Millions Fed: Proven Successes in Agricultural Development

Why did it work?

Source: © Helen Keller International
Smallholder poultry farming, Bangladesh

The successes in agricultural development highlighted here provide insights that are important to those directly and indirectly involved in policy, programs, and investments in agriculture.

Science and technology. Sustained investment in agricultural research and development is vital to developing-country agriculture. The application of science and technology to agricultural development—whether by developing advanced techniques for crop breeding or updating farmers’ traditional soil and water management practices—is a common determinant of success. The critical role of long-term public investment in science and technology plays out across the entire developing world and across a range of successes from major food crops to lesser-known crops and to livestock and fisheries.

Complementary investments. Still, science and technology are not enough: sustained public investment in the hardware and software of agricultural development is also critical. This includes public investment in irrigation schemes, rural road networks, rural education, market infrastructure, and regulatory systems. Long-term public investment in the building blocks of agricultural development is a necessary condition for success and is evident in each and every success case.

Private incentives. But even with sustained public investment in science, technology, and complementary investment areas, little can be achieved without the right incentives. By putting policies in place that encourage farmers, entrepreneurs, and companies to invest in agriculture, and by ensuring that markets provide accurate and timely price signals to these private sector actors, the likelihood of success in agricultural development increases.

Cooperation and collaboration. Partnerships among diverse actors in the agricultural sector—research institutes, community-based organizations, private companies, government agencies, and international bodies—are evident in almost all successes. But collaborative interventions are a tricky business and require know-how in managing public and private resources effectively, orchestrating foreign assistance and community resources, and managing relationships among sometimes disparate interest groups.

Timing and planning. Many successes result from good timing, whether by chance or design. In some cases, the time was simply right for the intervention—the technological, economic, social, and political elements were all in place. In other cases, the intervention was adjusted to ensure that the timing was right: gradual reforms were undertaken step-by-step, calculated measurements of the potential gains and losses were carried out, and a strong degree of support was provided to those affected by the reforms.

Experimentation and evolution. Often, successes emerge from localized experiments that allow participants to learn from their mistakes, adapt to changes in the landscape, evolve as the playing field becomes more complex, and pursue incremental, step-by-step approaches to scaling up. Creating space for local experimentation and innovation is a critical means of generating big bangs from incremental changes.

Community involvement. Relatedly, by vesting communities with a stake in ownership of a development process, grassroots participation contributes much to the long-term sustainability of a success. Involving communities and smaller groups in local consultations, policy deliberations, scientific research, and experimentation is all part of building from the bottom-up to achieve success. Similarly, involving local practices, customs, and knowledge in an intervention are the seeds of big successes.

Leadership and dedication. Often, the solutions needed to address agricultural development challenges require dedicated individuals to make the difference—champions to push the issue to the forefront of the public’s consciousness, demonstrate what can be done in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges, or mobilize the political and financial capital to overcome inertia. These champions, both renowned and anonymous, are essential ingredients of success. Creating an environment that encourages leadership on such issues and rewards individuals based on their merit is important to creating success.