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Future Of AID: Oversight in the Basic Premise


Basic Premise: In order to have effective agriculture development projects aimed at poverty alleviation, the basic premises under which programs are designed have to be accurate, or the more accurate the basic premise the more effective the results. For the past 30 years the agriculture development effort has been guided by a basic premise that may be more superficial than comprehensive and really needs to be carefully reviewed and perhaps modified so that future projects can be more effective in terms of alleviating rural poverty and provide a better return on the development dollars being invested. The basic premise that was initiated with the initial farming systems effort, accurately observed that smallholder producers were inefficient users of their physical environment. This was attributed to the smallholders being risk aversive and deliberately delaying their basic crop establishment waiting for more assured rainfall or other conditions. They then suggest the economic well being of smallholders could be substantially improved with the resources already available to them to manage their lands by improved technology, credit for inputs, and better motivation for timelier crop establishment, attempting to take advantage of early rains that when the monthly variability approaches 100%. This is about two or three times the variability most people will accept for planning purposes leaving incident rainfall something farmers can only respond to as it occurs. The basic premise claiming it is possible to assist smallholder farmers with the operational resources already available has been accepted and repeatedly repeated in the development literature and documentation, but never actually confirmed with any solid studies. Does anyone know of any actual studies confirming smallholders to be risk aversive, and not just documentation that repeats the assumption of risk aversion? The latest manifestation of the basic premise is some of the current suggestions of “mobilizing the male idleness in Africa” for some of the value-chain projects.

Premise Accuracy: The basic premise as stated above is in reality an excellent starting point and one has to start with some hypothesis, but after 30 years it should have been fully verified. Now the question is, “how accurate a basic premise is it”? It is a convenient and easily promotable hypothesis, particularly for agronomists, as it allows them to continue concentrating on small plot research, publish the results in their normal referred journals that have difficulty reaching the hosts, let alone the beneficiaries, and promoting the results directly to extension for use by the producers, with the expectation that they are knowledge limited and can directly make use of the research results once they understand them. However, it overlooks the basic problem with agronomy in that agronomy trials only provide a biological response to the physical environment. Finished!! Agronomy research does nothing to determine if the farmers have the operational resources to extend the small plots results to the rest of their land holding or whatever proportion of the holding is desired. Operational resources exclude the normal capital inputs of fertilizer, seeds and plant protection chemicals or credit to purchase them, that many projects effectively or perhaps over effectively address, but includes the labor and those things such as access to mechanization that can substitute for labor, and relieve the overall drudgery of smallholder farming. Somehow, the availability of these resources is just assumed, and most often completely overlooked in the development effort even today. Please, anyone check the project documentation available to them to see how these issues are addressed, if addressed at all, and not just assumed!!

Who is Responsible: These operational resources appear be an administrative void in the development effort. While the economists can fairly easily determine the amount of person days it might take to complete a task, such as 60 person days to transplant a hectare of rice, no one seems to assume the responsibility to determine how much labor is actually available within a community, and based on that how long it will take for that labor pool to migrate across the community. Please, who is responsible for this determination?! Isn’t this information critical for extending research results beyond the demonstration plots, particularly for quality sensitive, high risk, value chain crops currently being heavily promoted for smallholders’ benefit? You cannot expect wide level of acceptance if the farmers cannot muster the means to do it, even once they have the knowledge and desire. One of the main features of value chain crops for export is quality. This is also where many smallholder out-grower schemes appear to have problems. How often is the export quality associated to additional labor inputs? Thus while value chain projects based on enhancing the marketing opportunities is addressing the most critical determinant of what farmers will produce, if the means to extend it much beyond the demonstration field is not available there will be little sustainable impact. When this happens high value does not always translate into high profit. It might translate into high discards of produce not meeting strict quality standards, and the smallholder beneficiaries being financially hurt for participating in the value chain project for which the do not have sufficient resources to meet the strict quality standards.

Time Spread: Has anyone ever taken a close look at the spread in crop establishment? The data is often available from economic farm records or farm survey data, but the analysis is rarely actually done. When it is done, most of the time it will indicate a community spread of up to eight weeks starting at the earliest opportunity and progressing linearly for the entire period. No apparent delays, etc. other than in response to incident climatic conditions that have to be responded to rather then anticipated. Examples, that represent 100% of the analytical opportunities available to the author, would include:

Rainfed rice in Iloilo, the Philippines;

The Mahwali area of Sri Lanka,

Nile Valley and Delta of Egypt and

Mbeya area of Tanzania.

Deliberate delaying crop establishment would actually put smallholders’ food security, already severely jeopardized, at additional risk, and at least on second thought just does not make good logic. Perhaps it would be better if, instead of assuming smallholders are risk aversive assume they are mandatory risk takers, and their very survival depends on it. Any risk aversive smallholders most likely starved to death a couple decades ago. Are there any actual studies that would contradict this, even though well established and repeated in the development literature? Would it be possible to consider that smallholder producers are more likely “maxed out” and most likely more constrained by the resources to manage their land than the amount of land available to them? Are there any definitive studies that can contradict this? In this case the limited resources available to manage their land are a major drag on the physical potential as defined by the agronomists. If it is taking eight weeks for basic crop establishment, what will happen to the follow-up activities such as weeding etc. and how about all the quality sensitive, high risk, high value, value chain crops envisioned to reduce poverty for smallholders? How much of the strict quality requirements are dependent on labor and timeliness? The question is as one reviews a smallholder community, how do you separate the problems of limited knowledge from limited means? This can not be done from any visual observations. How will that differentiation impact on how you proceed to assist the producers? If knowledge is truly limiting then extension is correct. However, if the means are limited then you will need to concentrate on enhancing the resources available to the farmers.

Integration: This is really an area where it might be good to separate agriculture researchers from agriculture development professionals. For researchers, who frequently work out of experiment stations with a broad geographic mandate, the objective is to simply develop information or technology and inform the clients about the availability of the technology. However, the development professional, working with a more restricted geographical area such as a community and in close contact with the beneficiaries, are or should be mandated to take research information a step further and monitor the acceptance of innovations at least until a targeted level of acceptance within the community has been reached. There are some technology transfer – extension models that actually address this issue. They contain an integration component that represents an iterative step cycling back from acceptance to research. As illustrated in the graph adapted from Lionberger & Gwinn’s text. This is actually were the participatory involvement is even more essential than at the beginning of a project. The key here is to evaluate what might be referred to as the Operational Constraints and look at the Supporting Technologies that will facilitate the farmers’ acceptance, and then promote the supporting technologies. There can be some very legitimate reasons, other than knowledge and desire, why farmers can not immediately accept innovations and will require some additional assistance. A case study of the integration process is the Malawi Adaptive Research Program effort to introduce a potato-wheat sequence cropping pattern in the Deza Hills area south of Lilongwe. If the integration step was recognized early in the assistance effort the resource limitation of the smallholder producers might have been identified earlier and the necessary adjustments made in the basic programs and projects designed to assist the smallholders. Unfortunately, for agronomist integration activities are often more difficult to get accepted in the standard agronomic publications, if this is necessary for career advancement.

Resource Enhancement: The solution to this overall problem is to enhance the resources the farmers have to manage their land. This often implies mechanization or perhaps better stated access to mechanization or other means of drudgery relief. However, the concept seems to be completely overlooked in the agriculture development effort. The best example is the substantial gains in rice based agriculture in Asia. However, look closely, how much of the acceptance of the “green revolution” and other advances in rice producing Asia can be attributed to the retiring of the water buffalo if favor of the power tillers? Would the gains be possible without the conversion? According to some smallholder paddy farmers in rainfed areas of Northeast Thailand the conversion to power tillers halved the paddy establishment time, and then with the paddy production under control the farmers were able to spontaneously diversify into value-chain high value enterprises such as contract vegetable production for the Japanese markets and aquaculture with poultry or pig production suspended over the fishponds. However, is this mentioned in any of the documentation on improved food security in Asia by the development community? Has anyone looked at the impact of the conversion to power tillers on total agriculture production and the economic well being of the paddy farmers? It seems the whole concept of operational resource enhancement is totally under the development community’s radar. This has resulted in all the paddy mechanization, which now extends to contract access to small combines originally developed in Japan that can operate within a 1 rai (1/6 th hectare) field, being self-financed without any assistance from the development effort. Could a good micro-finance project have expedited this?

Africa Mechanization: The same can be seen slowly taking place in Africa. Interestingly, the initial rural mechanization in Africa is the village grain mills that can effectively reduce the domestic drudgery of women. While some of these have been part of income generation programs for women’s clubs, the vast majority are individually owned and self financed. It might be interesting to see what the agronomic impact of that might be. It is unlikely any African women will have difficulty making good use of any extra time saved from pounding maize. The shift to village grain mills is rapidly becoming fact accompli for much of Africa, with the women pounding maize becoming a relic of the past similar to the little boy riding the back of the water buffalo to or from the paddies has in Asia. However, other efforts at mechanization and drudgery relief are quietly proceeding in Africa. Again this is all self financed with limited if any donor assistance. It would include some 50 Asian power tillers coming into Madibira during the five years after donor funding ended in December 2000. Madibira is a 3000 ha rice irrigation scheme in southern Tanzania some 70 km off the tarmac. It would also include used 4-wheel tractors that also were individually purchased and brought into Madibira after external funding ended.

It is also the case for motorized pumps replacing treadle pumps in Zambia. Interestingly, the heavily promoted labor intensive treadle pumps are distributed almost exclusively via NGOs on credit, with a very limited number being sold on the open market, but farmers graduating to motor pumps have to self finance at approximately 5x the cost of treadle pumps by selling cattle or some other means. The small 5 hp motor pumps could double the command area of the treadle pumps. The same is true in Egypt where the animal powered saqua has been virtually completely replaced with single cylinder Lister-Pitter diesel pumps from India. How much of this is a lost opportunity for the development community to have a major impact on rural poverty alleviation? What is the potential of having a major impact if the issue of operational resource enhancement and access to mechanization continues to be overlooked by the development community?

Impact of Hunger

If the farmers are more limited by the resources to manage their land than the land available to them so that it takes eight weeks or more just to complete the initial crop established, the question might be what, if anything, hunger contributes to this apparent delay, and how might that relate to the concept of “male idleness”? The eight weeks is about twice what most people project. While most of the development documentation recognizes that smallholders are poor, may not be producing sufficient food to meet the subsistence needs of their families, and improving their plight is one of the main objectives of development efforts, rarely do development projects factor in how hunger might hinder the implementation of their projects. One of the main stereotypes of the African subsistence farmers is that they only produce enough food for six months. Ok, if this is true, will they not be running out of food just as they are expected to begin the heavy manual labor for the next season farming? Thus, if they only produce enough food for six months, what do they do for the other six months, how will this impact on the coming season’s crop husbandry, and their ability to utilize any time sensitive recommendations intended for their benefit, particularly any value chain, high value, high risk, quality sensitive crops that most likely require more additional labor inputs?

Caloric Energy Balance: The concern here is the basic caloric energy balance. For example, if it takes roughly 2500 calories to sustain a person for a day, and then an additional 280 calories for every hour of sustainable physical effort working in their garden or fields, the total calorie requirements for a day will approach 5000 calories. Are smallholders able to consume this amount on a daily basis? To obtain that many calories would require a diet of roughly 1.3 kg of either maize meal or uncooked rice, 2.8 kg of cassava or 3.8 kg of plantains. How many impoverished people can actually consume that amount? For those who have enjoyed the informal hospitality of smallholders in the communities they have worked, has this amount of produce been readily provided? This would exclude any feast prepared for visiting appraisal or evaluation teams that would most likely represent more than is normally available. More typically would be the Cambodia average daily consumption of 435 g rice, which according to FAO represents the highest average daily per capita rice consumption in the world. The 435 g of rice would provide less than 2000 calories or somewhat less than what is required for daily maintenance and less than half that needed to effectively put in an eight hour day of field work. This will only provide energy and not the protein, vitamins, minerals and other dietary requirements needed for a healthy person undertaking extensive field work. If you look at the consumer prices for Tanzania, it will cost you $0.30, $0.85, $1.09, and $0.61 for the amount of maize, rice, cassava and plantain, respectively mentioned above. If you are living in poverty with a per capita income of US$/day or less, what percent of your income will have to be spent just to get the energy needed for a full day’s effort. Similar analysis could be done for Afghanistan, Viet Nam, Nepal, the Philippines or Egypt.

The bottom line here is before one deems someone as idle; please make certain they have daily access to sufficient diet to do the work envisioned. If they don’t have a 5000 calorie diet, maybe the people considered idle are as idle as one of those Massy 165 farm tractors, scattered around smallholder communities in many parts of Africa, that are out of diesel and operating on deferred maintenance so they are long over due for a good servicing and other attention needed for efficient operations. Male idleness is most likely hunger and exhaustion, and that needs to be clearly determined before making any effort to mobilize it for value-chained projects.

These look like fairly basic computations. The basic information on caloric requirements and caloric content for various foods is readily available from numerous internet websites. This would be mostly a desk effort plus some quick field studies to see what typical beneficiary’s consumption is. How much time, effort, and expense relative to the investment in projects attempting to mobilize male idleness would it take to make these studies and confirm the investment has the potential for sustainable success? It is therefore somewhat surprising they are not included in the documentation for many of the projects that propose value chain marketing of high value, high risk, and quality sensitive crops based on mobilized male idleness. These calorie balancing computations should be included in future project documentation so people are not committed to work on empty tanks. Unless, the project objective is more what can be promoted for the smallholders’ benefits, than what can actually be accomplished. Perhaps, those committing public funds without requesting these basic computations should be compelled to back the commitment with personal financial resources.

Last Revised: 4 July 2007

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