The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

How inclusive and sustainable is Feed the Future?

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In Haiti, Senegal, and Tanzania, Oxfam finds targeting an issue.

Emmanuel Tumusiime is a researcher on economic justice and agriculture at Oxfam America.

USAID released its 2012 progress report on Feed the Future (FTF), the US government’s multi-agency global hunger and food security initiative last week.  This is important not only for accountability to taxpayers; it’s also a good tool for reflection. As I looked over the progress report and scorecard, it is inspiring to see FTF’s ambition in helping to address hunger, malnutrition and poverty. The report notes significant improvement in number of people reached and number of individuals applying new technologies.

As I read it, however, some other questions occurred to me. Will farmers stick with the new technologies after FTF ends? Which categories of farmers, at which levels of productive capacity, are adopting the technologies? Is FTF remaining true to its promise of reaching women and economically-vulnerable populations? These are the groups of people who lack resources to produce, have limited economic ability to purchase food from markets, and are often marginalized or ignored in development programs. They need help most. That’s who I have in mind when I read the progress report.

That’s also who I’ve been meeting with on the research project Oxfam America commissioned to gain an understanding of the effectiveness of FTF. (Report forthcoming). Smallholder farmers have enormous potential to produce food and to feed themselves, access markets, and certainly accumulate assets. But they need support, like those programs funded under FTF, to be targeted to their current enterprises and to be relevant to the level of knowledge and capabilities they bring.

In our research Oxfam wanted to understand the extent to which FTF is fostering sustainable and inclusive agricultural growth for people living in poverty. To conduct the research, I traveled to meet and interact with various FTF stakeholders in Haiti, Tanzania and Senegal, including farmers receiving direct support from FTF programs, in-country USAID staff, project implementers and other local stakeholders.

Emmanuel Tumusiime presenting and discussing research with stakeholders in Tambacounda, Senegal earlier this month. The eastern region of Tambacounda is one of the areas where Feed the Future is implementing its programs.

What we’ve found is this. No doubt, FTF has demonstrated successful adaptation and transfer of farming technologies to smallholders. These technologies and farming practices are lifting farmers from subsistence to surplus production. This is what we learned from rice and horticulture farmers in Tanzania, millet and sorghum farmers in Senegal, and mango growers in Haiti. Also, production is occurring to a large extent with agro-ecologically sustainable farming practices such as conservation farming and agroforestry in Haiti and Senegal, and Systems of Rice Intensification in Tanzania. Participating farmers have been empowered with knowledge to optimally use inputs (fertilizer, seed and water), increasing production per acre. They report improved net farm income attributed to programs funded through FTF. However, adoption of these technologies is a slow process, so sustained support will be critical.

The effectiveness of FTF programs will depend not only on yield improvements, but also on the extent to which farmers are able to access markets and credit. For example, many smallholder farmers sell at low prices to spot traders, or middle men, because they have no storage facilities or lack organized marketing strategies. The good news is we saw that FTF is slowly addressing the issues of storage facilities in Senegal for example, but these efforts need to be scaled.

Will Feed the Future make a difference for farmers like Fanta Diaby? She's pictured here in her rice field, near Samecouta village, south-eastern Senegal during the dry season. She grows eggplant, sweet potatoes, cabbage, lettuce, and okra, which she sells in the local market. She is also saving money to buy seeds to grow groundnuts and rice. She says she's done with corn. Since her husband died, she usually feeds her family of 5 breakfast and a mid-day meal. Photo: Brett Eloff / Oxfam America
Will Feed the Future make a difference for farmers like Fanta Diaby? She’s pictured here in her rice field, near Samecouta village in south-eastern Senegal during the dry season. She grows eggplant, sweet potatoes, cabbage, lettuce, and okra, which she sells in the local market. She is also saving money to buy seeds to grow groundnuts and rice. She says she’s done with corn. Since her husband died, she usually feeds her family of 5 breakfast and a mid-day meal. Photo: Brett Eloff / Oxfam America

Unfortunately, I have observed that the poorest producers, who need the support most, continue to be overlooked in FTF programs. Oxfam’s research in the field is finding that a number of FTF programs are mainly targeted to reach producers who already have resources, to enable them to make the transition from subsistence to commercial farming. This approach leaves behind economically- and socially-vulnerable populations like women. We found smallholder producers directly participating in FTF programs to be generally those who are relatively well-endowed with productive assets, in particular those with access to suitable land, access to water, finance and some level of organization. It is thus not surprising that the report states that the ratio of men to women who have applied new technologies as 5:2.

Of course one could argue that success of FTF projects in improving income for any level of small-scale farmers should be seen in a positive light. But as long as participation in FTF programs is limited to a relatively small segment of farmers, the agricultural income pathway out of poverty will be relevant for only a portion of the rural poor.

Our key recommendation? The US government will need to improve targeting of women and of the more resource-constrained producers to ensure greater direct benefit from the new technologies being introduced by Feed the Future.

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You can read a brief of related research on Feed the Future in Senegal here, which include recommendations for how Feed the Future and other donor initiatives can improve small-scale farmers’ knowledge and ability to adapt to climate change.

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