Agriculture-Focused Aid (International)

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The content on this page has not been recently updated. This content is likely to be no longer fully accurate, both with respect to the research it presents and with respect to what it implies about our views and positions.

  • Agriculture-focused aid is not a matter of getting proven programs to those who can't afford them. We have not found any particular approach that has a demonstrably strong (and promising) track record.
  • We have not found any charity doing demonstrably successful agriculture-focused work.

Published: 2009

This page reviews what we know of the track record of programs focused on improving agricultural output, particularly in Africa. Overall, we have seen few demonstrable successes among these programs (aside from the research behind the Green Revolution, discussed below). Thus, when evaluating an agriculture-focused charity or project, we think it is appropriate to look for evidence of sustained and meaningful improvements in targeted individuals' incomes and standards of living.

Table of Contents

The Green Revolution

In the last several decades, much of the developing world – particularly Asia – has experienced enormous gains in agricultural productivity.1

We frequently see significant credit for the improvements attributed to philanthropically-funded research, particularly on improved seeds.2 However, Africa has yet to experience similar gains,3 despite what we see as a similar degree of relevant philanthropic investment.4

Integrated Rural Development: addressing many issues at once

"Integrated Rural Development" refers to a multifaceted attempt to improve production and growth in a rural area, often simultaneously addressing health, transportation, credit, and agricultural knowledge.5 This type of program appears to have been common in the 1970s and 1980s, but now appears to be seen as a disappointment, and abandoned by the development community.6

A 2004 overview by the Department for International Development, which manages foreign aid for the British government,7 cites the following as general problems with its Integrated Rural Development projects:8

  • Sustainability: inability to continue maintaining (and securing funding for) programs long enough to create impact. "The recurrent budgets of governments were frequently unable to bear the burden of expenditure required by the project: for example, staff employed by some projects were no longer being paid, buildings were not maintained, vehicles were not replaced and there was sometimes no fuel for the ones that were available."
  • Inaccurate knowledge of – and insufficient adaptation to – local conditions. "Many of the projects suffered from lack of detailed knowledge of the general farm systems, and the particular crop production systems operating in the project area ... it was often difficult to obtain the necessary knowledge during implementation ... Generally, it was found that the proposed new crop technologies required further testing on small-holder farms in the areas ... the changes were expected to be adopted by too great a proportion of farmers in too short a period of time ... Because of the above problems of analysis of farm gate prices, and over-optimistic yield assumptions, it was often found that the crop-production package in the project was not sufficiently financially rewarding to the farmers when account was taken of the changes in family labour input."
  • Management was overloaded with these highly complex and multifaceted projects. "The incorporation of non-agricultural components into the projects overloaded management so that implementation suffered."

More targeted agricultural interventions

Many aid projects have focused on a particular aspect of agricultural productivity such as irrigation or provision of livestock. We have found relatively little information on the general track records of these specific interventions, in terms of their ultimate impact on the lives of the people they aim to help. However, the World Bank's reviews of its own projects illustrate some of the challenges associated with particular targeted agricultural projects:

  • Research on improved seeds. As discussed above, agricultural research is widely believed to have led to enormous gains outside of Africa, but with no comparable success within Africa. The World Bank's evaluation group states that "seed-related activities have so far made only a modest contribution to increases in crop production. Bank projects have also not been able to address the issue of limited use of seeds by farmers because of inadequate access to complementary inputs."9
  • "Rural extension services" or "agricultural extension services" are terms that commonly refer to the practice of sharing and disseminating agriculture-related knowledge.10 A 2006 World Bank review implies that the track record of such programs was disappointing both before and during the use of the "Training and Visit" (T&V) model,11 which was abandoned during the 1990s.12 The recent overview of agricultural interventions by the World Bank's evaluation group notes that "Despite all the demand-driven and partnership approaches that the Bank has supported since it abandoned T&V, a viable and sustainable option to replace T&V has yet to be developed for Africa."13 One potential problem that may affect extension service programs is the tendency for information and training to disproportionately reach the farmers who are already better off,14 which may exacerbate existing inequalities.
  • Irrigation. The World Bank's evaluation group gives a mostly inconclusive overview of recent projects, concluding that,
    In most of these interventions, physical targets are achieved or exceeded, but the projects themselves have not been sufficiently integrated with the countries' agricultural development strategy. Further, M&E [monitoring and evaluation] has been very weak, so it is difficult to assess what has worked and what has not. The literature, however, suggests that such small-scale, technically simple water management systems can be effective in rain-fed areas.15

    A recent review by the International Water Management Institute states that irrigation projects have been successful in some past cases,16 but also states that "well-intended efforts of governments and NGOs to ”˜improve' farmer-managed irrigation are often counter-productive, distorting rather than strengthening the irrigation arrangements that already exist."17

  • Improving transportation infrastructure. We have found little evidence regarding the impact of transportation-focused projects, and the World Bank specifically notes the thinness of its own project evaluations in this area.18 Maintenance appears to be a major concern in this area. In the past, many roads have been built, but not maintained, by donors, leading to deterioration and even speculation that the projects may have done more harm than good.19

  • Livestock. We have seen very little documentation on the impact of programs that give livestock and/or focus on livestock management. We are concerned that such programs have the potential to do harm when they do not distribute such gifts equitably (or are not perceived to be doing so); one World Bank project evaluation points to serious problems with a smaller-than-expected supply of livestock, leading to jealousy among locals.20

Recent reports from the World Bank (both from the evaluation group and the World Development Report) imply that on the whole, agriculture projects have continued to struggle with the challenge of properly adapting to local conditions.21


Our information on the specifics of agriculture programs is extremely limited, and comes almost entirely from the World Bank's self-evaluations; we provide this information merely to illustrate many of the potential concerns with agriculture projects. We have found few claims that agriculture-based aid, outside of the research behind the "Green Revolution," has any major demonstrable success stories to point to, and many reasons to think that there are significant risks of failure.

When evaluating an agriculture-focused charity or project, we think it is appropriate to look for evidence of sustained and meaningful improvements in clients' incomes and standards of living. We do not believe that a one-time boost in crop yields is sufficient, as we have argued on our blog. To date we have not identified any standout agriculture-focused charities.


  • 1

    World Bank 2007, Pg 10, Figure 2.1.

  • 2

    The following are both examples of accounts that put the Rockefeller Foundation at the center of the Green Revolution:

    • Sachs 2005, Pgs 259-260.
    • Heitzman and Worden 1995.

  • 3

    World Bank 2007, Pg 10, Figure 2.1.

  • 4

    More analysis at this blog post, which examines the proposition that Africa's lack of a Green Revolution can be blamed on insufficient investment.

  • 5

    "In the mid-1970s, so called Integrated Rural Development Projects (IRDPs) were the main vehicles for aid to Africa's rural sector. The aim was to improve the incomes and standards of life of a large number of people in a particular area. The projects covered several sectors, such as agriculture, health and transport, often with more than one component for each particular sector. Agriculture was the main sector and often covered extension, research, credit, inputs and marketing. The intention was to embrace all the main sectors within a given rural area. IRDPs were thus wide-ranging, complex, ambitious and expensive." Department for International Development 2004, Pg 1.

  • 6
    • "Integrated Rural Development (IRD, sometimes referred to as area development) was popular among those working on international development assistance in 1970s. The number of and donor allocations to IRD projects increased rapidly in the mid 1970s and reached their peak in the beginning of the 1980s. However, follow-on project evaluations reported unsatisfactory performance of IRD efforts for the most part, and this resulted in a shift towards broader systemic poverty alleviation initiatives (such as the World Bank's Poverty Reduction Strategies). In the meantime, numerous studies and research conducted by international organizations and independent researchers revealed the main shortfalls of IRD projects in different parts of the world. Some have combined these lessons learned to rethink the IRD approach." USAID, Pg 2.
    • "The synthesis reviews evaluation material from the World Bank, International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and ODA sources on rural development projects in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) during the 1970s. The focus is on large-scale integrated projects .... The main finding is one of unrealised expectations .... This switch can be expected to lead a move by the World Bank away from multi-sectoral rural development projects. The natural resources sector paper reflects a similar movement towards more sharply focused projects in ODA [official development assistance]." Department for International Development, "Rural development in Africa: A synthesis of project experience," Pg 1-2.
    • See also Millennium Villages, “FAQ,” Question 2, which implies (though it does not state) that integrated rural development is a failed and largely discontinued program type.

  • 7

    Department for International Development, “Who We Are and What We Do.”

  • 8

    Department for International Development 2004, Pgs 2-3.

  • 9

    World Bank 2007, Pg xxvi.

  • 10

    Our understanding of these terms is mostly inferred from their use, but Wikipedia gives a formal definition. Wikipedia, “Agricultural Extension.”

  • 11

    "Many scholars and observers of rural development commented on the frequent manifestations of unsatisfactory extension performance (e.g., Rivera, Qamar and Crowder, 2001). The common incidence of such performance issues across many developing countries is highlighted by Feder, Willett and Zijp (2001), who identified eight interrelated characteristics that are inherent in public extension systems, and which jointly lead to inadequate performance. These characteristics tend to be generic and could be applicable to any sector/subsector, but we highlight below why they have been more binding constraints in the case of the extension programs." Anderson, Feder, and Ganguly 2006, Pg 5. It goes on to list several factors behind the disappointing performance of such programs.

  • 12

    "The paper reviews the origins and evolution of the Training and Visit (T&V) extension system, which was promoted by the World Bank in 1975-98 in over 50 developing countries. The discussion seeks to clarify the context within which the approach was implemented, and to analyze the causes for its lack of sustainability and its ultimate abandonment." Anderson, Feder, and Ganguly 2006, abstract.

  • 13

    World Bank 2007, Pg 59.

  • 14

    "With such a large and diversified clientele, only a small fraction of farmers can be served directly (face-to-face) by extension, and agents tend to focus on the larger, better resourced and more innovative farmers. This reduces the potential for farmer-to-farmer diffusion." Anderson, Feder, and Ganguly 2006, Pg 5.

  • 15

    World Bank 2007, Pg 54.

  • 16
    • Large-scale projects: "Although not always designed as pro-poor interventions, large-scale irrigation schemes in Asia have been shown to have positive poverty impacts (Hussain, 2005)." Awulachew et al. 2005, Pg 9.
    • Small-scale projects: "Increases of US$ 100 per household per year are reported for treadle pump adopters in the Gangetic Plain (Shah et al., 2002), or increases of even US$ 1,000 per pump sold in Kenya, though lower in Tanzania (Van Koppen, 2004; Regassa 2005)." Awulachew et al. 2005, Pg 31.

  • 17

    Awulachew et al. 2005, Pg 32.

  • 18

    "IEG's recently completed evaluation of the transport sector (IEG 2007o) found that no impact evaluations had been carried out in the Africa Region for transport interventions, which makes it very difficult to say anything about the contribution of these interventions to agricultural development. In addition, 80 percent of the respondents to the IEG staff survey agreed that coordination between Bank staff working on agriculture and those working in other sectors in the Africa Region is not good." World Bank 2007, Pg 58.

  • 19

    "Despite enormous disbursals of foreign grants and loans ... the results were disappointing: the poor were still poor – some even poorer than before. The problem: roads were deteriorating. The benefits that should have ensued from last year's road construction were being eroded by a failure to maintain them ... An estimated US $45 billion worth of road infrastructure had been lost owing to inadequate maintenance in the eighty-five developing countries reviewed in the [1988 World Bank] report, a loss which could have been averted with preventive maintenance costing less than $12 billion. The effects of bad roads have important implications for poor, in that they have to spend a greater percentage of their income on repairs than do the wealthy ... Thus the road projects of the previous decade were now doing more harm than good, particularly among the poor." Peterson 2008, Pgs 11-12.

  • 20

    "The overall calving rate of project cows was expected to be 65 percent (compared to 55 percent for non-project cows). A review of the herd records by the MTR veterinarian indicated that for both NTB and NTT the with-project calving rate was not significantly different from the without-project rate. In terms of equity, the 15,800 head were to be distributed among 405,000 households by a working group comprising village and Livestock Department representatives and according to a few broad beneficiary selection criteria. Regardless of how well this was done, the choice of beneficiaries endowed them with an asset and status of considerable value and, understandably, this caused jealousies particularly when few calves were returned to the project for redistribution to further beneficiaries. The same problems with low calving rates and reluctance to return calves for further distribution had been encountered in the NTASP (ICR paragraph 37). This component was rated as unsatisfactory and was phased out following the MTR." World Bank 2004, Pg 7.

  • 21
    • "Poor understanding of agrarian dynamics, weak governance, and the tendency for donors to seek one-size-fits-all approaches contributed to the failures. Implementation difficulties are especially challenging in agriculture with weak governance and the spatial dispersion of programs. This experience underlines the need to strengthen donor and country capacity for program design and to invest in governance and institutions for effective implementation (chapter 11)." World Bank, "World Development Report (2008)," Pg 42.
    • "There is little indication that Bank projects other than research interventions have systematically adapted activities to diverse country agro-ecological conditions. The ability to respond to local conditions has been the primary appeal of projects that use community-based approaches, but there is little evidence that these approaches, as used in projects in Ghana and Tanzania, for example, are able to respond to agro-ecological diversity." World Bank 2007, Pg xxvi.

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