Boys from a village where people grow coffee as part of the Gumutindo Coffee Cooperative in Uganda. Small-holder farmers often struggle to maximize yields and negotiate a fair price for their crops. Photo by: Lutheran World Relief

One needs to look no further than the headlines to see what an insecure world we live in.

Stories from Syria, Iraq, Gaza, Somalia, Nigeria and Ukraine leave the impression that we are on a downward spiral of an ever increasing number of hotspots, with little stomach by developed countries to take a strong role in altering the outcomes. And while these crises may at times look far away from the relative calm of the United States, the reality — as shown by the immigration challenges on our southern border — is that effects are inevitably felt here at home.

The initial spark of conflict is often political in nature — oppression, poor governance, injustice  — but the economic dimension is often both an underlying cause and a main obstacle to lasting peace and stability.

Fixing this is no easy task, and requires unique and complex approaches to fit the individual circumstances of each case, and it’s worth remembering that food insecurity and rural poverty are significant contributors in many cases to the forces for instability.

So what are some of the approaches to economic development and assistance that need to be strengthened to remove the underlying hardship that often leads to conflict and violence?

Engaging at the local level

Active local participation and involvement in both identifying problems and developing solutions is imperative — this is just as true for a diplomatic endeavor as it is for a development initiative.

Without this local understanding, programs will often lack the needed buy-in and engagement to succeed, and in some cases will be counterproductive. One of the best ways to ensure this local engagement is by working with local partners for everything from design to implementation. Relief and development organizations that place an emphasis on this approach, like Lutheran World Relief and others, provide tailored solutions that build on communities' existing strengths.

In Mali, one of our most recent projects to increase the income of women shallot farmers saw phenomenal success, expanding crop yields, decreasing post-harvest losses, and increasing individual income six-fold. But before the project could even begin, the men in the community had to be convinced that women deserved access to more fertile farmland. While shallot farming had traditionally been done by women, they were relegated to the less arable land, leaving them struggling to produce a healthy crop. Our local partner organization YA-G-TU, which understood the culture, was able to convince the community to give the project a try and the men were more than convinced by the result.

Farming for the solution

Investing in smallholder farmers and their families is one of the most effective ways to fight global poverty and increase food and economic security from the ground up.

Smallholder farmers are both consumers and producers of food and should be central to discussions on food security and global food supply. With an estimated 500 million farmers globally forming a central component of our global food system, they are critical to creating a food-secure — and economically secure — future.

One can look to the coffee and cocoa sectors as a great example of how focused support to smallholder farmers can change the economics for whole communities and rural regions. About 30 million smallholder farmers produce the majority of the world’s coffee and cocoa, but they often face obstacles to maximizing their yields and capturing the full market value of their crops. This includes everything from accessing technical resources and education on environmentally responsible crop husbandry to just getting a line of credit.

With global coffee and cocoa markets valued at more than $175 billion per year, these crops hold tremendous income potential for farmers and opportunities for improving food security.

Satisfying growing global demand for coffee and cocoa and improving the lives of farmers can and should go hand in hand. NGOs working in cooperation with multinational coffee and cocoa companies are the perfect partners for helping ensure that small-scale producers have the technical assistance they need to respond to market demands and receive fair prices.

In Nicaragua, as part of a USAID-funded consortium led by Catholic Relief Services, LWR’s technical assistance to more than 1,700 coffee and cocoa farmers resulted in improved crop management, post-harvest processing, and access to markets that ultimately created more than 6,000 permanent jobs in the agriculture sector, and contributed to the generation of $19.3 million in sales of coffee and cocoa, a 73 percent increase.

Practically speaking, these results mean that people like Richard Arauz Rivas, a father of five, are able to live a more stable and fruitful life, and send their children to school without fearing how to feed them. Equally important, strengthening smallholder farmers’ and local organizations’ capacity to benefit from the global marketplace creates ripple effects across the economy and brings additional stability and security benefits.

The role of technology

Technology is not just a game-changer in the political sphere — as we saw with the Arab Spring — but can also play a pivotal role in bringing resilience and prosperity to rural areas.  

Using simple, accessible and relatively inexpensive technology can bring manifold results in terms of productivity and output as well as allow for data-driven decisions and approaches.

In Uganda, for example, LWR partnered with the Grameen Foundation to help equip farmers and on-the-ground extension agents with cell phones so that they can access real-time crop diagnostics to detect potential disease, glean the latest information on weather patterns, and determine market prices and the best opportunities for profit. Building economic opportunities in these rural areas is a critical component to helping Uganda avoid a repeat of the insecurity and upheaval so prevalent in its past.

No quick fix

While the emphasis and spotlight are often on diplomatic initiatives when conflicts flare up, such initiatives are often only band-aid solutions.

Without addressing the underlying economic causes, they are often doomed to fail over time.  Building broad-based economic opportunities, including in the rural areas, is time-consuming and resource-intensive, but there are no shortcuts to a more secure world.  

We need to engage more rather than less at the grassroots in these tough places and we need to do so with a greater sense of urgency. Not just for their sake, but for ours.

Want to learn more? Check out Feeding Development's campaign site and tweet us using #FeedingDev.

Feeding Development is an online conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with ACDI/VOCA, Chemonics, Fintrac, GAIN, Nestlé and Tetra Tech to reimagine solutions for a food-secure future from seed and soil to a healthy meal.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Daniel Speckhard

    Daniel Speckhard is president and CEO of Lutheran World Relief. A former U.S. ambassador to Greece and Belarus, with a history of government service under both Republican and Democratic administrations, Speckhard has also served as deputy assistant secretary general at NATO and deputy chief of mission in Iraq, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and senior advisor to Palantir Technologies.