Originally Published on Heated by Medium x Bittman, April 30, 2019
One version of an old joke features a shipwrecked economist on a deserted island who, when asked by his fellow survivors what expertise he can offer on how they can be rescued, replies, “Assume we have a boat.” Economists have a well-deserved reputation for making their theories work only by making unrealistic assumptions about how the real world operates.
I was reminded of the joke often in the five years I traveled the world researching my book, Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food. Policy-makers from Mexico to Malawi, India to Mozambique, routinely advocated large-scale, capital-intensive agricultural projects as the solution to widespread hunger and low agricultural productivity, oblivious to the reality that such initiatives generally displace more farmers than they employ.
Where are the displaced supposed to go? “Assume we have employment,” can be the only answer, because economic growth sure wasn’t generating enough jobs to absorb those displaced from rural areas. No one can sail home on an economist’s assumed boat. And assumed jobs wouldn’t address the chronic unemployment and under-employment that characterize most developing countries.
With demographic shifts creating youth bulges, job-creation remains an urgent priority. Indeed, growing populations are often portrayed as a demographic "time bomb," conjuring images of unemployed youth joining gangs, insurgent groups, or just falling into despair in urban slums.
But what if we saw all those unemployed workers as a resource rather than a curse? Economist Michael Lipton and others have long argued that the bulge in working-age youth can be a demographic dividend rather than a demographic time bomb, but only with policies that focus on creating and rewarding work, beginning with labor-intensive farming in agricultural societies. That is exactly what I see starting to happen in Mexico under its new president….
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