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Christie Peacock

Christie Peacock calls for increased investment in agriculture
Christie Peacock calls for increased investment in agriculture

Reaching the poor: a call to action

Christie Peacock is chief executive of FARM-Africa.

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair calls for priority to be given to tackling Africa's poverty and tells the G8 to pay "greater attention to agricultural development". United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan speaks of the urgent need for a Green Revolution in Africa and urges governments, North and South, to "recognise that agriculture is an essential pillar of development". The World Bank acknowledges the link between agricultural growth and poverty reduction. Yet international aid for African agriculture fell by almost half in the last decade of the 20th century.

Clearly, rhetoric and reality are out of synch. And it could get worse - indeed it will get worse, unless we act now. The World Bank forecasts that Africa and the Middle East are two regions of the world where, on present trends, the number of "absolute poor", living on less than a dollar day, will actually rise between now and 2015, from 315 million to 404 million.

Fortunately, the solution to this unacceptable situation is staring us in the face: help those in need to help themselves and their countries. But not by unsustainable "safety net" welfare support, which would cost billions and be a nightmare to administer. Nor by unproductive food aid - the £12.8 million spent by Britain's Department for International Development [DFID] on African "agriculture and livestock" in 2001-2 was dwarfed by the £48 million allocation for food aid to Ethiopia the following year. Instead, the focus should be on helping develop small-scale farmers, who have the potential to generate and sustain economic growth and employment.

This is the message that FARM-Africa is trying to get across to the British and other governments that have economic and political clout in the world. Our new report*, written in conjunction with Harvest Help and the Centre for Development and Poverty Reduction at Imperial College London - a groundbreaking NGO-academic collaboration - is part of the lobbying campaign.

We are hopeful of success, because DFID in the past has shown its capacity to take on new ideas, and because both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, have publicly committed themselves to acting against African poverty.

In addition, African smallholders have numbers on their side. Half the population of sub-Saharan Africa live in poverty; two-thirds of this legion of people are scratching out a living in rural areas. It makes sense to direct support where it is needed and where it can bring results. From our own work, FARM-Africa and Harvest Help know that such support can bring results. So does farmer Fred Muchindu. Mr Muchindu was struggling to provide for his family on a plot of infertile land in Naluyanda, in Zambia's Chibombo district. With a little training and good rainfall, he raised his output from 150 kg of maize in the dry year of 1999 to 3,500 kg in 2003. He now grows enough food to feed his family, has improved his house and started beekeeping as an extra source of cash. "I'm a kilometre away from poverty now," he commented, summing up the change in his life.

Mr Muchindu is a small farmer, but not as small as he was. That's another reason for the force of the argument to focus on smallholders. His increased production and new activities provide work and trade not just for his family, but for others in his village. The knock-on effects are considerable. In Kenya, where FARM-Africa began working in 1985, smallholder farming generates 29 per cent of gross national product directly and a further 30 per cent indirectly through related activities, such as processing and wages to labourers.

That smallholder agriculture is a pathway out of poverty does not mean growth will be easy, which is why we are pressing for action on several fronts. Yes, Northern governments must instruct their negotiators at the World Trade Organization not to seek decisions that disadvantage African agriculture. Equally, aid agencies should increase the percentage of allocations to agriculture; cooperate with NGOs to encourage farmer-led initiatives and strengthen the voice of smallholder farmers and herders; and work with African agriculture ministries to engage ministries of finance to make the case for investment in smallholder agriculture.

The problems to be overcome are great and varied, ranging from poor soils to the impacts of HIV/AIDS, from a lack of irrigation to deteriorating roads, from inefficient agriculture ministries to weak farmers' organisations. If these and other constraints facing smallholder African agriculture are not addressed by national governments and international organisations, the prospects for Africa's poor will remain bleak.

Date published: March 2004


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