Politics of Poverty

Rising to the challenge of creating lasting and inclusive outcomes for small-scale farmers

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Kasim Wako, 30, in his green (haricot) beans field, in the Alelu Ilu Kebele, in the Shashamene district of the West Arsi zone of Ethiopia. Photo: Eva-Lotta Jansson / Oxfam America

Creating lasting impact for smallholder farmers is a longstanding question in international development. We’ve seen some progress, but we need to think more creatively.

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

How to create lasting and widespread impact is a pressing issue in international development. This is perhaps most pressing in the area of promoting technical change among small-scale farmers to improve productivity and to access markets. As donors have sought the most effective results for their development dollars, there has also been increased discussion on the best ways to ensure agriculture investments foster sustainability and inclusion.

The focus has been on righting the policy environment to increase availability of and access to inputs and markets, and to facilitate private agribusiness involvement with small-scale farmers. It seems to hold for many people that poor countries have either have inadequate policies or have not adhered to good ones, especially when it comes to private sector investments. On their part, donors have committed and started to deliver on aligning and coordinating their interventions with those of national governments. But how far can these lead to lasting, broad based impact?

The Global Food Security project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) released an informative report this week about the effectiveness of the U.S. government’s Feed the Future (FtF) initiative in Tanzania; a country that has received more FtF funding than any other focus country. I was at the launch of this report, naturally interested in gaining new insights after the facts of my earlier research on the same issues. The event discussion generated useful insights that I believe speak broadly to the question above and provide a view into how FtF might be improved.

First, the reality is that the political will to develop agriculture is alive and strong in many countries. The central challenge remains the limited capacity of many small-scale farmers to take advantage of policy reforms. As a discussant from the Tanzanian government pointed out, the political will has always been there and remains significant despite changing political leadership. But a revelation during the event was that it remains hard to entice private businesses into working with small-scale farmers. Of course, many still argue that the political will or policy reforms have not been deep enough.

To me however, the Southern Agricultural Corridor of Tanzania Centre, created in part on the push by the private sector and donors, and the Kilimo Kwanza initiative, which encourages smallholders to embrace commercial farming, are real examples that countries are taking actions or open to policy reforms. Still, very often these kinds of actions have not been sufficient on their own to put countries like Tanzania on a trajectory of sustained and inclusive smallholder-led growth as hoped.

No doubt donor initiatives have helped to foster technological change. As the CSIS report, Oxfam’s research and reports produced by FtF implementing partners show, production per unit area among participating smallholder farmers has doubled. These gains need to be celebrated. However, the contribution in this area remains incomplete without commensurate changes in the wider system. Consensus has emerged that in order to increase agricultural productivity, a lot more has to be invested in setting up the right extension systems. And thus far, most African countries and donor initiatives have not been able to do that successfully.

I argued in the Oxfam research on Feed the Future implementation that we need a greater focus on building the demand side to effect change. Policy reform is one tool; increasing availability of technology is another. But nothing will do more to create and drive sustainability and inclusion in agriculture than building farmer organizations that can effectively demand public extension services and mobilize power to negotiate with businesses. This is also a form of local private sector development that is not heavily discussed. Working on this, I think, will increase the likelihood that policies targeted toward small farmers are successful and donors and non-governmental organizations will have fewer headaches when facilitating relationships in value chains involving companies and small-scale farmers.

Continuing this trend of limiting our attention on building broad-based farmer cooperatives is another form of under-investment in creating lasting change.

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