The World

For today’s Geo Quiz — some food for thought:

It’s been a difficult week or so for the world’s wealthiest. But many fear the financial turmoil may hit those living under the poverty line even harder.

UN’s food and agriculture chief Jacques Diouf says he’s worried the financial meltdown will prompt wealthy nations to slash aid to developing countries.

“If there is a recession naturally it will be more difficult to mobilise the resources for agriculture in developing countries … and therefore we may have more poor people and more hungry people.”

This past week one country vowed to eliminate what it calls absolute poverty within its borders.

Here’s a sobering clue. Some 15 million people in this large Asian country live in absolute poverty.

Can you name the country?

The leaders of China have pledged to double rural income and eliminate “absolute poverty.” They define that as living on 30 cents or less a day — much less than the World Bank’s poverty line of a dollar a day.

One of the poorest parts of China is in the northern province of Ningxia.

The World’s Mary Kay Magistad recently visited there and sent this report:

China’s leaders pledged this week to try to eliminate what they define as absolute poverty, and double rural disposable income by 2020. Some 15 million Chinese farmers still live in absolute poverty, according to Chinese government figures, which is about 30 cents per person per day ? considerably more, if using the international standard of $1 per person per day. One of the poorest parts of China is the northern province of Ningxia. The World’s Mary Kay Magistad recently visited there, and reports.

Magistad: I’m on a rough mountain road on my way to one of China’s poorest villages. It’s called Tai Si, home to about 1,200 Hui Muslims. They’re descendents of Muslims who came on the Silk Road centuries ago and intermarried with Chinese. This province, Ningxia, is a Hui Autonomous Region. I first visited here more than a decade ago, when the village of Tai Si first got electricity. Back then, most of the villagers lived in caves carved into the hills, and some were so poor, they couldn’t even afford the electricity for one 40-watt lightbulb to light their cave at night. I’m going back now to see what’s changed.

Tai Si farmlandTai Si farmland

The call to prayer still rings out over steep, terraced hills where farmers plant their corn and wheat and potatoes. Farmers still use plows with oxen. And many villagers still live in caves.

Famer LiFamer Li

Magistad:Farmer Li Pei Xiao shows me around his. There’s one dim bulb, a bed and a small table ? and not much else.

Li: Life is hard for farmers like me.

Magistad: He takes a loan in the spring to buy seeds and fertilizer, and has to pay it back in the autumn. He says he’s left with just enough food from his crops to see him through until the next harvest. He says the only money he makes each year is by raising and selling a few chickens. That nets him about $70 ? his total annual income.

The village chief here in Tai Si, Ma Cheng Zhang, says it frustrates him that Tai Si still struggles, while so much of the rest of China has prospered:

Ma: ?It’s not a good feeling to be a village chief here. Because compared to the eastern coast of China, we are 20 years behind them. Some householders depend on charity. Otherwise, they could not survive.?

Ma Cheng Zhang (right) and villagersMa Cheng Zhang (right) and villagers

Magistad: Actually, it’s not charity, but payments the central government makes to China’s poorest families. Many in Tai Si fall into that category, and Ma says there are two big reasons the village isn’t doing better:

Ma: ?The roads are bad, and the area is parched, made worse by the past five years of drought. There are no wells in this village. SO villagers rely on rainwater half of the year, and get water trucked in the other half. It’s expensive, but they have no choice.?

Magistad: Ma says, the average family here nets about $70 a year ? the same as Farmer Li ? and that’s more than double what it was a decade ago. These are the kinds of farmers the Chinese government is now pledging to help. Part of the plan is to give them the right to buy, trade or mortgage their land use contracts. The land will still belong to the government, but this will give farmers many of the advantages of owning property. Meanwhile, the only option most of these families have to improve their lot is to send their grown children to work in the cities. Without the money those children send back, May says, many of the farmers here wouldn’t even be able to afford to plant their crops. Gradually, he says, he expects more of the younger generation to leave.

Tai Si Middle SchoolTai Si Middle School

Magistad: At Tai Si’s middle school, I ask a bunch of 12 and 13-year-olds, how many of them plan to stay in the village once they grow up. Not a single hand is raised. Then I ask how many plan to go and work in the cities. They all raise their hands, and one boy, Ma Ping, explains why:

Ma: ?Life here is really not good. It’s dry. The roads are bad. Life is hard. I want to live in the city.?
Magistad: So what do you think life is like in the city?
Ma: For me, it’s just like a daydream.

Ma PingMa Ping

Magistad: Ma says his daydream is one of good roads and delicious food, and a modern life ? where electricity gets you more than one light bulb in your cave, and maybe the chance to watch television somewhere in the village. He dreams of being a high school English teacher, and he’s already practicing.

Ma: ?Ok. Hello. Good-bye.?

Magistad: He’s got a ways to go. So does the Chinese government, if it’s to make good on its pledge of eliminating absolute poverty in rural China within a dozen years ? and giving villages like Taisi a future.

For The World, I’m Mary Kay Magistad, Taisi, Ninxia, China.

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