March 10, 2017

Guest Commentary – Elevating the Smallholder Voice and Making Aid more Accountable for Improved Food and Nutrition Security

By Anne WanlundCountry Director, Gardens for Health International

While most food and nutrition security trends have been positive, sub-Saharan Africa has seen its absolute number of undernourished people increase by 23.9 percent in the last two decades. Food and nutrition security interventions are most successful when the target population’s food and nutrition access, availability, and utilization needs are met in a sustainable way. Interventions are shaped by factors such as geographic conditions, political stability, and how food and nutrition insecurity manifests in vulnerable populations. By necessity, food security and nutrition activities mostly engage smallholders, as small-scale farming comprises approximately 80% of arable land in sub-Saharan Africa.

Targeting interventions for smallholders, however, is constrained by a dearth of nuanced information about these populations’ behaviors. This is particularly challenging for food security and nutrition interventions because they are dependent on addressing specific behaviors, which are difficult to quantify. One important barrier to obtaining this information on a consistent basis is a lack of ground-up systems that include the farmer’s perspective on aid. A lack of feedback mechanisms in particular hinders progress towards assistance that is more accountable to recipient populations.

The term “smallholder” itself is limited in what it can tell us. Even in the same geographic area, smallholders are diverse in terms of crop choices, farming techniques, behaviors around different types of risk, financial liquidity, use of improved technologies and inputs, consistency around access to land, and many other variables. These diversities demonstrate the importance of designing well-targeted interventions. If food security and nutrition interventions fail to accurately address the specific conditions that influence farmer behavior, they will be limited in their effectiveness. While there are best practices to improving productivity for resource-constrained farmers, there are few “one size fits all” solutions that adequately take into account the heterogeneity of smallholder behavior and resource availability.

In addition to this diverse and challenging array of variables that define smallholders across contexts, the nature of production and consumption behaviors is culturally specific. Understanding these behaviors as well as introducing better farming practices requires a nuanced interpretation of what underlies farmer behaviors.

But behaviors around food production are only part of the story, as the consumption of sufficiently nutritious food is critical to maximizing productivity and assuring lasting health and nutrition outcomes. Behaviors around food consumption can be as disparate within a country as they are across borders; people tend to have deeply ingrained learned behaviors around food that inform consumption choices.

These behaviors are difficult to influence and require a clear understanding of what motivates consumption patterns – such as taste preferences and perceived health benefits. These behaviors are especially critical to take into account when designing food and nutrition interventions, as improved production does not necessarily equate to improved access, nor does improved access necessarily equate to improved consumption (just as improved consumption does not always lead to improved nutrient absorption).

These reasons, among others, demonstrate why having high-quality, context-specific information is critical to designing successful food and nutrition security activities. The international community has fostered an impressive body of research around food and nutrition security. This data, however, is often cross-sectional. To address this gap, it is necessary to establish two-way communication channels between recipient populations and the architects of assistance throughout the life-cycle of a project.  

Feedback mechanisms can improve food and nutrition security interventions by generating otherwise elusive information about smallholders. If done well, effective feedback loops have the potential to strengthen targeting through more consistent, higher-quality information. Mechanisms that capture the smallholder’s voice also have the potential to make aid more accountable. However, progress in food and nutrition security information is often defined by the availability of scientific data to policymakers or the presence of two-way accountability between donors and host countries. These are important, but insufficient, steps.

The design of two-way communication structures should disproportionately elevate the voices most directly affected by aid, which are typically the most marginalized. True feedback mechanisms require that the donor or implementer to respond to the information they receive, such as providing explanations and updates to those directly affected by aid interventions. They also require the flexibility to rapidly adapt interventions to new information. Communication mechanisms that incorporate this kind of multi-directional accountability should improve the quality and timeliness of important data, including information about attitudes and behaviors that influence the effectiveness of food and nutrition security interventions.

Accountable systems have positive externalities beyond improving information – and therefore targeting. Accountability also promotes transparency, which breeds trust. Trust contributes to the sustainability of interventions and increases the likelihood that recipients feel personally invested in a project’s success. It also helps to neutralize the imbalance in power between the donor or implementer and the recipient, as each actor is adding value to the relationship. A more equal relationship should contribute to a sense of mutual ownership.

There are many ways to exchange information with smallholders. Most types of extension work in rural areas will include target smallholder groups. Farmer field schools are another potential vehicle for communication, as are cooperatives. Preferably, many efforts would take advantage of existing systems, complementing government-supported initiatives to ensure information is funneled up and down through channels for which there is an infrastructure for record-keeping to inform future policies. As long as the channels reflect the true perspectives of the farmer, utilizing these mechanisms should improve food and nutrition security interventions through increased accuracy, adaptability, and understanding.



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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| By Margaret Cornelius, Nicolas Gatti, Peter Goldsmith, Edward Martey

Guest Commentary - Addressing the barriers to soybean production in Africa

High input costs and lack of access to credit prevent smallholder farmers from investing in their soybean crops. Barriers such as these have kept soybean yields low in Africa. The Feed the Future Soybean Innovation Lab is working to address them through incremental input bundles.