Cutting the knot of poverty and hunger

By Kanayo F. Nwanze, President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development

If words and good intentions could feed people, there would be no hungry children in the world today. But as those of us working in development know all too well, malnutrition, hunger and poverty are bound tightly together in a knot that requires collective action to cut.

You cannot guarantee good health without a nutritious diet. You cannot ensure a nutritious diet without freedom from poverty. And you cannot free most of the world’s poorest people from poverty without improving the lot of small farmers, because most of the world’s 1.4 billion extremely poor people live in the rural areas of developing countries and depend on agriculture for their livelihoods.

It is one of life’s tragic ironies that three-quarters of Africa’s malnourished children live on small farms. In Asia and Latin America, farm children also often go hungry. According to the Lancet medical journal, poverty is associated with inadequate food and poor sanitation that lead to increased infections and stunting in children. Children who suffer from malnutrition early in life are forever deprived of their full physical, mental and social development potential. This means that instead of being an asset to their societies when they grow up, they are more likely to be a burden.

To release the knot of malnutrition, hunger and poverty, rich and poor countries alike must invest in and support the poorest smallholders, creating the conditions to bring them out of subsistence and into the marketplace. Numerous studies show that GDP growth generated by agriculture is at least twice as effective in reducing poverty as growth in other sectors. And experience repeatedly shows – in China, Thailand, Vietnam, India, Ghana, Burkina Faso and elsewhere – that smallholders can lead agricultural growth.

Small farms are often more productive, per hectare, than large farms, when agro-ecological conditions and access to technology are comparable. Small farmers have a strong personal incentive to get the most from their land and from their own labour. Indeed, there is ample research to show that there are few economies of scale in the production end of farming. Family farms have very low management costs and are labour intensive, while large farms are either heavily mechanised - offering little employment opportunities - or have high costs for managing the workforce.

Cutting the knot also means not treating poor rural people paternalistically by doling out handouts. Smallholders need financial services to pay for seeds, tools and fertilizer. They need the protection of weather insurance. They also need secure access to land and water, and roads and transportation to get their products to market. And they need agricultural research and technology to improve their resilience to rapid economic and environmental changes. These are all things that national governments, with the support of the international community, can put into place for small farmers.

Access to basic technology can make a huge difference in farmers’ lives. In Zambia, the Zambia National Farmers Union worked with IFAD to introduce an SMS market information service to give farmers up-to date market prices, along with the names of buyers, for 12 major commodities. The farmers are now able to get higher prices for their goods. The project has been so successful that it is now being extended across the border to the Katanga Province in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo. Congolese traders access the information in French by phone, while the Zambian traders and farmers receive the data in English through Africonnect.

It is also crucial for smallholders to have secure access to land. In Rwanda, the economic security of 5,000 households – half of which were headed by women – improved when the land of state-owned tea plantations was privatized and redistributed to the tea farmers. As a result, investment in the land has increased. A partnership with private investors has built a nearby tea factory, providing better market access for 2,600 of these households, and a second tea factory is under construction, to improve market access for the other households.

By creating the conditions for poor rural people to develop profitable businesses, and by fostering their entrepreneurial spirit, we will be able to create a vibrant rural sector. A dynamic rural sector will generate local demand for locally produced goods and services. This, in turn, will spur sustainable non-farm employment in services, agro-processing and small-scale manufacturing. With better access to higher quality food in childhood, young people will be able to contribute to their societies. And with a greater range of rural employment options, poor rural youth will have an incentive to become the farmers of tomorrow instead of abandoning their communities – as they do now – to look for work in the cities.

At a time when budgets are tight, it may seem prudent to cut back on investments in key sectors such as agriculture and development. But this would lead to greater world food insecurity and slower economic growth. Indeed, the world’s poorest people need support now more than ever because the financial crisis has had a severe impact on the economies of developing countries, which have seen export revenues fall, private capital flows diminish and remittances decline.

This year, I hope world leaders will accelerate their efforts to meet the commitments made at L’Aquila. I hope that the leaders of nations in Africa, Asia and Latin America will take the steps they need to create vibrant rural economies at home.

By doing this, they will be able to loosen the knot that binds malnutrition, hunger and poverty together and create a world free from poverty, hunger and desperation.


Anonymous said…
Every child, woman and man deserves to get the basic nutrition their body requires. It’s us who can make sure they are not deprived.

Globally more than 173 Million people stood up against poverty in 2009, a Guinness World Record!

Let us break this record in 2010!

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