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Crooned the poet..  Admirable sentiments but can we afford to be romantic when we are engaged in the business of poverty alleviation?

In my work in South Asia one of the most underprivileged classes of people I have interacted with have been small and marginal farmers. They and their families are the main actors in what is called ‘subsistence agriculture’. The dictionary defines subsistence as ‘means barely sufficient to maintain life’. In a number of cases, calling the returns from this form of livelihood, subsistence, is a misnomer. Wonder whether there is a term like sub-subsistence? I have seen farmers in India, Nepal and Afghanistan managing to get 3-5 months worth of food from their farms… in a good year. They often have no other livelihood option available near home. They are either forced to migrate in search of work or dependent on aid agencies to help them through. Then there are negative coping strategies like selling assets (cattle, land, implements) leaving them more vulnerable in the coming years, reducing food intake or the ultimate – starvation.  The impact of all of these is not uniform  within the household – the aged, children and women suffer more. Suffice to say that the marginal farming community lives perpetually on the edge of or below  the poverty line.

As I moved to Africa I came across one more class of people in the same category – the pastoralists. A pastoralist is defined as one whose social and economic systems & status revolve around animal husbandry. The East and Horn of Africa, where I work, has been a traditional stronghold of pastoralists practicing transhumance. Agriculture came relatively late into this area and in a number of communities it never made an entry.

Small holder farmers and pastoralists have been the targets of development interventions for a number of years now. NGOs, donors, governments have all been ‘focussing’ their energies on them. The most common response from NGOs and governments to the issues of the farmers or pastoralists has been

  • Capacity building – modern inputs, techniques etc in an effort to raise yields and profitability.
  • Livelihood diversification – small enterprises mainly.
  • Linking to markets by using market value chain approaches – an effort to improve profitability.
  • Beneficial policies – linking them to governance, subsidies, interest / loan waivers etc.

These have worked to a certain extent but one must acknowledge that the impact is rather limited. When a farm yields food / income sufficient for 3-4 months, increasing incomes / profitability even by 25%, which in itself is not easy, leads to just slightly more sufficiency – its nowhere close to putting the household in a good position.  A quick analysis of trends in the food insecure areas round the world will show that the old ways of working are.. well… not working.

It is evident that ‘more of the same’ strategies are unlikely to make a huge impact on the lives of the poor. It is time, perhaps, to actually pause and try and envision longer term solutions & think a bit radically.  This, however, is easier said than done. In the first place, the voices romanticizing small scale agriculture and pastoralism seem more strident than the voices saying ‘let us think of changing the paradigm’. At this point I must clarify. It is not that I don’t think that smallholder agriculture and pastoralism will never work. Sure it will and does – I have seen that too. They work when the small parcel of land is well irrigated, when there is decent access to markets, when the pastoralist’s herd size is good enough to enable overcoming of drought by selling a few heads of cattle / small ruminants before the market crashes. However, the percentage of smallholders and pastoralists in this position is rather small and a large number of pastoralists live in poverty.

In my opinion there is no point in aggressively promoting smallholder agriculture and pastoralism as a way of life in the way it is now. My reasoning is that – when we ask the smallholder farmers to continue farming or a pastoralists to continue herding small numbers of livestock, what we are doing in effect is

  • Condemning them to a life of poverty where there is no way out of sub-subsistence and problems that will only exacerbate with each passing generation.
  • Leaving them to the mercy of natural disasters which are increasing, climatic variability, increased pressures on farming and pastoral lands. Interestingly in areas where there are pastoralists AND smallholder farmers,  there are often conflicts between them over the limited land resource.
  • Telling them that their children can rarely aspire to enter the globalised world because they just won’t have the education, opportunity or skill sets to do so.

What sets my teeth on the edge is that the loudest voices arguing for status quo are NOT the farmers / pastoralists themselves.. nah.. most of them probably want out – I know for a certain that most of the small farmers I have talked to wanted their children OUT of agriculture. Pastoralism itself is changing as more and more pastoralists get settled – only men move around with the cattle as women and stay put in one place. Also the number of pastoralists who are practicing some form of agriculture is actually increasing. Nah these are people who want a change. The status quoists are mainly

  • Development professionals like me who perhaps focus on incremental change (keeping us well within our comfort zones) rather than transformational change.
  • Academia.
  • Government officials who are in charge of their ‘development’.
  • Political leaders of pastoralists and farmers – who ‘represent’ them but don’t share their burdens. When was the last time you saw a farmer leader actually till the land? Or a pastoralist leader herd cattle? Or depend on the returns from agriculture / pastoralism for a living?

I am convinced we need to look at radically different solutions. Amongst other things we need to

  • Envision and chart a pathway of change.
  • Redesign & invest in an education system that will focus on building capacities and skills that will make the kids ‘fit for the future’.
  • Improve governance so that the poor have a say in policies that affect them.
  • Develop infrastructure so that some degree of industrialisation (manufacturing / service) is possible so that the poor can eventually move away from primary production.  The contribution of agriculture to the GDP in the United States has been between 4 & 1% over the last 40 years. In rapidly developing economies like India (42-18%) and China (35-10%) contribution of agriculture has steadily decreased as manufacturing and service industry contributions have picked up.
  • Advocate for sensitive policies with developed countries – after all the trade barriers imposed by the developed world on farmers in the developing world do make a mockery of their (developed world’s) avowed intention of making poverty history.

But still have sensitive social protection mechanisms in place for the very poor who are going to lag behind.

Difficult? Well yes! Undoubtedly.

Impossible? Well… NO..

Even if one accepts that NGOs are small players in development and cannot effect transformational change by themselves, they can raise voices and advocate for the same.

To come back to the question I started with – we cannot really afford to be overly romantic.  Sure we need to be optimistic. We need to dream, with our eyes wide open. We are in a war against poverty, a war that must be won. We cannot afford to hear this commentary about our efforts in this war –   c’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre.

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