History & Background
I am deeply committed to the work of rural development in poor
countries. My enthusiasm for this work springs from an affinity for
rural space and the people who live and work there. This may not be
surprising since my childhood in Italy was spent in a small rural
community. While most of my formal education took place in the US, I
have been enriched by living, studying and working abroad in such
diverse countries as Mexico, Australia, and India.
I spent most of my early career in business management. In the 1980’s, the appeal of running my own business led to a partnership that transformed a small local business – Fante's Inc. - into a nationally acclaimed retail chain and later one of the most successful internet businesses in its field. This successful gourmet products venture then led to my launching a new business development and consulting firm that, within two years, developed a high profile client roster and was working with national celebrities and Fortune 500 companies. Despite the excitement of high-velocity growth and personal achievement, something vital was very much missing.
In 1991, I came to realize, on a personal basis, the profound impact of hunger and starvation in the world, and this radical shift induced me to redirect my professional life. At first, I increased my charitable gifts and then increasingly volunteered with different organizations; but neither I nor the NGOs I worked with knew quite how to make the best use of my experience. It was a period of learning, and for a few years I combined pro bono work with a search for innovative ways of leveraging business skills in a manner that aligned with my deeper concerns about poverty and hunger. The path led overseas to some of the world’s poorest nations.
By the mid-1990's, I was in Latin America managing the turn-around of a failing food processing company and applied an experimental approach that showed great promise. Utilizing socially and ecologically sound methods, we created positive new supply chain models integrating: organic extension services and farmers; technological innovation and family-conscious processing work; certification and export. Although we could not measure the environmental or social impact, this conscious and community-oriented integration not only made the company much more profitable, but also substantially increased the incomes of farmers and plant employees. The turnaround success enabled us to expand sourcing operations to neighboring countries, expand exports to six nations, support scientific development of pesticide-free fruit varieties, and also facilitated collaborations with world-leading firms such as Dole Foods.
The World Bank, partly in recognition of this work, issued an invitation to address their annual rural conference in Washington D.C. and subsequently asked me to work on developing aspects of their agribusiness portfolio as a means toward larger-scale poverty reduction. I moved to Washington to work with Alex McCalla and Brian Berman who launched the Markets and Agribusiness Thematic Team - where I was appointed Senior Consultant – to lead The Bank’s efforts to integrate more sustainable business models into its strategic framework for rural development. Since 1997, my work there has included dozens of projects and research management in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and the former Soviet Union.
A few years ago, I decided to leave Washington and be closer to my family, particularly my aging parents in Philadelphia. While I continue to consult for The World Bank Group, I also increasingly work directly with producer groups, NGOs, and other institutions such as the United Nations agencies (FAO, UNCTAD, IFAD, etc.), EU, OECD, and USAID. My focus is on fostering a more realistic form of development that responds to the realities of highly competitive markets but is also truly relevant for the poorest of the poor and their most basic needs.
Today, it seems that I have come full circle from my childhood. I feel perhaps most at home having a relaxed discussion in a farmer’s field that often reminds me of the people and places where I grew up. Besides providing a dependable dose of humility, this personal affinity also keeps my work grounded in the simple and sometimes harsh realities of rural development. And I know without a doubt that, like a patient farmer, this work I love is also cultivating me.
Although, the whole site pretty much reflects my principles,
here they are succinct and explicit and hopefully communicate some
useful lessons of sustainable rural development. I share them
in the same spirit that many were shared with me across the years by
caring mentors who taught by example and experience. I bless them for
their amazing patience with a hard-headed young man.
I confess that I am still hard-headed about some things. One is my strong preference for straightforward common-sense approaches. Reflecting two decades of private sector experience in management and international trade, my work manifests more as practical applications rather than as academic theory.
In poorer nations the options are daunting, especially for smaller farmers and agro-enterprises, as they face the increasing demands of trade and standards with little access to infrastructure, financing, and critical knowledge. Any useful rural strategy must address the interface between agro-industrialization and sustainable development. This increasingly requires a thoughtful combination of private and public sector responses. Realistic and thoughtful recommendations take into account at least 3 levels of impact:
...for producers at the local level;
...for enterprises and communities at the meso level; and
...for competitiveness at the national level.
We are emerging from an era when rural agricultural development was largely defined by the increase of production and the provision of basic infrastructure (i.e. irrigation, roads, and marketplaces). While both of these aspects had value, they were clearly insufficient to meet the needs of the world's rural poor. Since the 1990s, mainstream development thinking typically defines rural development more around the idea of open markets and the creation or integration of business models, such as supply chains. This is a welcome response to previous limitations. However, this thinking shares two critical flaws with earlier models of development: listening and linkages.
The real needs and real limitations of rural communities are rarely addressed by mainstream development efforts. We don’t listen enough to the poor and instead assume that setting up an agrochemical inputs business or perhaps an export operation will address community needs by providing more money. This might not be a bad idea, if it could be sustained but too often this is not the case. Development literature is full of cases where such simplistic approaches fail or do not survive the closing of aid projects. In some cases they do more harm than good.
For example, not long ago a set of East African export projects earned a temporary competitiveness (lower-cost) around beans involving investments in a monoculture for a certain type that an export market favored. This worked for a while but eventually cyclical droughts not only ruined the monocrop and their business, it also contributed to devastating food security problems. Farmers had previously cultivated diverse varieties that, despite somewhat lower productivity, ensured the food supply under variable climactic conditions and served as a means of risk management. There are many such examples of well-meaning shortsightedness. The problem lies in the attempt to overlay business principles without understanding the bigger picture of not only the actual needs of local communities and their cultures but also the likely impact on them. This requires getting beyond having meetings with a few government leaders to actually talking with local producers, enterprises, and communities and understanding the domestic markets.
By now experience should have taught us to better assess community needs and the realities of local capacity and to consider the impact on both food and environmental security. This is the basis of any truly effective strategy. It's not necessarily a complex process; it can be as simple as asking the right questions and being open to conversations that allow space for local concerns and for local aspirations to emerge.
One failure of development is the belief that we find an effective project or solution and replicate it. Yet, this often fails because the source of the success is often the human creativity that resulted in the solution, not the solution itself. We must learn to extend the process, and not just robotically replicate a solution or create a model. This, after all, is what it means to be human, to develop our innate capacity to create our solutions together.
It makes sense to reduce risks for producers and agro-enterprises and there are options available at every level including novel market mechanisms such as hedging and crop-insurance. Rather than immediately developing export oriented agricultural projects, some poor rural communities might be better served by more humble and more sensible approaches. For example, developing their participation in local or regional markets as a step prior to export, or integrating eco-friendly production systems and encouraging various methods of diversification.
An understanding of how markets work is very valuable. In a more complex global setting, to be competitive producers must achieve adequate scale and capacity to participate in new and increasingly demanding market channels – even in their own countries. So, how can poor farmers access and utilize technology, information, and investments to meet the demands of dynamic markets? Two important ways are through interactive supply chains and locally relevant institutions. Supply chains work best for development when there is a reasonable distribution of power. Public bodies can help assure this balance in a number of ways. Institutions include entities that provide a consistent platform, year after year, for the exchange of information, resources, and know-how. These can be NGOs, farmer groups, trade associations, or dedicated government bodies. This combination of strong institutions and efficient balanced supply chains can serve to foster local sustainability while also building global competitiveness.
So it is vital to not only have the know-how for strategic analysis of production systems, markets, and value chains but to also know how policies and development projects impact their structure and governance. And it is equally vital to combine development strategies with market-responsive approaches in order to effectively integrate smaller producers. This includes assimilating the important area of emerging standards. Private standards are growing at an unprecedented rate - especially for food safety, ecological, and social concerns including corporate social responsibility (CSR). Increasingly, these set the rules of the game and can not only competitively empower producers and agro-enterprises but also have a direct impact on poverty and environment. The results are ideally then concisely formulated as a set of practical policy strategies and investment recommendations, always remembering that nobody (not even your best friend or your dog) wants to read long-winded reports.
My Personal Commitments
1. Commitment to development that is sustainable for people
and for our shared environment.
2. Commitment to quality; rigorous analysis with balanced views and ethical standards.
3. Commitment to working with others and sharing skills and knowledge openly.
"Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from the corn field." - Dwight D. Eisenhower
Don Miguel photo by Henry Hueck