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Re: HLPE consultation on the V0 draft of the Report: Investing in smallholder agriculture for food and nutrition security

Catherine Laurent. Inra-SAD, France
04.02.2013
FSN Forum

This document presents a wide overview of current situation of smallholders’ situation around the world. It was a difficult challenge to prepare such a draft in such a short time and it is a good basis for further discussions. Thanks you for all this work.

The followings points are just proposals to help improve the deliveries of the groups.

1. Don’t you think that the overall objective of the report itself should be more focussed? If the aim is to provide a basis for evidence-based policies, then I feel that the document should provide an analysis of the available evidence regarding the feasibility and the effectiveness of various interventions aiming at improving investment situations for small-holders.

For the time being, the document is very much focussed on the context (the need for investments) rather than the possible solutions.

If the document wants to be a tool for evidence-based policy approaches, then it should provide governments and various stakeholders with adequate analysis to inform their policies (i.e. the tool box of EBP). At least for the sections dealing with the feasibility of the investments interventions. In particular, the analysis of the literature should use systematic procedures to select the different papers and documents used to support the analysis, the quality of the papers (and their limits) should be assessed with explicit criteria; the reference list should be presented in a more explicit way (table stating the reasons why the papers were integrated into the analysis).

It should make also clear the reasons why other papers were not considered in the analysis and/or rejected (with reference list of the papers considered but not kept for the analysis because of flaws considered as misleading). For instance, Banerjee, Duflo; or the many papers form J. Pretty, etc.

Of course it is a big work to be done. As long as the procedures and limits are explicit, it is acceptable that the analysis has limits and should be complemented and up-dated.

Maybe such a systematic procedure is not feasible in the time frame of this expertise. In that case, don’t you think that it should aim at providing very precise recommendations regarding the specific questions that should be investigated with systematic reviews?

2. The topic of the document is sometimes very wide. I agree that, at the end, every aspect of the life of the household associated to a small farm can be considered as part of small-holders investments, but don’t you feel that it might weaken the messages of the reports to have such a general approach? As a matter of fact, the two traditional items that are usually considered under this issues of ‘investments”, i.e. financial investments (and all the possible measures to reduce inequalities to access credit), and intangible investment (and measures to reduce inequalities to access agricultural technical knowledge) are diluted if all issues are considered. In particular, little specific attention is given to national extension systems.

3. The core entity of the report is unclear: smallholder? (= the farmer?) Household of the small holder? (the farmer and his/her family living on the farms? Small farm? (= the economic entity).

There are not synonymous but there are considered as such in many parts of the reports and I feel that this may be deeply misleading.

For instance, I agree that the “exclusively subsistence farmER” is a fiction, but the “exclusively subsistence FARM” is not. There are million of farms that are kept by their holder to provide only subsistence, even in the developed countries (i.e. small farms of old people whose monetary income are covered by remittance, farms of poor households having other gainful activities…). They have been eliminated too fast from this report.

Example of misleading conclusion that could be generated this wrong appreciation: if all farms are integrated into the market, thus intangible investment could be provided to all of them through the economic operators of the supply chain (inputs sellers, contracts with retailers etc.). This is not true.

4. In the same line, the farm typology that is proposed is very interesting. But, here too, I feel that, “farm”, “farmer” and “households” deserve to be better identified. I feel that the actual typology should be complemented with an additional criterion that gives information on the role assigned by the household to the farm (subsistence, medium term food/patrimony security for a whole family [the buffer role that was demonstrated before by FAO and is very important today[1]] as mentioned p.34, supplementary income in a complex system of activities and income, core economic activity to generate income for the whole household….).

To discuss the effectiveness of various modalities of interventions it is absolutely necessary to take account of these differences. For instance, some credit schemes are affordable only for people who have extra non-agricultural sources of monetary income (ex. Anseuw, Laurent 2005).

5. I feel that there is a danger to talk of “agriculture” in a broad way, without clearly identifying the national situations and the new issues.

51. First, according to the type of country the role devoted to agriculture differs. It is not possible to extrapolate learning from Japan to Africa, etc. The Japanese small scale agriculture is well known for its embedness in the Japanese welfare system (complementary income for people retired form the industry), with all the consequences it has on the policy positions of Japan in various settings (e.g. its position on the multifunctionality of agriculture). All agricultures are embedded. Of course we know it. But I feel that it is better to write it clearly. I feel that it would be wise also to always specify to which country it is referred to when a result is discussed. At least in a foot note. Even if the resulting text is less appealing form an aesthetical view point.

52. The situation of the small holders has dramatically changed over the last decade because of demographic evolution and resource scarcity. Some situations are totally new and should be considered as such (e.g. the pressure on land, on water, the impact of pesticides pollution on human health and the environment, the many market failures, etc) (see results of rural Struc). Many sentences of the report praise the qualities of small scale agriculture (e.g. “smallholder agriculture often shows an impressive productivity” p. 29, 1st par., they generate employment, “they represent an amazing capacity to adapt to the specificities of local-ecosystems and societal pattern, and to turn agriculture into a highly productive system that is essentially based on local resources” p28, etc.), without giving the limits of theses statement (where? Which reference? Which reliability of theses results? How can they be extrapolated so as to say that small scale farming is “often” like that? I feel that one should be very cautious with this type of formula that can be interpreted as a call for no support policy. Unless this level of generality is supported by robust evidence.

53. Several proposal are made regarding macroeconomic changes, e.g. to stabilize commodities prices. OK. But how? Don’t you think that the current situation of economic competition is concerning also because of the level of the price offered to small holders? Would not it be necessary to have a first step to prove, with a systematic review, the limits of investment policies when prices are fluctuant and low for several commodities? And then to discuss the possibilities (or impossibility) to support small scale farming in such a context? Why should we assume that efficient investment is possible for all smallholders, in all situations? Which evidence are they supporting this assumption?

6. Regarding the types of interventions, it could be useful to provide more evidence on statements that are quite controversial. e.g. p.40 “it is obvious that the diversity of natural and socio-economic conditions makes it impossible to define from a national level the actual investments needs of local groups or individuals”. Is it so obvious?

61. It can be very necessary to have national coordination bodies. There is no autonomy of the demand for services (Labarthe, Laurent, in Press food policy on intangible investments for small scale farms). Farmers and various stakeholders have to be informed of existing technical possibilities to efficiently interact. Neither strict top down, nor strict bottom-up are sufficient. 

62. There is an urgent and extremely important need of good knowledge bases for informing the various stakeholders (statistics, data on production situations, technical knowledge, etc.) (e.g. IAASTD…). In most of the cases, it is necessary to joint efforts at national level to create this knowledge base. It makes sense to analyse the diversity of investments needs at national level and discuss it with various stakeholders at local level.

63. To build capacities of Rural producers organizations. Yes. But which evidence is it demonstrating that the lack of producers’ organisations is the source of the problem? (And thus that’s these organisations will be the solution?) Of which problem exactly? What is at stake? The technical aspects of interventions to support investments in the small holder sector? Or the political power of various social groups to reduce basic economic inequalities? Why should we assume that if a country cannot develop adequate measures to support investments in the small holder sector it is due to an organisational failure rather than a lack of assets resulting from more fundamental sources economic inequalities at international level?

6.4. The report states that “the economic and institutional environment may enable smallholder agricultural investments or act as a profound disincentive in smallholder decisions to invest in productive dynamics” (p.49). Which is the evidence supporting this statement of “profound disincentive”?

7. Regarding the references, I can provide a set of references; but to me the main issue is to clarify the type of references that is needed and way theses references will be used (which are the criteria to assess their quality, for instance we cannot consider results form a monograph on a limited number of farms the same way as results from a large observation framework (e.g. ruralstruc)). EB tool box gives some guidelines, but here again it all depends upon the objectives of the expertises.

Thank you again for this stimulating document.

I hope I have answered to the main questions that were asked.


[1] Ref. The huge work on the roles of agriculture and the buffer role of agriculture coordinated by FAO in 2004. Country case around the world with analyses based on counterfactual hypotheses and demonstrating the buffer role of agriculture for households (All households, rural AND urban).