Leveraging south-south cooperation

by Sir Fazle Hasan Abed and Kanayo F. Nwanze

Rural poverty and food insecurity continue to be serious challenges in many developing countries. But a new thrust for partnerships is providing a key to overcoming these challenges. The potential of South-South cooperation to advance development and poverty reduction is increasingly evident, especially as emerging economies increase their investments in developing countries of Asia and Africa.

While much of the world has been mired in financial crisis, the overall rise in South-South trade and investment flows, as well as the on-going shift from the G8 to the G20 as the primary forum to tackle global economic crisis,indicates that there is more to South-South cooperation than just sharing and learning from the practical experience of others.

This is particularly true when it comes to addressing one of humanity's key challenges for the 21st century: ensuring food and nutrition security in the face of a growing and urbanising global population, and the problems brought on by climate change. Any response must be environmentally and economically sustainable. The need for such a response to the demand for food and agricultural raw materials is most acute in the South, and it is also there that some of the most relevant successes already have been achieved.

Historically, agriculture has shown a capacity to drive economic growth. GDP growth generated by agriculture is at least twice as effective in reducing poverty as growth in other sectors. For countries in a hurry to accelerate poverty reduction, it is a vital element of the development equation.

Agriculture, at whatever scale, must also be seen as a form of economic opportunity if poor rural people are to transform themselves from subsistence farmers into small business entrepreneurs. But it takes the right type of investment for this to happen. Investments -- whether by the international community or developing country governments -- need to be smart, targeting smallholders. Poor rural producers need roads and transportation to get their products to market, and technology to raise yields and to receive and share the latest market information on prices. They also need access to rural financial services so that they are able to establish viable small businesses.

But for this to happen, agricultural markets in the relevant countries and trade policies at the global, regional and sub-regional levels need urgent reform to increase the flow of ideas, technologies, and products between people and across regions. Competition for scarce resources must give way to cooperative ventures ensuring larger pay-offs to both emerging economic powers and those lagging behind.

Based on the distinct but complementary experiences of Brac and IFAD, we are in full agreement that the greatest potential for South-South cooperation lies in knowledge transfer and sharing of know-how between middle income and least developed countries. Particularly important is the introduction of successful technologies and practices into countries where small holder farmers can be assisted to build agriculture businesses that will lead the way to food security and rural development. Middle-income developing countries with adequate experience and technologies can also help other developing countries replicate and scale up rural poverty alleviation projects and programmes.

China, for instance, has made enormous progress on its own in agricultural production and rural advancement over the past three decades. Many of China's agricultural technologies can be of value for smallholder farmers in Asia and Africa that face similar challenges, particularly water-saving and soil related technologies and aquaculture methods. And it is encouraging to see that this is already happening. Domestic factors played a crucial role in reducing rural poverty, as market integration created new opportunities for growth.

Working closely with other development partners, IFAD has found that direct knowledge exchange activities are integral to country programmes and regional cooperation initiatives. An example of this approach is evident in a joint IFAD/FAO programme for "Pro-poor Policy Formulation, Dialogue and Implementation." The programme aims to strengthen the capacities of agricultural policymakers in eight Asian countries (Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Vietnam) to formulate and enforce pro-poor policy choices as a forum for knowledge sharing.

In practicing hands on South-South partnership, Brac has branched out from Bangladesh to countries in Africa and Asia. In Liberia, Brac's seed testing and multiplication farm has produced high-quality rice seeds to improve agricultural yields. In Uganda, a large number of women farmers have been trained as community agriculture promoters, and grow seeds for nutrient rich food crops.

But the concern remains that while growing incomes and demand for food have led to substantially larger investment flows to agriculture, the benefits to small holders and others in some of the poorest recipient countries remain uncertain. Small farmers, who manage up to 80% of the farmland in parts of Asia, are critical to achieving global food security. It is imperative that investments are geared toward serving local needs and strengthening the small farmer's production capacity.

Knowledge transfer needs to extend to the policy level as well. Policymakers need to share their successes and failures with each other and, most importantly, set guidelines that allow for investments to directly feed into development assistance. With such an impetus, the benefits of South-South cooperation can gain momentum and bring enormous hope and opportunity for close to a billion people living in poverty.

The writers are Founder and Chairperson BRAC, and President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), respectively.

As posted on The Daily Star.