The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

You want sustainable impact? Then it’s time to rethink Feed the Future implementation

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Oblin Tuse, 56, prepares the soil for planting in Belladere, Haiti in May 2010. The region has problems with very severe erosion and with landslides. Photo: Ami Vitale/Oxfam America

In Haiti, Oxfam’s report shows FtF interventions lack responsiveness to farmers, and is leaving many of them behind.

Tonny Joseph is the Advocacy and Research Coordinator for Oxfam in Haiti.

Development aid is again under greater scrutiny. And there always seems to be one key question at the center: How best can interventions be implemented to achieve lasting impact?

I traveled to Washington DC to participate in a panel discussion organized by Oxfam America last week which asked this same question. The study supported by Oxfam, “Feed the Future Investment in Haiti: Implications for sustainable food security and poverty reduction,” informed the dialogue.

In general, the study largely confirmed what has been reported by Feed the Future (FtF) on the US government’s progress, particularly that interventions on the ground are achieving their objectives. For Haiti in particular, the study pointed out examples such as training of “master” or “model” farmers, rehabilitating watersheds, increasing the productivity of small-scale producers, and linking them to markets. This is exciting, of course, especially for Haitian farmers who receive barely any support from their government.

But will Feed the Future result in lasting change?

Farmers often revert to their old ways once interventions end, noted one of the panelists, Mr. Camille Chalmers, whose organization, the Haitian Platform to Advocate for Alternative Development (PAPDA), pushes for food sovereignty in Haiti.

That means reorientation towards greater involvement of the local primary change agents – that is, the farmers FtF aims to support – in decision making is needed. This approach has been well-recognized as a condition for sustainability in the development sector for decades. This seems simple and straight forward, but Oxfam’s report showed it has proven hard to achieve in practice in FtF interventions in Haiti.

A key element for ensuring sustainability is beneficiaries “owning” project interventions in the first place. In practice this means involving beneficiaries not just at the implementation stage, as usually is the case, but also in the setting of priorities and the design of interventions. It also necessitates establishing mechanisms for soliciting and utilizing feedback from beneficiaries to improve projects and make activities more responsive to farmers’ needs.

Yet Oxfam’s study found that FtF beneficiaries continue to be considered as passive participants, involved only when activities are taking place. The consequence of this is a mismatch between technological packages delivered to poor, smallholder farmers and their ability to afford and sustain them once the project ends.

Before the panel discussion started, I chatted with Pierre Paul Jules, a farmer from Haiti and another panelist that day, about the performance of his association’s greenhouse project, which FtF had funded. Pierre is appreciative of the support and stresses that the idea of greenhouses is a fantastic one, considering the economic opportunity it presents for all-year production. The problem, he noted, is that many farmer associations don’t have the means and ability to sustain water supply for such projects. Pierre thinks that construction of cisterns will be essential going forward, but it was not something for which FtF provided funds. Adjusting project activities to support associations in this endeavor is something FtF can and should do.

This also reminded me of the shortcomings observed in the Oxfam report about tractors that were distributed to some farmer associations. Farming is now competing with urban economic opportunities for labor, and with the latter more competitive, mechanization is indeed a solution to some of the labor problems in agriculture. The associations are responsible for tractor maintenance, but Oxfam’s report reveals that Haitian farmers find it difficult to purchase spare parts from the US and keep the tractors running. Thus, it is another example of the problem of sustainability.

Success in ending global hunger and achieving food security is also about the model of agriculture promoted and the paradigm of agrarian change that will lead to sustainability. The approach that FtF has taken thus far is one of commercial liberalization, focused on enabling producers to become competitive in the market. While this approach may work for some farmers, especially those well-endowed with resources, it can leave many farmers behind.

Consider the example of the “master farmer” extension approach that was promoted under FtF. Yes, some “model” farmers were trained. But do they have incentives to serve other farmers? As our report shows, there is no system in place for farmers to extend, or pass along their training to other farmers. Even more worrisome, Oxfam’s report emphasizes that women account for only about a quarter of the trained Master Farmers, even though the empowerment of women farmers is a crucial FtF global “focus area.”

Generally, liberalization tends to work well for subsidized agriculture. Mr. Chalmers of PAPDA noted that in the case of Haiti, it favors the United States’ interests. Despite the importance of agriculture to the economy and livelihoods, Haiti’s poor performance in agriculture has everything to do with the Haitian government’s lack of involvement in the sector.

That doesn’t let the US government off the hook. It means that we need even stronger US investments, supported by a paradigm that modernizes agriculture from within.

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