Bill Gates, co-founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, at the FAO headquarters. Photo by: Alessandra Benedetti / ©FAO

Few challenges are as complex as reducing global hunger. No wonder, then, that Bill Gates stirred up debate with his suggestion to score international donors on their agricultural programs.

“The goal is to move from examples of success to sustainable productivity increases to hundreds of millions of people moving out of poverty,” Gates said Feb. 23 at a gathering of food security leaders in Rome. “If we hope to meet that goal, it must be a goal we share. We must be coordinated in our pursuit of it. We must embrace more innovative ways of working toward it. And we must be willing to be measured on our results.”

His focus on innovation, coordination and evaluation isn’t new.

Ten years ago, Vernon W. Ruttan, the well-known economist and expert in agricultural development, wrote in the Journal of Economic Perspectives: “If the world fails to meet its food demands in the next half-century, the failure will be at least as much in the area of institutional innovation as in the area of technical change. This conclusion is not an optimistic one. The design of institutions capable of achieving compatibility between individual, organizational and social objectives remains an art rather than a science.”

Ruttan added: “At our present stage of knowledge, institutional design is analogous to driving down a four-lane highway looking out the rear-view mirror. We are better at making course corrections when we start to run off the highway than at using foresight to navigate the transition to sustainable growth in agricultural output and productivity.”

Here’s the rub: What exactly should be measured on an agricultural scorecard?

Gates stayed mum on the point last week, but he indicated that he’s working on a plan — and he wants the U.N. food agencies to adopt “scorecards of progress” by the end of the year.

The World Food ProgramFood and Agriculture Organization and International Fund for Agricultural Development, he said, should “work together to create a global productivity target for small farmers — and a system of public scorecards to measure how countries, food agencies, and donors are contributing toward the overall goal of reducing poverty.”

Over the past 50 years, the development of high-yield cereal grain varieties has kept millions from starving. Improvements in irrigation and the distribution of hybridized seeds, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to farmers have boosted productivity. And yet, in the past 20 years, productivity growth in global agriculture has slowed down markedly due to challenges with soil, water, pest and climate.

The Gates Foundation already uses scorecards for its vaccination programs, and many other aid groups are moving in the same direction, setting numerical targets for their work — often to the chagrin of implementers facing ever-changing reporting requirements.

So the design of any scorecard will be controversial. Will it encourage the use of genetically engineered seeds, new farming technologies, solar power, reforestation? If — as the saying goes — you teach a man (or woman) to fish, how do you ensure that person gains access to the local well? What about transport, storage and trade? And what are the added costs of having people live longer and procreate?

“A non-technology solution centered on regenerative agriculture would employ more people as producers of food, less of an energy and resource drain on the Planet Earth and a far better chance of a long and happy future for the human race,” wrote Jim Boak in response to a post by Bill Gates on the Impatient Optimists blog.

Lakna Paranawithana chimed in from Colombo, Sri Lanka, posting on the Devex Facebook wall: “Why can’t these ‘donor’ organizations work with the private sector according to private sector work ethics? Let the governments set rules and monitor and allow the private sector to act in the field. All these smallholders targeted are linked ultimately to private sector-managed supply chains and value chains.”

Kamaua Bareua, a retired civil servant, relayed his experience seeing “trials after trials, projects after projects, yet no significant progress ever achieved” in Kiribati.

Aid groups and civil society have a unique chance now to influence the conversation on sustainable development in the run-up to Rio+20, the U.N. gathering coming up in June. Bill Gates’ speech in Rome was a welcome reminder.

Read last week’s Development Buzz.

About the author

  • Rolf Rosenkranz

    Rolf Rosenkranz oversees a talented team of in-house journalists, correspondents and guest contributors located around the globe. Since joining Devex in early 2008, Rolf has been instrumental in growing its fledgling news operation into the leading online source for global development news and analysis. Previously, Rolf was managing editor at Inside Health Policy, a subscription-based news service in Washington. He has reported from Africa for the Johannesburg-based Star and its publisher, Independent News & Media, as well as the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, a German daily.