A call to policy makers: support small-scale agriculture

Agriculture, Climate Change, Food & livelihoods, Gender, Governance, Private sector, Rights

There’s an agricultural bonanza happening right now in the developing world. Global partnerships are being struck, key players are being mobilised and grand declarations are being made to change the face of farming.

We can see this happening through the proliferation of global and regional public-private partnerships (PPPs) that combine public and private funds to catalyse agricultural investment. These partnerships include the World Economic Forum’s ‘New Vision for Agriculture‘ and the ‘New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition‘ announced at the G8 Summit in 2012 (with links to the African Union’s Grow Africa plan). Donors are also getting in on the act, with donor spending on PPPs rising from $234m in 2007 to $903m in 2010.

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This is building on the rise of global foreign investment in agriculture in developing countries, which rose from $600m annually in the 1990s to $3bn in 2005-07. However, this is too often focused on investing in land and industrial-scale production within a context of weak or ineffective governance to ensure the protection of people’s rights. 

Additionally, most small-scale producers don’t trade in export or formal markets, meaning that these investments rarely reach the majority of producers. Similarly, investment policy and budgets, particularly through PPPs, rarely reach the poorest, women small producers in domestic markets or men and women dependent on wage labour to meet their needs. 

Oxfam’s message to policymakers, outlined in a newly released briefing note, is simple: government has a central role if agricultural investment is to combat poverty and hunger.

We know that the benefits of growth and investment don’t automatically reach the poorest. For instance, over the 20 years to 2001, only 1.5 per cent of global growth benefited people living on less than $1 per day

More recently, we have seen large-scale land acquisitions in developing countries deliver few benefits to communities – instead  destroying livelihoods and driving some of the world’s poorest from their lands. All of which has shown that a single-minded focus on attracting just any investment can do more harm than good.

Our advice to policy makers

Markets too often further marginalise women and promote unsustainable models of production. Policy makers, in governments and donor agencies around the world, must embrace their role in shaping agricultural markets and investments and we offer some principles (further elaborated in the table below) that should guide them.

1. Stand by your small-scale producers

There are 500 million small-scale farms across the world supporting two billion people. And 80 per cent of hungry people live in rural areas, mostly working as small-scale food producers. As a result, growth in this sector has twice the effect on the poorest people as other sectors. 

Women filtering honey at the Agunta Primary Cooperative, Amhara, Ethiopia. Credit: Oxfam/Tom Pietrasik

If policies are to reach the poorest people, they must be targeted at supporting small-scale producers and creating non-farm jobs. Women small producers require particular investments and support to overcome entrenched exclusion and discrimination.

2. Put power at the heart of your policies

People are poor because they lack power, both in markets and in politics. Small-scale producers are vulnerable to market abuses such as cartels and monopolies, and too often are dominated by larger market players who capture the profits, whilst transferring the risks downwards. 

Policy makers should both protect small-scale producers from market abuses (e.g. by using competition laws) and support mechanisms that give them power in markets (such as producer organisations) and politics (such as platforms for producers to engage in policy decisions).

3. Protect basic rights

Left unprotected by governments, communities and small-scale producers can find themselves robbed of their basic rights. Land grabs, abuses of workers, stolen water: these can all happen where government is missing. States have a duty to protect human rights and to regulate the private sector. Policy-makers should strengthen labour laws and introduce protections – such as a requirement for free, prior and informed consent – and transparent contracts in land deals.

4. Make markets inclusive

Key principles for policies that support small-scale agriculture table

Small-scale producers, and their communities, can use markets to lift themselves out of poverty. For this to happen, markets must allow small-scale producers to participate and thrive. 

Often, it requires support from government to help traditional markets evolve, e.g. through regularised grades and standards to raise quality, protection from cheap imports and facilitating investment in market infrastructure, such as urban wholesale markets. 

Or it can require governments to shape formal markets so they give access to small-scale producers, by training small-scale producers to meet sustainability or safety standards.

There is no silver bullet in tackling poverty and hunger but we know that supporting small-scale agriculture and creating decent rural jobs is a big piece of the puzzle. We hope to see policy makers embrace this and shape markets and investments so they deliver a fairer and more inclusive food system, that promotes sustainable forms of agricultural production.

Read more

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Also see Tipping the Balance a related research report. 

Author: Erinch Sahan
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.