By their fruits shall ye know them: Ziauddin Sardar on a new report that defends the world's deserving poor, and assesses the damage done by development

MORE THAN a billion people, one in five inhabitants of the planet, are abjectly poor. The number of people who cannot meet their basic requirements for food, clothing and housing now constitutes more than twice the entire population of the world only a century ago. Never, in the whole history of mankind, have there been so many living so conspicuously below the poverty line.

Who are these poor? Most are smallholder farmers, landless peasants, artisans, fishermen, nomads and indigenous ethnic tribes, the bulk of whom live in rural areas. But these people with traditional ways of life were not always poor. For thousands of years they not only adequately sustained themselves, they also kept their societies fed and functioning. Even today, in some countries, rural farmers are responsible for most of the food production and a good part of cash and export crops. They have only now become poor because, for the past 40 years, they have been systematically and continuously turned into paupers.

The rural poor of the Third World are victims of an undeclared war carried out in the name of development. Right from its inception, Western economists saw development only in terms of 'transformation' of traditional societies. Rural farmers, herders and artisans were seen as the enemies of development. Traditional societies were 'assumed to have started from zero and had no history of their own'. Their efforts were peripheral to modern economies. To 'develop', a nation had to despise and displace its rural population, often denying basic amenities; and it had to modernise agriculture, directing all resources to building industry and urban centres.

In the Seventies, after the colossal failure of classical development theories, there were numerous attempts to rethink those ideas. But no matter how development was redefined or how much it was hedged about with environmental components, its intrinsic bias against rural society remained unchanged. Despite all the pious talk, in the Eighties the rural poor were largely abandoned to their fate.

This massive study of 114 developing countries by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) aims to rekindle the debate on rural poverty and to produce a new strategy. Jazairy and his colleagues start by telling the truth, which for an international report is almost a new approach. Development theory and practice have become so perverse that nothing short of a radical rethink is going to improve the situation. Our understanding of how alleviation of rural poverty can foster growth, Jazairy states, is still at the lowest level. What is clear is that all the assumptions of classical development economics will have to be overturned.

So, the poor are not idle; they work. And their efforts are not marginal but central to modern economies. Poverty is not simply a problem of production, it is also a structural problem, a problem of intrinsic prejudices in the theory and practice of development. The poverty of nations and the poverty of people are not as easily separable as conventional development economics will have us believe. Indeed, it is difficult to envisage national growth without strong economic development among the poor themselves - 'not as objects, but as subjects of development'. The IMF's 'structural adjustments', introduced after the debt crisis, are only a new variant of the old school of thought. 'Structural adjustment' is actually a euphemism for colonialism. Traditional societies are not the enemies of development. On the contrary, no progress can be perceived unless they are allowed to flower and flourish. In short, it is not the poor who are at fault: it is economic theory.

Jazairy and his colleagues deconstruct the myth of export-led growth with some relish. Here the example of the newly industrialised countries (NICs) - Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore - are frequently touted. The IFAD team show that the NICs developed under a particularly favourable world climate and with full Western blessing.

These countries were allowed to protect their nascent industries (among other things by high tariff barriers) and given truly massive aid on favourable conditions. They developed when world trade was expanding. And even now they jealously hang on to the advantages they secured from the West.

They have not 'upgraded' and 'diversified their exports', allowing countries at the lower stages of development to replace NIC exports of unskilled labour-intensive commodities. 'They continued to export T-shirts and textiles even as they moved to electronics, steel and shipbuilding.' The NIC option for alleviating world rural poverty simply does not exist.

But the IFAD 'inquiry into causes and consequences' of rural poverty does more than simply knock conventional development theory for six. It argues its case with a vast amount of data, and illustrates a way forward with equally pragmatic shrewdness.

It shows that the rural poor can make a serious contribution to productivity, and improve their own conditions, if investments in infrastructure, social services and relevant technology are biased in their favour. But this requires overcoming deep-rooted prejudices, as well as introducing structural reforms which allow 'the contribution that the rural poor, without omitting their women folk, make to economic production to be better valued, and which permits them to improve systematically their output in qualitative and quantitative terms'. The authors not only state what these structural reforms should be, they also show how they can be implemented in practice.

A great deal of what the IFAD teams has to say, even if radically new by conventional standards, is not all that surprising. What is surprising is that it has taken us four decades to realise that the rural poor must be integrated into the national process of growth, that they are vital for the physical survival of a society, and that they deserve our respect for their unending labour and knowledge of traditional agriculture, if for nothing else.

Still, if the message, analysis and recommendations of the IFAD report are taken to heart by development agencies and institutions we could really be on our way to tackling the problems of rural poor. Only time will tell whether The State of World Rural Poverty will fall on deaf ears or mark a turning point in development theory and practice.

The State of World Rural Poverty by Idriss Jazairy, Mohiuddin Alamgir and Theresa Panuccio

is published by IT Publications, pounds 35 / pounds 14.95.