The World Food Prize Foundation

Want to Make a Dent in World Hunger? Build Better Roads

10/14/2014

By Amb. Kenneth Quinn for National Geographic

When I was a 26-year-old, brand-new American foreign service officer, my vision of a diplomatic career was of chandeliered ballrooms in London or Paris.

Instead, I was assigned as a district development adviser to eight villages in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. There I learned the professional lesson of my life, one that would be reinforced time after time over the next five decades: Rural roads improve lives.

It was 1968, and the Green Revolution—sparked by World Food Prize founder Norman Borlaug's "miracle wheat"—was spreading to Southeast Asia in the form of IR8, a "miracle rice" with a shortened growing cycle.

While agricultural extension agents urged farmers in my district to plant the new IR8 rice, engineers were upgrading the rutted, largely impassable farm-to-market road that linked the eight villages. They finished the road through half of the villages.

Everywhere the new road went, farmers began using the new rice with amazing, almost overnight, results.

Farmers could now harvest two crops of IR8 rice per year. Each new crop produced a higher yield than the six-month floating varieties that had been planted for hundreds of years and had provided barely enough grain for subsistence. For the first time, smallholder farmers had a surplus crop and surplus income. (Read "The Next Green Revolution" in National Geographic magazine.)

Families could now invest in metal sheeting to improve the roofs on their homes and purchase better clothing and more nutritious food for their children. The children stayed in school longer, thanks to the little "taxis" that carried them from hamlet to hamlet over the new road. Child mortality dropped, as mothers with sick children could get them medical attention early enough for effective intervention.

The most amazing change, however, was the impact that the new upgraded road had on security. Villages once beset by insurgents and underground guerrillas now became safe to travel both day and night. As the new road opened the way for commerce, information, and opportunities, young people no longer were enticed to join political military movements and uprisings.

Where the upgraded road ended, however, so did the planting of IR8. Life in the four villages without the improved road remained mired in poverty and malnutrition, unchanged from decades earlier. Houses were ramshackle, and children were thin, poorly dressed, and not in school. Security remained a constant and even worsening problem. (See "World Making Progress Against Hunger, Report Finds, but Large Pockets of Undernourished Persist.")

I carried this lesson of roads with me through the rest of my diplomatic career, increasingly convinced that there was a correlation between the absence of quality roads and hunger, poverty, political instability, and terrorism.

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