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)