A new chapter: IFAD and the Gates Foundation step up collaboration on sustainable agriculture

By Kevin Cleaver
The following post by IFAD’s Associate Vice President for Programmes also appears on Impatient Optimists, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation blog.

For the past three decades, I’ve had the privilege of working with smallholder farmers around the world. They are among the poorest people on the planet, and yet I’m consistently struck by their constancy and dedication to the land.

Tomorrow in Rome, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will launch an expanded partnership to help these farmers increase their productivity and lift themselves out of poverty. At IFAD’s 2012 Governing Council, Bill Gates and IFAD President Kanayo F. Nwanze will sign a statement of intent to accelerate our collaboration on ensuring food security and improving rural livelihoods in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

We drafted the text through an extraordinarily business-like process that took just two or three days from start to finish. In the world of high-profile partnerships, that’s all but unheard of. To me, it demonstrates that IFAD and the Foundation are embarking on our joint enterprise with the same level of commitment that smallholder farmers have always brought to feeding their families and communities.

This is critical because of the many competing priorities in the vast realm of international development. At times, the public, donors and the media may be tempted to turn their attention to the next big thing – the latest trend or more “attractive” cause. In the end, however, the soil provides our sustenance. Food security is a prerequisite for progress on every other development goal.

In any case, agriculture must be a top priority as the global population climbs toward a projected peak of 9 billion by 2050. To meet the world’s need for 60 per cent more available food, farmers will have to increase crop yields on a limited quantity of arable land. And they’ll have to do this sustainably, while adapting to the insidious effects of climate change.

The partnership between IFAD and the Foundation can give farmers a boost in their admittedly uphill struggle. In many ways, our organizations complement each other perfectly.

IFAD brings to the table 35 years of experience working with smallholder farmers, governments, NGOs and the private sector on multilateral investment projects worldwide. We know how small-scale agriculture works, and we have developed workable models for financing smallholders’ projects and marketing their products. The Foundation brings its own formidable resources, a world-class platform for advocacy and a proven capacity for innovation. It also offers technological prowess and effective systems for monitoring and evaluating the impact of our work.

Technology is key. The simplest advances – more robust seeds, or even better ploughs and hoes – can tilt the scales toward food security and poverty reduction. We simply have to find out what works and then replicate it feverishly.

This is not entirely new ground for IFAD and the Foundation. In fact, the Foundation has already contributed $155 million in co-financing for several IFAD-supported projects, including initiatives to develop drought-tolerant maize in sub-Saharan Africa and stress-tolerant rice in Africa and South Asia. By formally endorsing an expanded partnership tomorrow, Mr. Gates and Dr. Nwanze will build on what we’ve already accomplished together. But more important, they’ll open a new chapter in agricultural development for millions of men and women who toil in the fields every day.

Smallholder farmers deserve nothing less than our all-out support. As long as they remain impoverished, we are all that much poorer, because their dedication to the land is the world’s best hope of feeding itself for generations to come.