as “the Mango Man” – and the Haitian farmers are plunged into an unfamiliar world of paperwork and regulations. The USAID-funded NGO requires a piece of land from which to distribute the crates, and this piece of land has to be donated by agreement from the group of 60 farmers that owns it. They also need the deed, which was never transferred from its original owners, and resides in an expatriate Haitian’s New York basement. The partners finally complete these Herculean tasks and are ready to start…a few weeks before the earthquake hits.

After the devastation of the earthquake, of course, comes the international outpouring of concern, attention and money, and the arrival of development experts from all over the world. The correspondent asks:

But what if now there’s an opportunity to take all the attention, all the money, and work together like never before? What if this is the shot? Instead of solving one small problem at a time, to address all the country’s problems, all at once?

I won’t ruin the ending by divulging whether the correspondent’s optimism remains in place by the time the story is over. But don’t miss her conversation with USAID’s Deputy Director in Haiti, towards the end of the segment.

The whole episode is a fascinating look into the aid world and Haiti. You can listen or download it here.

(photo credit)

This entry was posted in Aid policies and approaches, Disaster relief, Trade and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.

13 Comments

  1. Tucker wrote:

    I’m a little disappointed in this reading of that story because it sounds a bit like you heard a general criticism of aid, rather than the specific criticisms of a) the non-functional land tenure system, b) the disastrous Haitian public sector, and c) the bizarre machinations of USAID.

    Posted May 28, 2010 at 11:19 am | Permalink
  2. Harold wrote:

    I believe this problem could be easily solve without the need of involving an NGO and its bureaurats. The only thing that the “Mango Man” has to do is to offer a different price and higher for the mango farmers who sell the mangos in the plastic crates, compared to the mango farmers who offer the product without the plastic crates. In this way, the farmers who find optimal or beneficial to offer the mango in the plastic crates will do it without the need of advisement from the NGO’s bureaucrats.

    Posted May 28, 2010 at 11:30 am | Permalink
  3. Claudia McGeary wrote:

    Thank you, Laura, for a parable of The Mango Tree in the Garden of Frustration. I will send it out to my list of people who are interested in solving the problem, and not being a part of it – professionals and non-professionals alike.
    Claudia
    Faith in Africa

    Posted May 28, 2010 at 1:14 pm | Permalink
  4. Alvin wrote:

    I was in Cambodia previously as an NGO. It was not an easy jobs. What seems simple to us is not simple to them.

    Posted May 28, 2010 at 3:24 pm | Permalink
  5. geckonomist wrote:

    The trader in this story must be a real loser, as Harold already pointed out.

    When NGO’s try to become involved in trade, it turns into a sad joke, everywhere in the world.

    Posted May 28, 2010 at 5:30 pm | Permalink
  6. geckonomist wrote:

    The sad thing about the blog post is… that Ms. Freschi doesn’t seem to understand that the trader is simply incompetent.
    Guess that is why she doesn’t trade, but ended up writing stories about “development” and doling out prizes to other burocrats writing about development.

    Posted May 28, 2010 at 5:37 pm | Permalink
  7. Laura Freschi wrote:

    geckonomist,

    You may be missing one takeaway of both the blog post and the program which should be pretty clear: that “obvious” solutions conceived by ill-informed outsiders may not be real solutions at all.

    Who knows why Jean-Maurice didn’t think of, or didn’t succeed in implementing, a clever plan like the one Harold describes. It’s certainly a question worth asking.

    But you’re going to go with the explanation that says that one of the largest exporters of one of Haiti’s most important cash crops is a “real loser.”

    Nice.

    Laura

    Posted May 28, 2010 at 8:09 pm | Permalink
  8. Robert Tulip wrote:

    A beautiful illustration that effective development involves making markets work for the poor through systematic analysis of value chains. This way of thinking poses a challenge for donors to consider poverty reduction in terms of emergent complex systems.

    Posted May 28, 2010 at 9:31 pm | Permalink
  9. Harold wrote:

    I do not know if the “Mango Man” tried before my suggestion of offering differentiated prices. But, I am very sure that if he offers a high enough price, the “Mango Man” won’t have to give plastic crates to the farmers. The farmers will take the plastic crates from the schools and put the mangos inside!

    Posted May 28, 2010 at 11:31 pm | Permalink
  10. Rising Tides wrote:

    Agreed that it is definitely worth asking why the exporter didn’t implement a plan like Harold’s. I wonder a bit about the his financial motives. It seems hard to believe he simply didn’t think of the idea of paying higher amounts for using plastic crates.

    The trader talks about a “future increase in profits” for the farmers, but there is no reason he couldn’t pass along that future profit now in order to get the farmers using the plastic crates sooner. However, this would be at the cost of lower profit margins for him due to higher product costs. Alternatively, if the NGO gets the farmers to start using plastic crates, the trader seems at no obligation to increase what he pays them, despite receiving a more quality product in return.

    Could using the NGO actually be hurting the farmers here – trying to convince them to provide a more quality product for the same price, in which case the increased profits would fall only into the trader’s pocket? I’m not sure, but it seems like one of many possibilities for why such a pay-up-front plan was never implemented.

    Posted May 30, 2010 at 8:27 pm | Permalink
  11. Justin Kraus wrote:

    I have to side with Gecko (and recently Chris Blattman) on this one. Unfortunately it looks like Harold is just a bad businessman. Thats not the end of the world, most of us couldn’t run a business if our lives depended on it. Isn’t the success rate in the States something less than 10%?

    Handing out free baskets = dumb.
    Not thinking about simply paying more for basketed mangos before going to NGO = dumb
    Going to an NGO for business guidance = usually dumb.

    Posted June 2, 2010 at 10:25 am | Permalink
  12. Word_Bandit wrote:

    Enjoyed this entry.

    Thanks.

    Posted June 3, 2010 at 5:06 pm | Permalink
  13. Sarah wrote:

    I dont understand why “picky American” buyers don’t or won’t invest in assiting these mango farmers. Surly the investment would work in both favours. The American buyers would have more better quality produce and the farmers would make more cash.
    Sarah from Grants for Students

    Posted June 7, 2010 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

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