Full Frame: Poverty Alleviation in Developing Countries

Full Frame

According to the United Nations, developing countries are disproportionately suffering from the coronavirus pandemic. The damage extends beyond public health, with impacts to access to education and other basic services, as well as an estimated $220 billion in income losses. 

Political scientist and economist James Robinson has spent his career answering the question: Why do some nations enjoy prosperity and security, while others continue to grapple with poverty and instability? Robinson is the co-author of the book Why Nations Fail and professor at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, specializing in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa.

“Our view is that the success or failure economically of a country is really about the way the people themselves in those societies organize,” said Robinson.It’s about the rules. What we call institutions and institutions create very different patterns of incentives and opportunities in poor countries and rich countries.”

Robinson has done research in the Jos Plateau of Nigeria, an area the size of Chicago but with 60 ethnicities with their own languages and rules for governance. This diversity is typical of the fragmentation across many parts of the continent. 

“Fundamentally, at a local level, things work very well. There’s accountability, there’s representation,” Robinson said. But how do you aggregate that? … How do you scale it up to control the national state in Kinshasa or the national state in in Abuja?”


Innovative programs empower Guatemala’s indigenous women 

Approximately one million Guatemalans are expected to fall into poverty due to the pandemic, according to the World Bank.  Indigenous women are the most vulnerable. Nearly 4-in-10 indigenous women in Guatemala are illiterate and only 1-in-10 have paid jobs. Those who work get paid less than indigenous men and non-indigenous women.

But some innovative programs are empowering indigenous women with the knowledge and seed funding to pursue a more prosperous future.


Mexican artisans follow Chinese villages’ e-commerce model

Molcajetes are the traditional Mexican mortar and pestle, a staple in the country’s cuisine.  They are still made by hand by artisans in central Mexico, a craft passed from generation to generation.

But the work is tough and pay is low. A single molcajete can take six hours to make, but until recently, only sold for $10. 

That all changed in 2020, when the artisans started selling their pieces on Alibaba, the world’s largest online marketplace. 


These Mexican artisans are following a model started in China several years ago.  Called tao bao villages, rural villages became e-commerce hubs, marketing their products online and shipping directly to customers worldwide.

It’s a great joy for us. It means a lot that we are being seen online,” said Jose Natividad, a molcajete artisan. “This work has always been badly paid, so we hope to have a better future through better sales.”