April 16, 2015

Guest Commentary - Building an Integrated Approach to Global Food Security, Nutrition, and Agricultural Development

By Paul E. Weisenfeld, Vice President, Global Programs, International Development Group, RTI International
The United Nations-led process to establish sustainable development goals (SDGs) is moving forward with active and broad participation. If all goes well and the international community can agree upon a limited number of concise and easy to communicate goals, the SDGs will hold great promise to focus international attention – and resources – on addressing persistent and evolving challenges that impact the quality of human life and the sustainability of our environment.  A key question once the SDGs have been fully endorsed is: what will it take to implement programs on the ground to actually achieve the ambitious goals?
From MDGs to SDGs:
The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that were launched at the turn of the century – and which the SDGs are intended to replace – were enormously effective in concentrating the efforts of international development partners, including lower- and middle-income governments, international agencies, NGOs and bilateral donors.  While some MDGs have been met (extreme poverty and the number of people without access to improved drinking water were both reduced by half), and progress has been made in other areas, achieving targets related to hunger, nutrition and improved sanitation, among others, will require greater effort in the coming years.   More than 160 million young children are still suffering from under-nutrition, while global rates of overweight and obesity continue to climb.  Growing populations will need safe and nutritious food. Agricultural productivity must improve to address rural poverty and food security, and it must be done without further negatively impacting the environment. 
The second proposed sustainable development goal (SDG 2) sets out an ambitious target that encompasses a combination of challenges: end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.  The good news for those who have long argued that these issues are inescapably interrelated is that the SDGs have clearly adopted a multi-disciplinary approach.  The bad news is that practitioners now have to figure out how to make it work on the ground.  
Coordination, Coordination, Coordination:
The biggest challenge I see to executing the SDGs effectively is to ensure that the separate efforts of numerous well-intentioned actors add up to more than the sum of their parts.  Coordination will be critical at the level of individual programs, across sectors and at the country level. 
Program-Level Coordination
With respect to specific programs, much of the efforts of donors, NGOs and implementing contractors are spent on relatively small-scale or pilot programs.  Some of them reach populations in the tens of thousands in fairly confined geographic locations, while others may impact hundreds of thousands of beneficiaries.  The implementers often work in isolation, each trying to make a case to their funders and host country governments that their own approach is the best and then hoping that someone will pick up the baton and scale up their work to the national level.  While a 1,000-flowers bloom approach can bring healthy competition, test new ideas and foster innovation, it rarely breeds the kind of national let alone regional scale that will be required to achieve SDG 2. 
Cross-Sectoral Coordination
At the sector level, funding for development efforts is still largely stove-piped.  Money is typically allocated for health programs or agriculture or nutrition or humanitarian assistance.  Results need to be reported to funders according to sector-specific indicators, which make it difficult to address the complex, multi-sectoral nature of the problems we face. 
Fortunately, donors are beginning to embrace multi-sectoral approaches.  The Feed the Future Initiative and USAID’s recent multi-sectoral nutrition strategy are excellent examples of strategic-level thinking in this regard.  SDG 2 itself, which pulls together hunger, food security, nutrition and agriculture, will give a needed boost, hopefully accelerating a change in thinking about how to allocate funds and measure results across sectors.  But for those working at the field level, many are having a bad case of “be careful what you wish for.”  It’s not very clear at the household or community level how best to pull these sectors together.  For instance, which agricultural interventions – at policy, household or community level – are most effective at improving nutritional outcomes and at what cost?  Some donors and a number of universities are looking at these cross-sectoral questions, but there is an urgent need for actionable research to guide those trying to make things work on the ground.
Country-Level Coordination
The burden of coordination and execution ultimately falls on lower-and middle-income countries themselves, with donors in a support role.  There are two critical areas where country-level coordination can fail.  First, Ministries in the host country are the ones who have to manage the large number of implementing partners carrying out an even larger number of pilot projects.  This places an unreasonable and unsustainable burden on short-staffed Ministries.  I’ve frequently seen Ministries try to solve this dilemma by calling periodic donor coordination meetings in which participants, at best, simply share information on their activities or, at worst, use the forum to posture about the advantages of their own programs.  Achieving the SDGs demands that we develop meaningful, country-led mechanisms that allow for genuine interchange and coordination. 
Second, donors will typically pay for technical assistance, strategy development and some inputs/commodities, such as seeds, fertilizer, food aid and essential medicines.  While we’re seeing increased attention among donors to the need to build key transport and power infrastructure, reaching scale and achieving sustainability requires a foundational infrastructure that host countries are ultimately responsible for providing.  At the end of the day, meeting the deficit in lower-income countries in roads, ports, power plants, cold chains, etc., and sustaining this infrastructure, will require accessing local resources.  There is an ongoing international dialogue regarding the financing of development that encompasses these issues.  Because achieving the SDGs is so dependent on these financing questions, however, it’s critical that these two streams come together.
Don’t Skimp on Real Research:
Finally, while the laser-like focus on specific goals is a net benefit, there is an important note of caution to sound.  A management lesson of the past decades that development has taken to heart is that what gets measured gets done.  This principle underlies the beauty of the MDGs and the SDGs.  But, pressure for results, particularly short-term results, can squeeze out research and evaluation.  Some donors have a tendency to judge the quality of a program and an implementing agency by looking at overhead rates and the amount of funds that go directly to beneficiaries.  While these metrics are valuable, it’s critical that we don’t inadvertently starve needed research, which often counts as “overhead.”  No one has all of the answers on how to achieve the complex, ambitious and multi-sectoral SDG 2.  We will only make real and lasting progress through action that is grounded in scientifically rigorous evidence.  And evidence requires that we take the time and allocate the resources to conduct research. 


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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