Small Scale Farming: Do NGOs Help or Hinder?

Bill Vorley: Work with small scale farming strategies.

Bill Vorley: Work with small scale farming strategies.

London, 20 March 2013. A new study on how NGOs work with small developing country farmers asserts that many programmes do not bring direct benefits to the farmers, despite best intentions. At best fewer than one in ten farmers see any benefit from many programmes, says Dr. Bill Vorley, previously the director of the Food and Agriculture Program, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, USA.

“Contrary to the prevailing narrative and what NGOs, policymakers and donors expect, interventions that aim to upgrade small-scale farmers into high-value, formal supply chains … tend to benefit only two to ten per cent of farmers,” says Vorley, co-author of the HIVOS report. 

Prepared by the Humanist Institute for Cooperation with Developing Countries (HIVOS) and the IIED, the report points out that many conventional efforts to make markets work for poor farmers fail to operate in tune with the ways such farmers themselves work.

“Most small-scale farmers combine farming with other activities and trade more in informal rather than formal markets – and rarely through cooperatives or producer organisations that connect with modern markets,” say Vorley and his co-authors.

“Rather than being a problem that needs to be fixed, informality can provide the space for small-scale farmers to actually find and build flexibility and resilience,” they say.

The report was put together with data from Central America, the Andes, East Africa, India and Indonesia, and help from the Mainumby Ñakurutú Research Centre in Bolivia. The researchers found that dynamic local, national and regional markets in developing nations give small-scale farmers options well beyond those that conventional western high-value, global supply chains offer.

It points out that international expectations for the world’s half-billion small farmers are growing, against a very dynamic backdrop. China alone has some 189 million farms of under two hectares, representing 98% of all farms in the country, and small-scale farming is expected to continue to make a significant contribution to issues like poverty reduction and food security as well as in climate change adaptation. Meanwhile, farmers themselves are facing and effecting changes in markets, in land and other resources, and in the demographics of rural communities.

Flexibility and resilience in small scale farming needs to be kept even with newer strategies.

Flexibility and resilience in small scale farming needs to be kept even with newer strategies.

With agriculture rising to the top of many development agendas, there are opportunities for smallholders to gain real benefits from globalised markets - but also the risk that poorly designed policies and strategies implemented by agencies outside the farming communities themselves could fail to bring realistic benefits.

Factors that are often not considered include the increase in local buyers as people become more wealthy, increased trade between developing nations and a growth in urban markets - rather than simply plugging into global supply chains. “Informality has its downsides,” says Vorley. “But it can bring small-scale farmers great benefits – in market access, flexibility and even market power.”

At the same time, many small-scale farmers are modernising in their own ways. Rather than rejecting or fully joining modern, globalised markets they are combining aspects of them with existing informal structures, culture and traditions. As Vorley points out, many external policies tend to ignore this in favour of only formal, global structures. Polocies that take account this informality (while addressing its downsides) would benefit far more farmers than the current small percentage, he says.

Co-author Ethel Del Pozo-Vergnes, a senior researcher at IIED, agrees it would be better for governments, donors, development agencies and big business to work on understanding and supporting the small-scale strategies that farmers are already using.

“These days .. much of the advice sees small-scale farmers as entrepreneurs who could establish stronger positions in modern markets by organising, cutting out the middlemen and through inclusive businesses,” she says. “These are powerful and useful ideas, but they won’t necessarily suit everyone,” she adds.

The report also draws attention to a key issue: the fact that fewer young people will want to farm tomorrow. Vorley and his team note that NGOs working in the area need to adjust policies to fit with this changing and complex reality. “This is to (not only) get the future right regarding agricultural production and consumption but also youth employment,” he says.

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Photos courtesy of IIED.