David Neven

David Neven is a Senior Economist in the Food Systems and Food Safety Division (ESF) at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Based in FAO’s headquarters in Rome, Italy, David coordinates conceptual development and provides technical guidance to FAO’s field program in the area of sustainable food value chain development. Previously a field practitioner for the Belgian government, a visiting assistant professor at Michigan State University, and senior consultant with a leading US consulting firm, he has over 25 years of research, teaching, management, new-business development, and consulting experience. David holds advanced degrees in agricultural engineering (MSc.), business administration (MSc.), and agricultural economics (Ph.D.).

Merging social support and economic development, sustainable food value chains and the Anna Karenina principle

Sub-Saharan Africa
6. Apr 2017

One can distinguish two types of development practitioner, each implementing a distinct approach to eradicating poverty and food insecurity. The first comes in from the bottom, applying push-strategies, by developing social support programs that allow the poorest of the poor to survive periods of extreme hardship and build-up diversified livelihoods. These programs, typically in the purview of social ministries and civil society organizations, are essential but depend critically on public funding which may not always be there. The second comes in from the top, applying pull-strategies by developing economic development programs that allow the richest of the poor to establish and grow employment-generating agri-businesses (including farms) in competitive value chains. These programs, typically driven by sectoral and economic ministries and the private sector, are equally essential but often don’t absorb large numbers of poor. Specifically, they may exclude particular segments of the poor: indigenous groups, youth, women, the poorest of the poor, and so on.

It has become increasingly clear that to achieve an impact that is both sustainable and inclusive, social support and economic development programs need to come together in more integrated ways, linking bottom-up with top-down. In the past, these initiatives have at times been conflicting. For example, distributing free fertiliser and other inputs while trying to establish a commercially viable agro-dealer network in the same location, or, as another example, supporting the emergence of a competitive smallholder-based grain value chain while these same grains are imported at subsidised prices to keep food costs low for the poor. Today, wide-spread agreement is emerging that competitiveness has become central to the long-standing inclusiveness debate and vice versa.

Sustainably including the rural poor in agro-food systems adheres to the Anna Karenina principle. The latter, popularised by Jared Diamond in his seminal publication Germs, Guns and Steel (1997), presumes that while failure can be caused by a wide range of factors, success can be achieved only when every possible deficiency is avoided. For example, applying the principle to models of broad-based inclusion of the poor in competitive smallholder farming, implies that such models can only be successful if each of a long list of potential root causes for failure have been addressed simultaneously. For example, access to finance, physical inputs, extension, services, markets, land, risk mitigation tools, … all need to be in place on a commercially or fiscally viable basis for the model to succeed and sustain. For example, building farmer capacity to grow a crop more efficiently without the incentive of being able to profitably sell it into a market, will lead to failure.

The Anna Karenina implies holistic (food system) approaches and integrated solutions that address the root causes of all binding constraints. Social and economic programs address different (albeit overlapping) sets of constraints, neither of which represents the complete set that needs to be addressed to realise truly inclusive and sustainable impact on poverty and food insecurity. Bringing them together provides a clear path forward, but is easier said than done. Such integrated programs will require extensive public-private partnerships and, within the public sector, a convergence of strategies across various ministries.

faoThe following are three examples of ways in which FAO aims to promote integrated social-support / economic development programs. In Senegal, FAO implements an integrated country approach to support youth. In this approach, the development of national-level youth policies and programs is combined with the development of agribusiness incubator platforms. While the former create a business enabling environment in which youth have a voice and can more easily access resources, the latter provide integrated solutions that allow young women and men to start commercially viable agribusinesses or to secure rewarding jobs in them. In Kenya, FAO designed a project that aims to link beneficiaries of social support programs to local agribusiness entrepreneurs in migration-affected areas. This implies the emergence of inclusive business models that benefit from both push and pull programs. In India, FAO is supporting the government in the vertical scaling up of its National Rural Livelihoods Mission, a program that aims to lift millions of rural households out of poverty. Value chain development-type programs will build on an impressive foundation of women self-help groups and innovative access-to-finance models build through social programs. In each of these cases, a wide range of ministries is coming together to develop and implement more integrated programs.

To achieve sustainable development goals one and two (end poverty, end hunger), we will need to bring the best thinking and practice emerging from social support programs and economic growth programs, together in innovative and effective ways. Fundamental to this will be partnerships between all relevant stakeholders from the public sector, private sector and civil society, that are far more broad-based then they have been hitherto.

  • This blog is part of a series on what’s new in inclusive agribusiness from April 2017. Hear from more contributors in part one of the series- digging into the details of inclusive business programmes around the world.  In part two contributors share how long-standing perspectives on cooperative, corporate strategies, value chain partnerships, market system change, rural livelihoods support, financing, and innovation adoption are beginning to blend, and why.