By Megan Rowling
One common argument in favour of boosting aid to struggling small farmers is that they didn't get much of it during the 1990s and the first few years of the 21st century.
Figures from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) show that the share of official development assistance (ODA) going to agriculture, forestry and fishing peaked at a record high of 20 percent in 1979 before steadily declining to a record low of 3.7 percent in 2006.
It then started to pick up again, and has since enjoyed a boost from renewed international attention on farmers following the 2008 food price crisis, pledges made at the 2009 G8 summit under the L'Aquila Food Security Initiative, and a realisation of the threat to yields from climate change.
But researchers with the London-based Overseas Development Institute say the picture isn't quite so simple.
While the general trends are broadly true, "the extent of the decline has been exaggerated by the limitations of the method used to classify aid to agriculture, and the recent recovery has been exaggerated by the merging of this type of aid with broader efforts to address food insecurity", argue Lidia Cabral and John Howell in a recent briefing paper.
The poor-quality data results from the difficulty of capturing changes in policies to support farming, as well as problems in identifying the agricultural component within broader aid programmes focusing on rural livelihoods and food security, the authors say.
For example, in the 1980s, efforts to help farmers shifted from a narrow focus on boosting production to a more holistic approach to rural development. In the 1990s, the aim was to increase profits for rural producers targeting export markets through privatisation and market liberalisation. Then, at the end of that decade, aid was invested in improving the local business environment, developing value chains and widening access to credit.
The ODI paper says these policy shifts can be seen either as a progressive move away from agriculture or as structural strengthening of the sector. Either way, "conventional measures of aid to agriculture fail to capture these strategic shifts, reinforcing instead the interpretation of donor neglect", it notes.
On top of that, donors all have different ways of classifying and reporting their aid, meaning that some of the information gets "lost in translation" between their own records and international aid tracking systems like that of the OECD.
The paper argues that these issues of omission and inconsistency matter because they block improvements in accountability and transparency, and make it hard to measure the effectiveness of aid for agriculture and food security.
If you use a method of recalculating agriculture assistance that adds in a proportion of aid to related sectors, developed by ODI, it more than doubles the amount falling into the OECD aid category for agriculture, forestry and fishing in the period 1995-2009, for example.
The ODI researchers advocate for an aid measurement methodology that incorporates the different interventions needed to reach policy objectives across agriculture, rural development and food security.
"Now that agriculture and food aid volumes are on the rise, it is time to concentrate on delivering assistance that has a real purpose and that comes under close scrutiny to ensure that it achieves its goals," they conclude.
One interesting recent proposal from Bill Gates, whose foundation has given grants of more than $2 billion to help smallholder farmers since 2006, is for the international agricultural community to work together to create a global productivity target for small farmers, in tandem with a system of public scorecards to measure how countries, food agencies and donors are contributing towards the overall goal of reducing poverty.
“The goal is to move from examples of success to sustainable productivity increases to hundreds of millions of people moving out of poverty,” Gates told a Rome meeting of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) in late February. “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.
ODI's Cabral said in a blog that donor scorecards could help build a framework for subjecting global pledges to improve agriculture in poor countries to rigorous accountability checks.
Whatever method the world opts for, understanding more about what's being spent on farmers, where and how would at least shine a brighter light on the biggest gaps in agricultural aid and what must be done to fill them.