Building Local Skills and Knowledge for Food Security

February 13, 2006

Experts are increasingly aware that efforts to promote development and improve food security in poor countries cannot succeed in the long run without well-qualified local individuals and institutions to provide right incentives for, motivate, and manage these efforts. Building this local capacity is now seen as an essential task for governments and international agencies, but it is a challenge.

Once again rains have failed Malawi. As it struggles through its fourth consecutive year of drought, relief agencies are dusting off urgent appeals for emergency food assistance. If enough aid does not arrive soon, they warn, some 5 million people risk going hungry in Malawi and across a large swath of southern Africa.

Yet the dry weather and slow donor response only partially explain Malawi’s food dilemma, experts say. Millions of development dollars have poured into the country over the years, yet poverty is worsening. Even as maize and other staples grown by small farmers shrivel and die from lack of rain, cash crops like tobacco and sugar cane flourish in eastern Malawi, partly irrigated by the waters of a giant lake.

Such paradoxes suggest Malawi is a victim not simply of bad luck and poor natural resources, but rather of ill-designed policy and poor planning and management-and a dearth of capacity to reverse its predicament.

“Donor dollars that have been spent over the last 40 years have not in any way strengthened the country’s ability to cope-not only with natural disasters but with chronic food deficits,” says Suresh Babu, senior research fellow in IFPRI’s ISNAR Division, who spent years in Malawi trying to develop the country’s food security capacity. “The money has been spent to run projects, not to build sustainable institutions or capacity.”

Malawi is hardly an isolated case. Countries across the developing world are stunted not only by physical constraints like drought or desertification, but also by a lack of skilled individuals and effective organizations that can help lift these countries from poverty to prosperity. Without this human and institutional capacity, many developing countries have difficulty making the best use of resources they have and implementing policies that could help their poorest people.

Building capacity for food security involves enhancing the ability of individuals, groups, organizations, and communities to sustainably meet their food and nutrition security challenges. It means developing skilled, creative, and motivated individuals and establishing effective institutions, both governmental and nongovernmental, to engage people in problem solving. It means fostering teamwork among farmers, extension agents, and scientists-and often among different government ministries and nations. And it demands donor commitment to bankrolling initiatives that offer few immediate, tangible paybacks.

Until recently, foreign donors and developing-country governments have treated capacity building as an afterthought. That is particularly true in Africa. Despite millions of dollars in bilateral aid channeled to capacity building over the years, “weakness in governance and capacity is the central cause of Africa’s difficult experience over the last decade,” the Commission on Africa, an advisory body appointed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, concluded in a March report.

Crises like Malawi’s are fostering new soul searching within the development community and a reappraisal of the importance of capacity building. African universities and research institutions, for example, are beginning to team up in regional initiatives, with the idea that pooled resources will offer better payoffs than individual efforts.

Yet capacity building is not only about learning skills and techniques, but about becoming empowered, especially at local levels. As democracy takes root in Africa, citizens are pressuring governments to respond to their needs, thus enhancing another aspect of capacity building.

A Problematic Legacy

Why has capacity building been so problematic? Analysts offer a myriad of reasons and note that, in many cases, poor countries and rich donors alike share the blame.

Many African governments have traditionally nurtured bloated and under-functioning bureaucracies, rather than forming cadres of motivated, qualified, and well-paid civil servants. Not surprisingly, their best and brightest citizens are disappearing in droves. The World Bank estimates that roughly 70,000 African scholars and experts leave their home countries each year-many of them bound for better-paying jobs in the West.

Development projects have also failed to tie together the needed components for success. When it comes to agricultural development, scientists at research institutions and universities often do not communicate with extension workers and farmers who could then offer feedback about which new seed varieties or fertilizers work and which don’t.

Moreover, the quality of research institutes and universities in many countries is uneven at best. Efforts to build up regional capacity-such as a new agricultural economics program spanning eastern and southern Africa-are only beginning to take off.

“There are problems, that’s for sure,” says Moctar Kone, an agricultural economics professor at the University of Bamako, who also works as a higher-education adviser. “People are talking a lot about biotechnology. And there’s a lot of talk about irrigation, and about agricultural economy. But there aren’t many Malians who are trained in these disciplines.”

In China, the quality of research has improved dramatically in recent years, thanks to better training and incentives like good salaries for scholars. Still, in some fields gaping holes remain. “In China, we have trained thousands of agricultural economists, but only a small percentage are of high quality,” says Jikun Huang, director of the Beijing-based Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy, offering one example. “We need a critical mass of good people working together. But what you have now is one good person working in one university, and another good person working in another.”

Donors have also relied too heavily on foreign expertise to carry out development projects, analysts say, rather than spending the time building local skills. Expatriates have sometimes been perceived as able to do the job more effectively, but they often lack the in-country experience needed to understand local problems and find appropriate solutions. And when the expatriates return home, developing countries are left with little capacity.

Many donors are also pressured to deliver swift and concrete results for the aid money they spend: Vaccinating infants, for example, offers more immediate returns than funding long-term capacity-strengthening initiatives like Ph.D. programs.

“Capacity building is a long-term process with the payoffs several years down the line. And that’s something that most donors have found either difficult to support or, unfortunately, unexciting,” says Gary Toenniessen, head of the Rockefeller Foundation’s agricultural science division, in New York.

In the case of Malawi, building capacity would help prevent drought-related famines in the future. Dry weather also plagued the country in 1991-92. Yet widespread disaster was averted by a well-orchestrated mix of government foresight, famine preparedness, and a prompt regional response to the looming disaster, along with regional supplies of food aid and good delivery systems to get it to those who needed it.

But there are plenty of reasons why Malawi has not learned from its past, says IFPRI’s Babu. In the decade between the country’s two droughts, government and donors shifted their priorities to basic education and other sectors. A high-level government food security and nutrition unit declined and ultimately shut down from neglect. Donors offered small farmers short-term “starter packs” of seeds and fertilizer rather than long-term solutions like irrigation systems. Political corruption flourished. Rainfall during the mid- to late 1990s was adequate, if not plentiful. When drought returned a few years later, both the government and donors were woefully unprepared.

Malawi also offers a bleak example of another capacity-building challenge. HIV/AIDS is decimating the ranks of policymakers, researchers, extension agents, and farmers. “Many of the people I meet are affected by HIV/AIDS, either ill themselves or caring for others,” aid worker Anita Payne told the BBC in 2003, assessing other reasons for the country’s chronic food shortages. “Some are too weak to work in their fields.”

If local capacity building continues to be neglected in Malawi and elsewhere, the Blair commission warned in its report on Africa, “all other reforms, in international trade, debt, and aid-essential though these reforms are-will have only limited impact.”

What’s Needed: Capacity for Agricultural Research, Extension, and Education

Changing the trend, however, may seem overwhelming. Where should developing nations begin? Asked to name five steps to building capacity for achieving food security in developing countries, Cornell University professor Per Pinstrup-Andersen names just two. First, he says, many states must invest more in research. The average research investment in poorer countries-one-half of 1 percent of the value of agricultural output-is ten times less than that in the United States, he says. Pinstrup-Andersen also calls for the creation of “innovation systems” linking researchers, extension agents, farmers, and nongovernmental organizations. Beyond that, each country must figure out what its capacity needs are and how to solve them, he says. Cookie-cutter approaches don’t work. Still, Pinstrup-Andersen adds, “if those two steps were accomplished, we’d be on our way.”

Some countries already are. Capacity building has been more successful in Asian countries such as India. When the Green Revolution arrived in the 1950s and 1960s, says Babu, India had what many African countries still lack: a basic level of capacity to absorb and build on technical advances.

Today, Indian scientists have moved far beyond the research strides that produced bumper crops 40 years ago. In the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, for example, the new silver bullets are genetically modified seeds that are expected to boost yields of cotton, eggplant, and bananas grown by local farmers. Crafted by scientists at Tamil Nadu Agricultural University and private seed companies, the new seed varieties are part of a larger effort to build bonds between researchers, extension agents, and local farmers.

Postdoctoral fellows trained in Western laboratories form the core faculty of the university’s 15-year-old graduate program in biotechnology and research. They trained fellow professors and together churned out some 150 Masters and Ph.D. graduates to date.

But that is only part of the story. University field centers across the state of Tamil Nadu disseminate new seeds and know-how to extension agents and farmers. The innovations include experiments in tissue culture to produce more uniform and abundant bananas. “Now most farmers in Tamil Nadu want this tissue culture for their banana crops,” says university vice chancellor Chinnasamy Ramasamy.

More broadly, the US$100 million Rockefeller initiative created a network of Asian specialists in genetic research, who received training and other assistance from Western laboratories. Claiming mission accomplished, the foundation began phasing out much of its funding for the program in 1999.

Some, however, believe Western support should continue. “We want to go across more crops,” Ramasamy says. “The support helps us keep interacting with many universities in the West, and also the laboratories and many multinational companies.”

Local training efforts like Tamil Nadu’s are also one way to strengthen agricultural research and education at a time when foreign options are drying up. “The costs of overseas training have gone up, so there’s a lot of concern by USAID and other places about sending people to the U.S.” for higher-level training, says John Staatz, an agricultural economics professor at Michigan State University.

The brain drain from Africa and other developing countries has only increased donor reluctance to bankroll expensive graduate programs overseas. At Michigan State, Staatz estimates that up to 3 out of 10 agricultural economics students do not return home after obtaining their graduate degrees-although many of them end up working for international organizations or in another developing country.

As in Asia, some African countries are also beginning to search for local solutions. In October, for example, classes began for a regional master’s degree program in agricultural economics, involving 16 universities in eastern and southern Africa. “Individual universities didn’t have the capacity to offer the courses,” explains coordinator Willis Oluoch-Kosura.

Under the program facilitated by IFPRI, students first study in their national universities before spending a third semester at the University of Pretoria, in South Africa. The price tag for a graduate degree-paid through a combination of tuition fees and grants-is a fraction of that charged by many universities in the West.

Distance learning offers another way to stretch limited educational resources. The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) recently launched a distance learning initiative called the Global Open Food and Agriculture University, which provides course materials, faculty training, and other help to strengthen agricultural programs in developing countries.

Reaching-and Teaching-Farmers

Figuring out the next step-transferring the knowledge from universities and research laboratories to productivity gains in farmers’ fields-remains a challenge for many nations. China, for example, has drastically reduced poverty and malnutrition in its countryside. But it has yet to develop a strong extension service that can teach millions of small farmers how to flourish rather than simply to survive.

“There is no developed public service that would allow farmers to learn about marketing requirements-how to produce and meet quality and safety requirements sought by the consumers,” says Andrzej Kwiencinski, an expert on Chinese agricultural policy at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris. “This is still a missing component that should be provided by the government.”

Patchy extension services remain the norm in large parts of Africa as well. But some development projects are finding ways to reach farmers anyway. In West Africa, for example, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics is teaching farmers about better ways to grow millet, sorghum, and other crops through farmer training workshops. The regional initiative currently covers half a dozen West African countries.

Addressing past failures in providing extension, many countries have started to reform their national extension systems, with the aim of empowering farmers and assuring that extension agents meet farmers’ needs. In Uganda, for example, farmers’ organizations can now choose from among different publicly financed providers of advisory services. The goal is to identify extension reforms that meet the specific needs of a country, because adopting “one-size-fits-all” models has been a major problem in the past. As Carl Eicher from Michigan State University notes: “The challenge for African governments is to design their own models of extension.”

To help policymakers identify extension services that meet the needs of individual countries and agricultural systems, a group of IFPRI researchers has developed a framework that covers different aspects of extension, such as governance, advisory methods, performance management, and impact on different groups of farmers, including women. The framework also includes cost-benefit analyses to evaluate different extension options.

Local media can help fill another gap: that of the public’s understanding of agricultural science and policy issues. Again, some countries have a long way to go. In Vietnam, for example, journalists may ask to be paid to cover a story, according to Nicholas Minot, a senior research fellow at IFPRI-a practice at odds with basic journalistic principles.

Good media coverage is lacking in many parts of Africa as well. Although privately owned media groups are increasing in large parts of the continent, the Blair commission notes, many of the media outlets remain government owned and controlled. That raises questions on whether sensitive issues like droughts and famine will be accurately reported.

And while agriculture is often the staple of many African economies, local news organizations often give the subject short shrift. “The media is mainly driven by big political events like conflicts,” says Patrick Luganda, editor of Farming News, a Ugandan periodical. “You find many science issues take a back page-they don’t get big attention in the papers.”

Luganda is involved in a project to train East African journalists on how to cover science and agriculture. But the initiative has progressed in fits and starts, he says, for lack of funding.

Building agricultural capacity is not an isolated process. It needs to be joined with similar capacity-building efforts in areas such as journalism, and especially in key rural-development sectors such as nutrition, health services, and primary education.

Growing Focus on Building Capacity

Still, the importance of developing capacity appears to be slowly sinking in. The new realization is partly driven by political events. Participatory democracy is putting new pressure on African governments to reduce corruption and become more accountable to their electorate. That demands effective ministries and civil servants.

Donors are also beginning to place more emphasis on capacity building. In a pair of reports published this year on general capacity-building problems in Africa, for example, the World Bank admitted that it could-and should-do more. “It has been historically a major weakness-there has been too little attention devoted to the issue and much of the capacity-building assistance has been ineffective,” said Catherine Gwin, who led an internal evaluation team that published one of the reports. Despite recent improvements, she adds, “Capacity building is not yet addressed as a core objective and donor assistance is too fragmented and uncoordinated.”

Nonetheless, the Bank and a number of bilateral donors are slowly moving away from project-by-project approaches and embracing more holistic schemes-some involving several funders and a host of national and local players. Such a strategy is helping Ghana, for example, develop an effective national health care system, Gwin said.

Other donors are further along. “In the case of the Netherlands, the awareness to include a capacity-building component in development projects in Africa and elsewhere is not new,” said Theo van de Sande, an expert at the Dutch ministry of foreign affairs. “Capacity building and capacity strengthening have always been and continue to be priorities in programs as well as projects.”

Moreover, capacity building can also build useful relations between donors and governments of developing countries. In Vietnam, for example, the current minister of agriculture and rural development was involved in an IFPRI rice-marketing study in the 1990s, Minot ofIFPRI notes. “It’s been a longtime collaboration that is very rewarding,” he says.

Yet a series of capacity-building recommendations offered by the Blair commission shows how far many countries have to go. They range from building up support for regional organizations like the African Union to ensuring that donors fully back national capacity-building strategies.

The recommendations point to the fact that local capacity has often been the essential but missing piece of the development puzzle. Without strong local expertise and institutions, developing countries are fettered in their efforts to achieve sustainable advances in development and food security.

The good news is that building local capacity by strengthening local institutions can play a large role in unleashing economic growth and reducing poverty. “When you invest in capacity,” says Babu of IFPRI, “there is no doubt that countries can catch up on development.”

Reported by Elizabeth Bryant