Poverty Alleviation is the Key Issue for Public Agricultural Research
Ponniah Anandajayasekeram
Keywords:  Africa (Sub-Saharan), Governmental organization, Small-scale farming, Socio-economic impact.
Correct citation: Anandajayasekeram, P. (1999), "Poverty Alleviation is the Key Issue for Public Agricultural Research." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 40, p. 24.

In Monitor 39, H.K. Jain argued for a resurgence of public sector agricultural research. In the view of Ponniah Anandajayasekeram this would not automatically benefit smallholders. He argues that to reach this target group, public agricultural research has to integrate poverty alleviation as a key topic on its agenda.

Rural poverty is acute throughout the region of Eastern and Southern Africa, and is proving intractable even in relatively wealthy countries. Strategies proposed to eliminate rural poverty include the development of alternatives to agriculture, for instance in industry, mining and tourism, but also the commercialization of smallholder agriculture. Perhaps the most important challenge for governments throughout the region for the future, therefore, will be to foster smallholder agricultural production in ecologically marginal environments, in ways that will sustain or improve the quality of the resource base over the longer term. This challenge is not reflected by current research agendas.
Research in Eastern and Southern African countries is conducted by public institutions, the commercial sector, and civil society organizations such as Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). Private sector research is mostly geared to large-scale commercial agricultural production. Yet for most Sub-Saharan African countries this contributes only an estimated 3 per cent of overall agricultural research investments. NGOs and some development agencies have become important players in adaptive research and extension for the poorer smallholders, but their research often does not address strategic research questions such as on integrated pest management or on technologies for ecologically fragile environments. As a result, smallholder producers in these countries depend to a large extent on public sector institutions for technological innovations and extension. At the same time, however, the majority of smallholders are poor and have neither the institutional nor the economic power to ensure that their technology needs are met by the public sector research.
This limited access is complicated by the fact that the three core elements in the public agricultural knowledge triangle – research, extension and higher education – have all been downsized, restructured, decentralized, and are increasingly being privatized. Driven by market forces, research may tend to focus on the needs of the few with economic and political power, a situation likely to work against the rural poor.
The question remains how agricultural research can have a positive impact on poverty alleviation. The relationship between agricultural research and poverty alleviation is complex, involving both direct and indirect effects. Over 50 impact studies completed during the period 1978 to 1999 in Eastern and Southern Africa have demonstrated a relatively high pay-off: in over 60 per cent of the cases studied, the rate of returns for agricultural research investment exceeded 25 per cent. These studies have also shown that in all cases farm level productivity increased. In some cases these productivity gains have reduced poverty, improving the nutritional status of households, and technologies have generated additional employment. However, the majority of studies did not explicitly address the impact of agricultural research on poverty alleviation.
While developing technologies, researchers have to recognize the conscious effort by smallholder producers to maintain subsistence food production, including indigenous and marginalized crops, varieties and livestock species. Given the risky economic environment and lack of secure markets, maintaining own food supplies can be an economically optimal strategy, even if commercial production of, for instance, cash crops might in theory lead to higher returns on land and labour. Therefore, a viable commercialization strategy has to be developed that addresses smallholder needs to improve productivity in both staple and market-oriented production.
Prioritizing research that has a high pay-off in the short term may have a significant negative effect on society in the long run, as strategic research issues that by nature call for long-term investment may be bypassed. Agricultural research funding decisions of today will largely determine the kind of research output that will be available to benefit the poor in ten to twenty years. Research should explicitly target both ‘poor’ and ‘well-to-do’ farmers. Public sector research would seem to have a comparative advantage in addressing those aspects of a smallholder sustainable agricultural research agenda that specifically targets persistent poverty, which other actors are unlikely to address with the scope and depth required. In addition, research is urgently needed on how incentive structures shape the scientific delivery process, and how to build political and financial support for research relevant to smallholders.
Ensuring that the poor and disadvantaged groups are represented in the priority setting process and developing a judicious blend of bottom-up and top-down approaches to priority setting is a major challenge facing practitioners. A simple resurgence of public sector agricultural research will not be sufficient. Poverty alleviation must be explicitly included as a criteria in research planning, and this should be reflected in priority setting and allocation of resources.

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