Building Resilience for Food and Nutrition Security

Published on 19th May 2014

A woman inspects her harvest           P. Courtesy
The concept of resilience is not a simple one. It involves the ability to bounce back from any number of shocks: flood, drought, conflict, food price volatility, the breakdown of local institutions, and job losses. And today, with climate change, these shocks are intensifying and multiplying. Typhoons in the Philippines, flash floods in the United States, and mud slides in Afghanistan have had dramatic and catastrophic impact in recent months.

Farmers in developed countries can invest in their businesses because if disaster strikes they have an asset base, insurance, financial services and social safety nets. But smallholder farmers in developing countries often do not. For most, it is too risky to try planting a new seed variety, or diversifying into new crops or livestock.

When crisis does strike, these farmers are often forced to take drastic action -- removing their children from school, selling whatever assets they have, or giving up farming and migrating to the cities.

You may wonder why we need smallholder farms at all. There is a common misperception that small farms mean poor farms. Yet small farms are often more productive per hectare, when agro-ecological conditions and access to technology are comparable. Small farms predominate in rich countries such as Japan, Korea, Norway and Switzerland. And developing countries, such as Thailand and Viet Nam, have built their economies on small farms.

So, what does this tell us? Successful small farms can create vibrant rural areas that ensure a dynamic flow of economic benefits between rural and urban areas so that nations have balanced and sustained development. Successful small farms are also critical to food and nutrition security. Under-nutrition is not just a health issue. It is very much an issue of agriculture and economics.

There are 500 million smallholder family farms in the world providing food and livelihoods for billions of people. These farms are responsible for up to 80 per cent of the food produced in some countries. In sub-Saharan Africa, GDP growth generated by agriculture is 11 times more effective in reducing poverty than growth generated by any other sector.

Investing in the resilience of smallholder farmers is investing in the resilience of food systems, the resilience of communities, and the strength of nations.

Some personal but time-tested propositions

First, we must remember that development efforts rarely succeed when they are conceived by experts living thousands of miles away, without an intimate understanding of the local context. For example, during the 1970s, there was a well-intentioned plan to re-green the Sahel by planting fast-growing exotic trees. Fields were cleared of the useless native brush. But it turned out that the brush was not useless. It provided shelter and shade for growing crops. The farmers who did not see the values of the exotic trees, did not tend to them. The trees died. The topsoil blew away and crop yields plummeted.

My first proposition for resilience is to listen to and respect the opinions of local people. They may not have high levels of formal education, but they know the land and local conditions far better than the development workers who parachute in for a few weeks or months.

The second proposition is possibly the most important of all: Development is not something that we do for people. Development is what people do for themselves. It must start and end from within. Our job is to facilitate the process.

Building resilience means building the asset base, so people have a cushion to absorb shocks. It means investing in social capital, in financial services, and in land tenure security.

Often, resilience is a consequence of successful rural development. Recently, I visited a project in Morocco which had a new three-kilometer feeder road. It was intended to reduce transportation costs.And it did. But it did much more. A group of women from the village of Ouaouisseft told me about the hours they no longer spend transporting water. Instead, they grow and sell herbs and medicinal plants. They have even started a childcare facility in their village so their children are cared for while the mothers earn money.

This leads to my third proposition. Poor rural people are not looking for charity. Handouts do not build resilience; they increase dependency. Resilience is built through partnership based approaches that respect the dignity of the recipients, foster ownership and ensure sustainability.

We know it is possible to improve smallholder resilience, even in the face of climate change. On a trip to Bangladesh I visited a village where flooding lasts about six months after the monsoon, and waves routinely destroy the infrastructure smallholders depend on. The project invests in submersible roads so that communities do not need to rebuild every time the water subsides. Improved canals allow people to navigate their boats safely as the waters rise. As you can see, there are many approaches to creating resilience. What they share is first starting with what exists, with local knowledge and a partnership approach.

My last example does not need for us to travel far. During the 2011 drought and famine in the Horn of Africa, the impact in Ethiopia was limited compared to the horror stories of the 1980s. How did this happen? Leadership and government policies that addressed macroeconomic issues and ensured investment in drought preparedness and smallholder farmers. Today's Ethiopia is the fastest growing non-oil economy in Africa with growth of about 10 per cent, with the second largest floriculture industry in Africa, the largest producer of hides and skin as well as honey in Africa, and an impressive commodity market for large and smallholder farmers.

This leads to my fourth and final proposition: There is no blueprint to building resilience. Our efforts to build resilience must start with a change in mindset. Farming is a business, no matter the scale or size. Small-scale farmers are the main on-farm investors in agriculture throughout the developing world. They must be regarded and respected as equal and integral partners in development.

This is the African Union’s Year of Agriculture and Food Security. It is the International Year of Family Farming. And it is also the year when we are solidifying the post-2015 Agenda. Let us therefore not underestimate the importance of our rural areas.

As I have said before, and as evidenced by the Ethiopian story, agriculture and rural development are essential for building resilient food and nutrition security. They provide a pathway to employment, wealth creation and economic growth. They are the basis for social cohesion. They are the foundation for political stability, gender equality and the precursor for global peace and security.

By Dr Kanayo Nwanze
President, International Fund for Agricultural Development.

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