By Austen Moore
Senior Technical Advisor
Catholic Relief Services
As a Peace Corps volunteer, we were taught to “work ourselves out of a job” by the end of our service. In short, to develop programs, build capacities, and empower local people to take these initiatives and run with them. This approach makes sense from an educational, governance, and financial perspective, with the theoretical underpinning that local people are best positioned to enable their own sustainable development. USAID’s recent emphasis on the Road to Self-Reliance (link) borrows heavily from this thinking, in addition to positioning countries to do more with less external support.
Much of the work I’ve done in my career matches this methodology, focusing on the importance of capacity development and participatory approaches that create buy-in and empowerment. Emphasis tends to fall at the macro and micro levels: (1) the national level, where countries are guided towards enabling environments and participatory policy reform; and (2) the field level, where beneficiaries are reached with services and the “rubber meets the road” so to speak. Certainly these levels are worthy of focus and substantial impact is made here, which justifies the intense development attention and funding they receive.
But I’ve come to realize that local systems – i.e. the formal and informal structures that organize activity in countries and function beyond the timelines and budgets of development projects – may hold hidden potential to realize these goals in a way that we, as development actors, have yet to fully harness. These local systems – or the meso level, through which policy leads to field-level action and field-level issues matriculate up to influence policy – is equally crucial. Many a policy reform produces a well-designed, slickly printed document ready for distribution down to lower levels where it can be implemented, only to reside in boxes in Ministry offices. Likewise, reams of needs assessments, stakeholder-focused studies, and reporting highlight local needs and preferences, which struggle to substantially influence the national dialogue or research agenda.
As a member of the University of Illinois’ AgReach program, we directly targeted the meso level through the Strengthening Agricultural and Nutrition Extension (SANE) project in Malawi (link). SANE worked to strengthen the local structures that made up the District Agricultural Extension Services System, a series of stakeholder platforms that linked villages to higher administrative levels (where funding decisions were made) and ultimately the national level (where policy was decided). SANE quickly determined that these platforms lacked a basic understanding of their roles and responsibilities and needed strengthening in group formation and management practices, not exactly a novel approach but one that is often overlooked with local systems where a baseline of capacity is assumed even when no efforts are made to build it. Simply forming platforms, committees, or structures does not make them functional or capable, as the Malawi experience showed. As a result, local systems become a bottleneck rather than a conduit for development.
However, with the SANE example, when platforms were strengthened there was a decided uptick in the provision of agricultural services and better alignment between services and needs. Moreover, participants in the platforms – largely local farmers, field-level development actors, and small-scale private sector providers – were energized to continue advocating for appropriate services. Extension workers cited that it was “no longer business as usual” and that they now had to be responsive to farmers’ needs, as these needs were better prioritized and articulated, and that farmers had the advocacy power of the platforms to hold service providers accountable (link). Multiple cases thus arose where stakeholder platforms were able to mobilize resources locally – either from district development funds, NGO budgets, or community members themselves – to address local issues without external support. This shortened the feedback loop between needs identification and problem resolution, thereby strengthening local ownership and self-reliance. Where climate and pest-related issues arose – as in the case of Fall Armyworm in Malawi – it also enhanced resilience and lessened crop losses and food insecurity.
While not every country has a built-in local system for agricultural services like Malawi, more deliberate attention to the meso-level local systems that do exist in every context can produce similar results. A recognition of this exists in most organizations looking for sustainable change. For example, Catholic Relief Services includes building functional organizations/systems as one of our building blocks for agricultural livelihoods. The CRS SMART Skills package also focuses on group formation and strengthening as an essential component of the Pathway to Prosperity (link), yet recognizes that the potential of these groups will be best realized if they are tied into local systems, whether civil society organizations, local diocese advocating on their behalf, private sector buyers engaging them in market opportunities, or simply escalating levels of stakeholder platforms pushing their needs upwards as seen in Malawi.
Still, operationalizing this focus remains elusive. USAID’s Local Systems Framework (link) identifies potential strategies, but more direct programming targeting this meso level may be beneficial. One opportunity would be to closer link agricultural programming to democracy and governance efforts that focus on local systems and citizen advocacy. Sometimes – as in Malawi where the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Local Government often functioned in parallel – linkages can be made between existing systems that dramatically improve performance. Agricultural programming focusing on resilience and empowerment could also learn from governance literature and the experiences of decentralization and democratization, which could be components of farmer group capacity-building efforts.
Overall, local systems strengthening remains a key need but an area where successes are emerging that require closer investigation, especially when efforts to strengthen local systems are deliberate and central to programming. Through more focused efforts – either by incorporating local systems into project design or funding systems strengthening projects like SANE – I expect to see better impacts for farmers and countries overall. If self-reliance and local ownership towards poverty and hunger reduction are our goals, we would not go wrong making this a more deliberate priority.
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The mission of the AIARD Blog is to highlight and share thoughts, ideas and work from people who have devoted their careers to global agricultural development and hunger alleviation.