In need of reform: USAID's agriculture programs

Smallholder farmers in Madagascar learn about new agricultural technologies with the help of a project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Photo by: Jennifer Hyman / Land O’Lakes / CC BY-NC

It would be nice if the U.S. Agency for International Development took advantage of sequestration to substantially review it programs to make certain they are effective and fully appreciated by the intended beneficiaries.

This is particularly important for rural development projects emphasizing the cooperative business model and value chains. Such a review might quickly recognize that while these programs can be socially desirable, they are also often too administratively cumbersome and to inconvenient to attract widespread participation on the part of beneficiaries.

Instead, smallholder farmers wisely take the bulk of their business elsewhere, leaving projects with negligible overall contribution to the communities they intend to serve.

Traditional service providers that comprise the village-based family enterprise system have a more symbiotic relationship with the smallholder farmers they are meant to serve  the traditional agro dealers providing input and buying crops, for instance, or those providing contract services for mechanized tillage or threshing and cleaning grain. All of them enhance the value chain at the farm level, allowing the farmer to maintain substantial control by enhancing yields from more timely crop establishment, to enhance crop recovery with more complete threshing, and to improve quality by providing a cleaner bag of grain to traders.

Also, there is a need to take a closer look at the available labor in smallholder communities as it might relate to limited caloric intake. In a recent value chain workshop in Ethiopia, an exercise on dietary energy balance indicated causal agriculture laborers might be able to afford a diet on only 3,000 calories per day. In this case, after deducting the 2,000 calories for basic metabolism, the energy for work would be only 1,000 calories, which would limit the diligent workday to only 4.5 hours.

How will that impact on the timing of any agronomic innovations, particularly that emphasizing labor intensification? There is the need to promote drudgery relief, through contract tractors or other forms of mechanization, for instance.

The real need here is for monitoring and evaluation officers to carefully review the criteria they are looking at. Instead of measuring what can be easily publicized, they should emphasize the degree to which beneficiaries are relying on project services to meet their needs.

This would penetrate the substantial amount of “spin” reporting that has prevailed for decades, making projects with minimal impact appear highly successful.

It is the government’s mandate, as the steward of public funds, to take an honest look at such “biased” reporting and make certain tax dollars invested in poverty alleviation are effectively used. This could initially prove highly embarrassing, but would ultimately lead to more effective projects that better serve the people.

It could substantially increase poverty alleviation objectives and save programs that will be greatly missed if caught in the current sequestration.

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About the author

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    Dick Tinsley

    Richard Tinsley is an agronomist and soil scientist with more than 30 years of international experience working with smallholder communities in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. He is the author of "Developing Smallholder Agriculture: A Global Perspective," manages the website and is particularly interested in calorie energy balance and the cooperative business model.

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