This blog is part of a series organized by The Chicago Council’s Global Agriculture Development Initiative and InterAction to highlight the importance of public-private partnerships in agricultural development. This commentary is cross-posted with InterAction’s blog.
Newly-released figures on world hunger are heartening in their downward trajectory. The rate of undernourished people worldwide has declined over the last two decades. But one in eight people, or 12.5 percent of the world’s population, still suffer from undernutrition, and the rate of progress has slowed in recent years. These hunger figures aren’t just a shock to our global consciousness – they are a call to collective action.
How can the world, with 7 billion people and growing, get to a point where it can feed itself? The answer is a complicated one, of course, that food security experts and practitioners now understand pivots on the smallholder farmer, and women in particular. Supporting smallholder farmers and opening new markets is not possible in a high-impact, sustainable way if we work alone. It will require the joint efforts of governments, civil society and the private sector, through public-private partnerships that leverage the added value of all these groups.
It is widely agreed now that ensuring the world is able to feed itself is not about scaling up food production in bread baskets and exporting it to areas of need, as once thought. This costly model of trying to address hunger by providing access to food from afar is too expensive and sidesteps the rural poor living on the margins of roads and other infrastructure. It also proved unsustainable in the face of surging population growth and food price spikes.
We now know that small-scale farmers have a major role to play. When a smallholder farmer is able to nutritiously feed her family and keep a surplus left over to sell, she has spending money that leads to the creation of new local markets. New markets spur local economic growth that can dramatically improve livelihoods by increasing incomes and creating jobs.
The private and public sectors have enormous potential to work together and leverage each other’s added value to spur this kind of economic development in a way that will, ultimately, decrease hunger and improve nutrition. Indeed, civil society organizations have a need to scale up their impact – something corporations know a lot about. An NGO with an animal husbandry program, for example, may reach 1 million smallholder farmers now, but could reach 10 times that many people by leveraging businesses’ private resources, technical expertise, and large-scale distributive capacity.
And corporations interested in “doing well by doing good” need to know how to tap and strengthen emerging markets – knowledge and expertise civil society organizations offer. US NGOs have invested in communities for decades, and therefore know what is needed to work effectively in often hard-to-reach areas. They also have experience training smallholder farmers in ways that amplify the impact of development initiatives as they reach up to markets.
Indeed, when InterAction members this fall committed $1 billion in private dollars toward global food security, agriculture and nutrition over the next three years, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called civil society organizations “crucial” to the success of both the public and the private sector. “They have longstanding relationships in communities and valuable technical expertise, and they work every single day on their commitment to try to make the world a better place for all of us,” she said, in announcing the pledge on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
Additional private sector participation and partnership is vital to achieving poverty reduction goals. But the work must be done right, in food security and across all sectors, if it is to be sustainable. That means aiming investments and policies at small-scale producers, involving civil society as leaders, and holding private sector actors accountable for responsible investment – while continuing to fulfill and sustain critical public investments. Equity, nutrition, climate resilience and environmental sustainability must be priority outcomes as well, as outlined in our policy paper on the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition.
Nearly 870 million people – or more than two and half times the population of the United States – were undernourished in 2010-12. These figures demand that we act, collectively. Smart public-private partnerships that draw on the added value of government, business and civil society will ensure that we can reduce hunger and improve nutrition in sustainable, people-centered ways that ultimately improve lives and save them.