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G20 and rural poverty

Evert-jan Quak | 24 June 2011

The official presentation in the Netherlands of the Rural Poverty Report 2011 of the IFAD last week at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague coincided with the findings of the G20 agricultural ministers meeting to establish an action plan to tackle food price volatility. A good occasion to see what the outcome of both is; are there any similarities?

Let’s start with the G20 conclusions, the first ever meeting of G20agriculture ministers. France President Nicolas Sarkozy started on Wednesday to express his fear for speculative activity, which some blamed for high food prices. But in the action plan the agricultural ministers couldn’t do more than hand over the problem to their financial counterparts.

The World Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and other international institutions published a report in June with recommendations for the G20 meeting (read here more about this report). The conclusions in the report are clear about biofuels as a significant factor behind recent food price spikes. But the plan doesn’t express the same conclusions as Brazil and the US as huge biofuels producers aren’t backing the report’s conclusions on biofuels. The G20 wants more analysis on the issue.

Other issues mentioned in the G20 action plan are improvement of food productivity in relation to smallholder farmers in developing countries (although a roadmap how to do wasn’t presented), an early warning system on food prices based at the FAO, a stop on food export restrictions, a call for a successful conclusion to the Doha multilateral trade round, and a pilot programme for small, targeted, regional emergency humanitarian food reserves.

The starting point of the meeting in The Hague was rural poverty. A refreshing but maybe old fashioned approach where most discussions nowadays about agriculture have the initial focus on food security and climate change, poverty in rural areas is somewhere mentioned at the end. The report puts agriculture at the forefront as catalyst for millions of poor small farmers worldwide to find their way out of poverty. Like the 2007 World Bank report that concluded that agricultural growth is the powerhouse for poverty reduction. And it doesn’t seem to be that difficult if you see all good practices around the world that achieved productivity increases in a sustainable way, said Kevin Cleaver IFAD Associate Vice President in his lecture.

Key question is, as it is easy and beneficial, why hasn’t it done yet? Cleaver gives the answers himself.

  •  In fragile states it isn’t easy to improve agricultural output. The institutions aren’t there in place and donors are thinking more about getting food aid instead of development aid to these countries.
  •  Governments and donors haven’t found the right yet way to include the private sector in their programmes. Not with an exclusive focus on the big Western businesses, but to primitive small methods of delivering added value that suits small agricultural businesses, like storage, transport, tools and primitive processing equipment. 
  • Rural environmental issues and climate change have much larger impact on small farmers than most governments and donors actually think. Deforestation, ground water depletion, salinization of water, temperature rises, biodiversity decrease, etc. have all huge impacts on especially small farmers in developing countries.
  • Most donor projects have limited impacts. The way forward is to think about reaching more people – what is urgent with the population doubled in 2050 - without a large increase in donor money spending? Scaling up good practices is the answer.

The future belongs to sustainable agriculture intensification, is written in the IFAD report. The way how to do it is much more complicated.  Sustainable agriculture intensification needs much more knowledge and research, and therefore isn’t easy to implement for farmers as the changes they faced during the green revolution.

There were some critical notes on the report, especially on the co-existence between small and agribusiness farms that can have some shortcomings for the smallholder farms, especially with the access to natural resources. Other critical note was that scaling up isn’t the only answer. Developing countries need the opportunity to develop niche markets with try and errors.

Coming back to the G20 action plan, the IFAD report could have been particularly suitable to figure out how to increase agricultural productivity of small farmers in developing countries. The action plan now doesn’t give any details of a roadmap, without it’s more like rhetoric.

Photo credit main picture: Photo by Bread of the World