Poverty limits what farmers can do to protect and rehabilitate their lands from desertification and drought. Most poverty is rural, and most of the rural poor are engaged in agriculture (Lipton 2002; UN 2001). Since the poor typically spend more than half of their incomes on food, stimulus to the agricultural sector can provide them with a double benefit. They gain as food producers (through more employment and higher incomes) and also as food consumers (through more affordable food).
Leading experts are convinced that agricultural development can be a powerful force for poverty reduction, if it is specifically designed to help the most needy (Fan et al. 2000a, b; Hazell and Haddad 2001; Lipton 2002; Lewis 2003; Meinzen-Dick et al. 2003).
The New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), Africa's self-developed plan for renewal, concurs with this view. Agriculture is a priority for policy reforms and increased investment in NEPAD's Programme of Action, and agricultural research is an Area of Primary Action in NEPAD's Comprehensive Africa Agricultural Development Programme (CAADP).
Despite this consensus of the global and the African communities, international aid to agricultural development fell from about a third of total development assistance in the 1970s to one-tenth by the turn of the century (Lipton 2002). This causes the rural poor to fall even further behind their urban counterparts, and makes them less able to make the investments needed to sustain and improve their dryland farms and herds.
Research: a catalyst for pro-poor development
To most effectively help the poor, agricultural development must be backed by a solid understanding of their situation. Many dynamics need to be taken into account so that solutions are appropriate and relevant. These include such aspects as their livelihood activities and strategies, their needs and values, the functioning of markets, climatic constraints and potentials, cropping systems and natural resources, ecological parameters of sustainability, government policies and institutions, and many others.
From this understanding, research can bring about new innovations in the fields of policy, technology, capacity-building and institutional improvement. This vital understanding and innovation is created through 'research-for-development' (R4D).
The innovations emerging from R4D can deliver very high returns on the development investment because they transform agricultural systems in fundamental ways (Sachs 2002). Public-sector R4D is particularly important because it focuses on the poor who are a low priority for the private sector. When pursued on an international scale, the results can be stunning.
The achievements of the fifteen international agricultural research Centers supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and their partners over the past three decades form a prime example. The CGIAR System's three-decade (1971-2001) investment of US$7.1 billion was estimated to have returned approximately $65 billion in benefits from just three easily-documented research areas-an extraordinary 34% annual return on investment (Raitzer 2003). Most of these benefits are believed to have reached the poor, mostly through lower food prices and increased small farm incomes.
In fact, this estimate is believed to be quite conservative, because (i) it considers only a subset of all CGIAR impacts (attributed against total CGIAR System cost), (ii) it does not include 'multiplier effects', e.g. how these impacts stimulated additional growth in the non-farm economy (Hazell and Haddad 2001); and (iii) it does not include a wide array of qualitative impacts, such as human capacity building, adding to the scientific knowledge base, building more effective national institutions etc. The estimate also does not take into account spillover benefits captured by the developed countries, which far exceeds their investment cost in the CGIAR Centers (Brennan et al. 2003).
Despite this impressive track record, the CGIAR's core budget for assisting the entire developing world is just half that of a single private sector company, Monsanto (Sachs 2002). Increased investment would accelerate progress in the fight against desertification while helping the dryland poor improve their lives and livelihoods.
Brennan, J. P., Aw-Hassan, A. and Nordblom, T. 2003. Influence of spillovers to Australia on impacts of the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas. Food Policy 28:471-485.
Fan, S., Hazell, P. and Haque, T. 2000a. Targeting public investments by agro-ecological zone to achieve growth and poverty alleviation goals in rural India. Food Policy 25: 411-428.
Fan, S., Zhang, L., and Zhang, X. 2000b. Growth and Poverty in Rural China: The Role of Public Investments. Environment and Production Technology Division Discussion Paper No. 66. Washington, D.C.: International Food Policy Research Institute.
Hazell, P. and Haddad, L. 2001. Agricultural Research and Poverty Reduction. Food, Agriculture, and the Environment Discussion Paper 34. Washington, DC: International Food Policy Research Institute.
Lewis, A. 2003. Revitalizing the drive for rural infrastructure. IFPRI Forum Sept. 2003:1-12. Washington DC: International Food Policy Research Institute.
Lipton, M. 2002. What productive resources do the poor really need to escape poverty? Pp. 66-71 in Sustainable Food Security for All by 2020: Proceedings of an International Conference, Sept. 4-6, 2001, Bonn, Germany. Washington, D.C.: International Food Policy Research Institute.