Since our 1963 founding by U.S. farmer cooperatives, ACDI/VOCA’s main thrust has been fighting global hunger. We have provided food aid, helped smallholder farmers organize and build capacity, and implemented market system-oriented agricultural development. Former USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios once called ACDI/VOCA “the premier agricultural development NGO in the world."
Despite global development progress in many areas, in 2007–2008 the world confronted, once again, the precariousness of its food resources. Shortages propelled millions into a desperate crisis, provoking riots in 30 nations. The emergency killed and sickened many and swelled the ranks of the poor, reducing them to extreme vulnerability. Thereafter, drought persisted in parts of Africa, continuing to disrupt food supplies. In 2011 the first famine declared by the UN in 30 years took a horrific toll in South Sudan.
The New Normal
These events were classic food crises, well-defined in terms of time and space, but even though they were surmounted, it cannot be said that the global food crisis has abated. The fact is that high and volatile food prices have become the new normal. The number of people suffering from hunger (now about 870 million) is going up rather than down.
This situation is catastrophic for the poor, who are being forced to eat cheaper and less nutritious food—if they eat at all. Hunger kills more people every year than AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined. It is especially tragic that annually 17 million children are born severely underweight and impoverished and are therefore doomed to suffer the life-long social, physical, and mental ill-effects of malnutrition. ACDI/VOCA heartily endorses USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah’s call for interventions during the first 1,000 days of life that “prevent undernutrition rather than treat it when it might be too late.”
Daunting Challenges but a Glimmer of Hope
In recent years, important agriculture-oriented strategies such as the U.S. government’s Feed the Future initiative, have been implemented to bolster food production. ACDI/VOCA is a leading implementer, working in 14 of the 19 FtF focus countries. In a similarly hopeful vein, many food-insecure nations have attained more responsible and effective governance and have enacted progressive development policies that strengthen local food systems, bolstering prospects for food security.
Taking the long view, one finds hope. Lessons have been learned. ACDI/VOCA’s own implementation of agricultural development is significantly more comprehensive and sophisticated than in the past. Nutrition is integrated into agriculture programming. Increasingly, appropriate and effectual development assistance is set in regulatory environments that enable progress. There is unprecedented multiparty collaboration on well-designed development projects. It doesn’t hurt that over the last decade much of Africa has experienced world-leading growth rates, and foreign investors have responded to more stable and competitive economic climates. Around the world, with only a few exceptions, there is similar progress, with a steady trickle of previously aid-dependent states into the ranks of middle-income countries.
The Answer is Clear: Agricultural Development is Needed
Still, in many places, governments and humanitarian agencies struggle to cope with the ongoing, entrenched food crisis. This frustrating status quo highlights the need to create or restore food security, insulate high-risk areas from future food shortages and provide a basis for market growth and prosperity through long-term, systemic agricultural development that creates real change and boosts food supplies. This seems an obvious answer, yet the international donor community has lagged in fulfilling its commitment to broad-based agricultural development.
That’s not all. As the planet grows from 7 billion to a projected 9 billion inhabitants by 2050, the food system is at risk of being overwhelmed. Some wonder if there could be a tipping point that plunges the world into severe crisis. The mounting pressures on the food supply compel stepped-up, sustained, far-reaching yet coherent responses, and the sooner the better. The responses must be balanced between near- and longer-term actions and address changing demographics, looming water shortages, and climate change, to which the poor are most vulnerable.
High Food Prices Also Hit Poor Hardest
If food prices are high, why don’t the world’s small farmers benefit by earning more on what they produce? Some do, but most poor rural producers are net buyers of food. Sharp price increases for staple foods pose the biggest threat to those who already spend 50 to 70 percent of their income on food and who have limited adaptive capacity.
Food prices are often driven up by other dynamics such as rising input and transportation costs associated with associated with high oil prices, bad weather in key production areas, and even diversion of food to biofuel. However, another factor is more pronounced and relentless: rising demand in developing nations. As countries such as China, India, and a host of others become richer, so do their citizens’ diets, which are shifting from traditional staple grains such as rice to meat and dairy products, which require significantly more grain as feedstock. Grain stocks are constantly low, and so the world putters along “one shock away” (as former World Bank President Robert Zoellick put it) from another serious food crisis.
Brass Tacks: the Kind of Agricultural Development Necessary to Solve the Food Crisis
As stated above, there is broad agreement on an overarching solution. The world must increase agricultural yields in an environmentally sustainable manner, particularly by unleashing the potential of small-scale farmers to directly reduce hunger, create a more resilient food supply, and mitigate social stresses.
Another often overlooked but critical remedy is to reduce post-harvest losses, which can amount to 25-40 percent of total production.
And since women produce between 60 and 80 percent of the food in most developing countries, they must be a focus of efforts to improve food security. An IFPRI analysis shows that equalizing women's access to agricultural inputs can increase output by more than 10 percent, and other studies show that gains in income controlled by women are more likely to be spent on food. As USAID’s Feed the Future website says, “By investing more in women, we amplify benefits across families and generations.”
Holistic Approach Needed
The ideal approach to global hunger includes, where necessary, humanitarian assistance toward immediate household food security. In some cases that means emergency food rations delivered without market disruption, with appropriate nutrition considered, and where possible with an economic development impact. If there’s no emergency, assistance should take the form of smallholder-based, market-oriented agricultural systems development leading to poverty reduction, improvement in livelihoods, and sustainable staple food production and trade facilitation.
While not generally a first responder in crisis situations, ACDI/VOCA has worked across this entire array of interventions. With respect to food aid, there has been much recent debate on the structure of the delivery system. Our take is simply that a full toolbox and maximum flexibility are required to best address on-the-ground exigencies. Our tools range from efficient commodity management to direct distribution of appropriately nutritional rations, including foodstuffs that are locally and regionally purchased. (In 2012 we were awarded a Best Practices and Innovations Award by InterAction and IFAD for success in preparing Rwandan co-op members to sell commodity to the World Food Program.) We also implement cash-for-work programs and conduct market-sensitive monetization, or sales, of commodity with the proceeds applied to long-term development.
With respect to agricultural development, our experience organizing producer groups, building the capacity of smallholder farmers and linking them to markets, and our comprehensive value chain approach to food sector development with attendant poverty reduction, developed under a seminal contract with USAID, have never been more relevant.
We conduct market analysis, help reform agricultural policy, improve both staple and cash crop productivity, organize farmers for collective action, promote farming as a business to enhance competitiveness, improve access to credit, link farmers to markets, implement competitive grants programs that empower local organizations and communities, and build public-private agribusiness alliances. All of this, implemented in interactive projects that engage all stakeholders in market-based behavior, is necessary to feed the world over the long term. Beyond addressing food security, it expands economic opportunity and fosters broad-based prosperity around market behavior in which virtually everyone on the planet engages.
Ag Development Must Be Full-Featured
Our approach also includes
- Informing key audiences about the food crisis and encouraging them to dedicate sufficient, targeted resources to its alleviation, particularly through long-term agricultural development.
- Building awareness of response options by collating and synthesizing ACDI/VOCA’s experiences.
- Targeting the most chronically vulnerable populations while looking for opportunities to apply broader ACDI/VOCA programming strengths toward sustainable development.
- Including an emphasis on health and nutrition as a part of overall food security.
- Strengthening allied financial institutions by developing innovative lending products for agricultural stakeholders, building local risk assessment and management skills, and promoting methodologies to increase access to financial services through financial institutions, input suppliers, or other market actors.
- Promoting business support services that increase productivity and quality of food as well as improved post-harvest handling and storage that reduce losses.
- Attempting to trigger "virtuous cycles" of asset accumulation and expanded opportunities for income, health, and nutrition.
- Helping farmer organizations meet quality and quantity standards to improve their market position.
- Using information and communication technologies to provide farmers with timely information, market linkages, and mobile money.