FAO Helping the Hungry to Feed Themselves: The Special Programme for Food Security (SPFS)


Many people are surprised that some of the hungriest people in the world are farmers. In developing countries, about three quarters of the families who suffer from poverty and chronic hunger live in rural areas, their livelihoods depending directly or indirectly on farming or fishing. Their poverty and hunger is often due to lack of access to enough land of good quality, but, even where land is available, they may have difficulty in bringing it into good use. Many small farmers simply cannot raise the capital required to bring about improvements which could increase their output, and so improve food supplies for the family and raise some income. Others may not have the know-how to raise production or may be concerned that, if they are successful in producing higher yields, they may not be able to sell the surplus at a price which rewards them for all the extra work and expense. In some countries, particularly where rainfall is low and erratic, the risks of crop failure and death of livestock - the pastoralist's main asset - are always present. And, as coastal populations rise, near-shore fish stocks come under pressure and the catch per fisherman goes down.

In the worst situations, rural people are caught in a hunger trap from which it is difficult to escape. They may have to sell their output at harvest time when prices are low so as to raise funds to pay off debts or meet urgent expenses, and what is left in their stores is not enough to see the family through to the next harvest: they cut back on food consumption and then lack the energy to till and plant their land, with the result that the next crop is smaller and the noose tightens. We can see this happening now on a vast scale in southern Africa, where millions of rural people have been brought to the brink of famine because they simply do not have the resilience to cope with two successive crop failures.

In almost every developing country the agricultural sector is dominated by enormous numbers of small farmers. In Africa alone, it is estimated that there are some 70 million such farming families. They produce not only most of the staple crops and livestock

products such as eggs, milk and meat, but they are often also the main producers of
commodities for export, such as rubber, tea, cotton, spices, fresh vegetables, beef and fish. If the productivity of the small farmer sector can be improved, this has an enormous impact throughout the economy. The most immediate benefit is felt by the farmers' immediate family in terms of a higher level of food intake and possibly some funds for meeting other expenditure essential for a healthy life, as well as funds for reinvestment on the farm. But it has a ripple effect throughout the local economy, making more goods, including staple foods, available in the markets, creating new job opportunities not just on the farms but also in buying and selling farm products and in processing and transport. When looked at from a national viewpoint, increased farm output can help to cut import bills and raise earnings from exports.

One of the problems facing governments in stimulating the development of small farms is that it means influencing the decisions of millions of individual families, many of whom live in remote areas, far from the main roads. The task is complicated even further, because options for improvement are very location-specific, indeed usually family-specific. Even if their land is identical in quality and size, a large family with several able-bodied adults and perhaps some draft animals is faced with a completely different set of options from a family composed mainly of elderly people and children who have had to sell their livestock to meet medical or school expenses, as is the case in many communities with a high incidence of HIV/AIDs.

It is against this background that in 1994 FAO launched the Special Programme for Food Security in Low-Income Food-Deficit Countries, known by its acronym as the SPFS. This is a programme which seeks to empower groups of rural people to examine the opportunities and problems which face them and to decide jointly what to do to improve their livelihoods and particularly to ensure a more reliable and better quality food supply. The SPFS helps farmers to identify, test and take up better ways of farming, focusing on the kinds of improvements which are within the reach of resource-poor farmers and can be sustained by them without a heavy dependence of outside financial or technical assistance. Very often rural communities can strengthen their food security by improving the timeliness with which crops are planted, making better use of manure and compost made from organic matter which is otherwise wasted, building up the number of small livestock which are kept by women and children and protecting them from disease, developing joint savings and loan associations, broadening access to land for landless families, and many other actions which lie within their own means. Often farmers can convert seasonal labour surpluses into new productive assets, for example through terracing or draining land, constructing simple irrigation systems or setting up nurseries and planting trees for fuel wood. The SPFS supports these kinds of improvements and, where external inputs are needed, such as low-cost treadle pumps for irrigating vegetables or seeds of improved varieties of crops, will enable well-organised groups to access the necessary start-up capital. The programme also invests in training agricultural extension staff and interested farmers to serve as group facilitators to stimulate the process of innovation. To help the process of innovation and to bring in new ideas, many of the 69
countries which have taken up the SPFS have approached other developing countries for technical assistance under South-South Cooperation arrangements: there are now some 400 technicians working out in rural communities under cooperation agreements brokered by FAO.

As the programme expands it also seeks to address higher level constraints faced by farmers, for instance in rural infrastructure, such as roads, and in services to provide inputs and to improve access to markets. The SPFS also recognises the importance of having policies in place which stimulate small farmer development. It seeks to give farmers a voice in policy reform through engaging them in the systematic analysis of constraints which they face in trying make improvements, making the findings available to the organs of government which determine agricultural and food security policies. It also encourages participating governments to set up high-level inter-ministerial coordination bodies to ensure effective inter-agency action to combat hunger in line with the World Food Summit targets.

In contrast to many development programmes, the SPFS is always fully under national management, and the lion's share of the costs is met by developing countries from their own resources. Donor funding remains important for the poorest countries but a number of countries such as Nigeria, Mexico and Venezuela are meeting the full costs of national-scale SPFS programmes entirely from their own budgets. A total of some $400 million has so far been committed to the Special Programme.

The Side Event will provide an opportunity for persons attending the Summit to learn at first hand from the experience of countries which are participating in the SPFS. Invited speakers will talk about the SPFS in their countries and how they see programme impacting on food security. Following the presentations of country experience, there will be an open discussion.


Top of Page

FAO, 2002