Food, Farmers and Markets: Towards Government Action for Smallholders in 2013

In this Tuesday, May 1, 2012 photo, 2-year-old Aliou Seyni Diallo eats dry couscous given to him by a neighbor, after he coll
In this Tuesday, May 1, 2012 photo, 2-year-old Aliou Seyni Diallo eats dry couscous given to him by a neighbor, after he collapsed in tears of hunger in the village of Goudoude Diobe, in the Matam region of northeastern Senegal. Since late 2011, aid groups have been sounding the alarm, warning that devastating drought has again weakened communities where children already live perilously close to the edge of malnutrition. The situation is most severe in Niger, Chad and in Mali, but this time it has also pervaded northern Senegal, the most prosperous and stable country in the Sahel. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

Could 2013 be the year that governments take decisive and inclusive action to tackle global hunger?

The more than 100 organisations who have announced their support for the 'Enough Food for Everyone IF' campaign certainly hope so. The campaign is focused on getting politicians to tackle global hunger and malnutrition, calling on the G8 leaders to take the lead at the UK-hosted 2013 summit in June. The UK Prime Minister has promised a special event dedicated to food and nutrition security ahead of the G8 Summit, providing a critical opportunity to galvanise political engagement.

Political action is vital if we are to make progress. The task the world faces is unprecedented in scope and scale. We need to manage repeated food price spikes, reach nearly a billion people who are currently chronically hungry, and plan for the demands of a population of nine billion by 2050 in the face of climate change. And to achieve this sustainably we must do much more with less -- less land, less water, fertilizers and pesticides, and lower emissions of greenhouse gases.

But the challenges do not stop there. We have to ensure that agricultural systems are not just productive and sustainable, but also stable, resilient and equitable. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, we must recognize that smallholder farmers, many of whom are women, have a critical role to play in agricultural and rural development. These African smallholder farmers are already facing climate change impacts on their crops, as well as levels of pests and diseases that would be unrecognisable in other parts of the world. But they also need to have better access to markets if they are to increase their economic circumstances in the long term.

Overcoming these complex and interconnected challenges will not be easy. As set out in Gordon Conway's book One billion hungry: can we feed the world?, there are four routes that together offer a holistic roadmap for action: investing in innovation, developing people, opening up markets, and mobilising strong political leadership.

This week the issue of how governments can act to connect smallholder farmers to markets will be put into the spotlight. Over 34 donor organizations will meet at the annual general assembly (AGA) of the Global Donor Platform for Rural Development in The Hague from 30-31st January. The agenda of the 2013 AGA will focus on 'food, farmers and markets'.

As part of the AGA agenda we will share early lessons from our forthcoming research by Agriculture for Impact and the Overseas Development Institute (ODI). Based on an in-depth literature review and over 30 case studies, 'Leaping & Learning: Strategies for Taking Agricultural Successes to Scale' shows that there are specific approaches that governments -- including national governments, regional partners, or development donors -- can embed into their work to ensure that smallholder farmers are more effectively connected to markets at scale.

Initial findings from Dr Steve Wiggins and his team at ODI show that there are some positive ways that governments can support smallholders to flourish. For example, they need to create a conducive environment by exploring access to domestic and regional markets (not just export markets), focusing on returns for smallholders, embracing the use of smart subsidies in some circumstances, encouraging smallholder farmer groupings, and ensuring that the private sector is not just included, but has a central role in smallholder agricultural development. A commitment to training and capacity building is also key.

Equally, there are some clear elephant traps that governments want to avoid. Rigid planning and stubborn persistence with specific approaches will likely lead to failure. So will an approach of constant and comprehensive change when hurdles appear. Money on monitoring initiatives would be well spent, and there should be extra money set aside to correct courses as agricultural endeavours progress. Local knowledge is very important, and bringing in outsiders to set agendas or fix problems does not have a track record of success.

Linking smallholders to markets is a crucial part of the roadmap for achieving global food security. The bottom line is that if governments are to succeed in this task they will need to try context-specific approaches, enable local individuals as well as groups to take action, and be willing to local learn and adapt over time.

Above all, we are arguing for governments to adopt a significant shift in mind-set if we are to link the high-level rhetoric of summits and conferences -- in 2013 and beyond -- with the practical reality of achieving rural development and poverty alleviation. There is no doubt we will need all of human ingenuity to succeed. But with the stakes so high, failure is not a politically viable option.