Extreme Third World Farmer Development Economist Challenge

As academics, aid workers, bloggers and concerned citizens, we all care about the plight of the poor rural farmer. From those who want to douse her with fertilizer to those who’d like to just get her a job at McDonald’s, we also all seem to know what is best way forward.

It’s time to put that knowledge to test. I propose a contest where you step into the shoes of the rural farmer and see how well your assumptions play out against a backdrop of immense scarcity and uncertainty. No, this isn’t some kind of poverty immersion exercise – that would be far too easy. This is simulation.

Unfortunately the Aid Thoughts virtual reality room is currently out of order, so in lieu of something remotely realistic we must turn to our second best option: Third World Farmer.

The unfortunately-titled TWF is an “African farmer simulator” designed to teach people about the difficulties of rural life in developing countries. You are tasked with growing crops, earning money, dealing with the myriad of shocks that come your way, and slowly building up your family’s health and human capital, as well as breaking out of poverty.

TWF isn’t a perfect game (see my original review here) – it is rife with African stereotypes (of the four horsemen variety) and I have a feeling that it hits you over the head a little too often with negative shocks to get its point across, rather than reflect reality. You might find some of the options the game considers a failure to be anything but, such as the option to move to the city for a much higher income.

Despite this – it’s the best we have, and I can think of no better chance, short of an actual cage match, for the experts of the world, bloggers, and development-savvy folk everywhere to go head-to-head.


  1. Go to the Third World Farmer website here.
  2. If you haven’t played it before, give the game a try. You get one play through to get a feel for it, no more.
  3. When you’re ready, begin your game. Once you’ve started, there’s no turning back.
  4. Your game is over when either your farm ceases to exist (usually for negative reasons) or you win the game by buying every available item for purchase (these things range from poultry to crop insurance).
  5. Once the game is over, record your score (take a screenshot using your printscreen key) and your total number of turns and send it to me at matt@aidthoughts.org.
  6. On top of the score, I will be recording results for your own personal human development index result, so I will also be needing:
    1. The average educational attainment of the people living on your farm (education)
    2. The number of living household members, including the age-at-death of any who passed away (life expectancy)
    3. The per capita income of the household in the final turn (income)
  7. As I get your scores, I will create a scoreboard on this website with a ranking, both for high scores and for HDI results.
  8. A month from now, on May 11th, I will close the competition. The winner with the highest score will receive a special Aid Thoughts edition of Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid, scrawled with critical notes and expletives by Ranil and myself. Now you too can experience the same mind-numbing frustration we felt upon reading it.
  9. The winner with the highest human development index will receive  one full month free of snark or sarcastic criticism from Aid Thoughts.

The prize: Dead Aid, Aid Thoughts annotated edition

Is this contest tasteless, patronizing and a little demeaning? Probably – but here at Aid Thoughts we deal with all all three. So, boot up you laptops, load up Toto’s ‘Africa‘ on iTunes, and start planting those crops.

The struggle of the African farmer, from the safety of your own home

Suit up, it's time to take on world poverty, with your game pad

Suit up, it's time to take on world poverty, with your game pad

Thanks to Kerry Brennan at the Innovations for Poverty Action blog, I’ve discovered my new favourite computer game: Third World Farmer!

From the game’s website:

In the game, the player gets to manage an African farm, and is soon confronted with the often difficult choices that poverty and conflict necessitate. We find this kind of experience efficient at making the issues relevant to people, because players tend to invests their hopes in a game character whose fate depends on him. We aim at making the player “experience” the injustices, rather than being told about them, so as to stimulate a deeper and more personal reflection on the topics.

OK, sounds a little preachy, but let’s give it a go.

  1. Turn one. My name is Eyakobo (which I quickly change to *Matt*). I’m married with two children. I own a hut and my family is in good health. I’ve got some cash ($50) and a field, so let’s get the planting started. I plant mostly maize (corn) with a couple sections of peanuts (high risk) to diversify my crop portfolio.
  2. Turn two. Rats! A drought year! I lose all my crops and am now $12 in debt. My health has suffered.
  3. Turn three. No cash, so we go without proper food for a year.
  4. Turn four. A seedy businessman offers to let me grow opium (?!?!) on my plot, I do so and quickly turn a tidy profit of $152. I buy a shed, some chickens, and another diverse set of crops.
  5. Turn five. Rats! a drought year! I lose all my crops, and now have no money to plant more, just my chickens.
  6. Turn six. Rats! My chickens died! My health is low. No money for food.
  7. Turn seven. “Some paramilitaries hear of your relative success as a farmer and raid your farm, taking everything.”
  8. I die. My wife dies. I send my daughter away to work (and get $1 in return). My son is old enough to run the farm himself. I find him a wife. The wife has, as a clickable option: have a baby (the demographic economists go wild).

I could keep on going about the epic story of my son’s family, but it’s much of the same. Just when things look like they are going well, you get slapped down by the unjust hand of fate (anything from rising input prices, higher costs of living, wars, famines, dumb neighbors, diseases, chicken-specific diseases). These shocks seem a little too convenient (just when I was doing well, something bad happens). It’s a bit like an African Oregon Trail (without the perpetual dread of fording rivers).

I’ve got mixed feelings about this game. On one hand, the game feels like “Poverty Porn: The Game, African Stereotype Edition”. On the other hand, it does at least a minimally decent job of modeling the sort of  decision-making economists like to think about (it’s a good year, do I have a child? What sort of crops do I plant? Should I buy crop insurance?). Give it a whirl and post your experiences on here!

Wow: how about we have the most prominent development economists compete to see who can do the best? Development bloggers, who’s in?