Ideas to Action:

Independent research for global prosperity

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This is a joint post with Peter Timmer and Julie Walz.

“If you care about the poorest, you care about agriculture,” declared Bill Gates in a high-profile speech in Rome yesterday, at a meeting of the Global Council of the International Fund for Agricultural Development.  IFAD is one of the three Rome-based UN food agencies; the other two are FAO, and WFP.  The speech came after the announcement of an expanded partnership between the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and IFAD, which will focus on improving food security and rural livelihoods in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

Gates spoke passionately about the importance of small scale farming and the role that technology has to play, arguing that it is possible to double or triple yields in the next 20 years.  He acknowledged the limits of capitalism and the fact that market forces usually serve rich farmers, rather than those living in the poorest parts of Africa and Asia.  But Gates’ belief in the power of technology was unrelenting—he offered detailed examples of the ways agriculture might take advantage of the digital revolution and of advances in genomics.

Gates also addressed the Rome-based agencies candidly on the issue of collaboration and coordination.  In theory, he argued, each part of the system has a distinct role to play and each agency has key strengths: WFP in logistics and procurement, IFAD in financing, and FAO in standards and high-quality food and market information.  These multilateral agencies and donors should fund and support national programs and country priorities.  Yet in practice, these lines have become blurred and too often donors and food agencies set priorities or take on projects based on funding or political demands. Thus, the whole is far less than the sum of the parts; Gates argued for better and stronger agencies that will use the latest technology to improve food security for the world’s poor.

Gates proposes two key ideas in his speech--to create global productivity targets in agriculture and to devise a system of scorecards to quantify and rank national and international progress in agricultural development. He likened the scorecard system to the Millennium Development Goals, which he argued serve to align donor activities and country priorities, and allow countries to monitor progress (individually and in relation to each other).  In response to a question, Gates elaborated that a scorecard could help to identify priorities, as well as potential solutions to improving food security.

Given the success of the Doing Business Indicators in improving the regulatory environment in some countries and the usefulness of the World Bank's CPIA ratings, these ideas are intriguing.  But they also raise some alarms--Gates' focus is largely on science, innovation and connecting small farmers with new technology. It had no mention of governance and only two sentences on politics.  And measurement is not as easy as Gates may imagine. For example, global satellites likely do not have a clue how rice is doing on a 0.2 hectare plot on Java!

And finally, there is no mention of the fact that the success of agriculture depends on success in the non-agricultural economy. Not all small farmers can get rich--some need to move to more productive jobs off the farm. The historical process of structural transformation is the only sustainable pathway out of rural poverty.

Nonetheless, Gates’ speech has opened the way for a robust dialogue in the international community on food security and the role of the Rome-based agencies.  These agencies and their member states must be held accountable.  The challenges are daunting, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, where yields have not risen in decades.  At CGD, we have set up a working group on food security that will focus on how the Rome-based agencies might address the problem of global hunger.  We welcome thoughts from our readers on Bill Gates' proposals as well as on other ideas for addressing global hunger.