Millions Fed: Proven Successes in Agricultural Development

What can we learn?

Source: © National Dairy Development Board
Smallholder dairy producers measure milk, India

How can the successes of the past help inform and influence agricultural investments that will contribute to substantially reducing hunger in the future? A few reflections are offered here.

Success is not a substitute for strategy. Individual successes at any size or scale must stimulate broader and more sustained processes of national and global success building. But these processes are feasible only if countries pursue good strategies, create supporting policies, and encourage the appropriate levels of investment and experimentation needed to accumulate successes that eventually add up to a sustained success. Without these necessary conditions, successes will likely be scattered, occasional events—outcomes of an unexpected scientific breakthrough or a one-off policy correction.

Success is a process. As such, successes are generated and sustained through experiential processes. This means discovering by doing, learning from mistakes, and adapting to change. The importance of designing an intervention that allows for learning and adaptation can increase the likelihood of success.

Success is recognizable. Sometimes successes emerge only in retrospect, once a substantial amount of time has passed to allow for reflection. But for successes in agricultural development to be recognized as such, they need to be sufficiently supported by strong evidence. Successes in agricultural development—and failures too—need to be systematically documented, examined, and shared so that others can learn lessons, adapt them to different circumstances and contexts, or avoid similar pitfalls.

Success is not unambiguous. In many cases, it is immediately obvious that there is no such thing as an “unequivocal success.” Many successes are often accompanied by some type of trade-off.

Unfortunately, this ambiguity may be one reason why agricultural development became such an unpopular topic among both governments and donors in the 1980s, along with other reasons such as donor fatigue, bureaucratic intransigence, and weak private sector responses. As a result, public investment and donor assistance declined precipitously during this period: agricultural research spending stagnated while rural infrastructure development came to a halt in many developing countries.

Yet investments in agricultural development have generated sizable dividends for society, demonstrating that agriculture is not only an important means of reducing poverty, but also a worthwhile investment portfolio.