Why agriculture and food security are central to meeting DFID’s new Structural Reform Plan

I want to argue, however, that support for agriculture and food security must be central to the implementation of this new plan and that, across the departmental priorities, a focus on support for agriculture, food systems and rural livelihoods must feature prominently. Across the developing world, and particularly in the poorest countries, it is the rural areas where most poverty still resided. Productive agriculture must be central reducing poverty through wealth creation, reducing conflict, improving gender equality and combating, climate change.

This is not a romantic vision of a peasant idyll. This argument is based on hardnosed assessments drawing on solid empirical evidence. Presented in great detail in the 2008 WDR, and repeated in numerous studies before and since, small-scale agriculture is perhaps the best route out of poverty for the poorest, especially in Africa. Certainly this must be in combination with off-farm activities and urban, industrial growth, but the initial motor for economic growth and livelihood improvement must come from a productive agriculture. And small-scale agriculture has long been shown to be the most efficient and effective way of achieving this. This applies especially in the developing-world conditions of relative land abundance, growing urban demand for food and plentiful supplies of labour – and where the alternatives of low-employment industrial growth offer a growing Gross Domestic Product, but widening inequality and potential conflict, as China and India, for example, are finding to their cost. Agriculture must therefore be a sure bet for the future for DFID.

So how can agriculture meet the UK government’s priorities, when it is isn’t even mentioned in the plan? Let’s take each priority in turn, and show how a focus on agriculture and food security can make a big difference.

Wealth creation: The aim is to “make British international development policy more focussed on boosting economic growth and wealth creation”. The foci include support for private sector entrepreneurship and facilitating free trade. These of course are both vitally important for agricultural growth. As the Future Agriculture Consortium’s (FAC) work on commercialisation is showing, there are multiple pathways to commercial agriculture, and getting markets to work for pro-poor agriculture is a key starting point. This must involve the private sector, often with very simple innovations – such as mobile phone connections to assist market transactions. But, as we discovered with the failure of the ‘Washington Consensus’, the private sector cannot do everything. Strategies also must involve government, to help coordinate markets and services, reduce barriers and facilitate regulatory oversight. As numerous studies have shown, there is a growing demand for food, internationally, domestically and regionally. In fact, in Africa it is domestic and regional markets for food which will drive agricultural growth – with all the resulting multiplier effects generating further wealth creation. Support for agricultural trade and marketing at this scale must be a major priority, unleashing a massive potential for wealth creation.

Conflict and stabilisation: While the political and military attention focuses on Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, there are many other potential conflict hot spots, including in Africa. Solving conflict through military means, or even attempts at imposing ‘good governance, is bound to fail, as we are seeing in Afghanistan today. Peace emerges from prosperity; and prosperity must be rooted in strong local economies. As FAC’s work on pastoralism is showing in East Africa and the Horn, improving pastoral livelihoods is at the core of peace-building and conflict prevention. Many major conflicts around the world are, at root, the result of agrarian crises, and the failure of rural economies to generate employment, particularly for young people. Witness western Kenya in 2007-08. As FAC’s work on youth and agriculture demonstrates, reimagining agriculture in ways that meet the demand young people’s aspirations is critical. As Paul Richards and Khadija Bah show for West Africa in Peace Through Agrarian Justice, addressing agricultural development, land reform and rural institutional change must be at the heart of conflict and stabilisation policy.

Women’s roles: The DFID plan aims to “recognise the role of women in development and promote gender equality”. This is a vital goal, and no more so than in agriculture. Gender-sensitive agriculture must be central to any strategy for the future, as women are often the main producers, marketers and managers in the agri-food economy. Reducing maternal mortality is an important objective. Investments in obstetric care are clearly vital, but for the long term reducing infant and maternal deaths means improving nutrition and access to food. And this only comes through improving the productive base. This means understanding differentiated priorities in agricultural research and development, for example. As FAC’s work on science, technology and innovation is showing, for example, simply aiming for productivity increases in breeding programmes is insufficient. New grain seeds must meet particular demands – for field management, for post-harvest processing, and of course for eating. This means a more participatory approach to breeding, which is gender-sensitive and inclusive in its approach.

Climate change: The strategic aim for DFID in this area is to: “drive urgent action to tackle climate change and support adaptation efforts in developing countries”. There is no surer way of achieving this in the rural areas of Africa most affected by climate change than investing in the adaptive capabilities of agricultural communities, and helping to climate-proof agriculture. FAC’s work on climate change shows how there is an unhelpful disconnect emerging between agriculture and climate policy in many countries, with confusions, overlaps and inefficiencies arising. A more joined-up policy process is required if the front-line tasks of building resilience to climate change in rural areas is to be achieved.

Investments in agriculture and food security are therefore vital across all these areas, and are one of the surest ways of achieving these goals in the long term. In addressing these major development challenges, however, it is essential that we move beyond sticking-plaster remedies, which deal with the consequences, not the root causes. Building prosperity through improved livelihoods based on smallholder agriculture must be front and centre to any development strategy. This is not a new argument. The dramatic economic transitions we have seen in parts of Asia in the past few decades have been built on the foundation of a solid rural base. And when this crumbles, big problems arise – as we are seeing today in some of the ‘emergent’, ‘tiger’ economies. For Africa for now, there is little option but to focus on the economic sector where comparative advantage lies: smallholder agriculture.

But, the DFID mandarins ask, is it cost effective? Can I sell it to the politicians? What about the value-for-money criterion? All of this all depends on your priorities and time frames. If you want a quick-fix, then agriculture is probably not a very good bet. If MDG targets for the ever-looming 2015 date are the aim, again then a ‘quick win’ on an ‘easy’ target is probably the best option. But these are too often just the sticking-plaster solutions, stemming the problems temporarily, while boosting the stats. But if you want long-term, lasting solutions that will not unravel, that can be sustained and that generate a momentum of their own, then all the experience points to investing for the long-term in reviving rural economies through small-scale agriculture, and associated market and trade activities. This, then, is the real value-for-money.

A growth-oriented, gender-sensitive, climate-resilient agriculture creates wealth and peace, livelihoods and poverty reduction. For the long-term, when time is properly discounted – not in response to arbitrary target dates or electoral or budget cycles – but in relation to a long-term future, and considerations of the next generations, then the slow-burn solution looks much more enticing. But it’s a choice: what appears cost-effective and efficient under one assumption, looks pricey under another. My bet, however, is for the long-term, and for agriculture at the core.

Ian Scoones, Professorial Fellow, Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex and co-convenor of the Future Agricultures Consortium (www.future-agricultures.org).