Who Cares About Farmers?

From my desk, I can see a wall calendar with glossy images of happy farmers. For March, a group of Mozambican fisherman haul seine. For May, an Ecuadorean woman in a traditional wool sweater and felt hat harvests massive collard greens from her greenhouse. On December's page, two Turkish women hoe a field with their children in tow. Microcredit is a common theme-a farmer gets $50 to increase her herds or fishers get money to upgrade their nets. Women are central characters.

What ties all these scenes together is an organization called IFAD, the International Fund for Agricultural Development. Most people probably haven't heard of it, but its impact is huge. That's because 75 percent of the world's poorest people live in remote, rural areas in Africa, Asia, and Latin America-exactly those hard-to-reach areas where IFAD does its work, and that most other development groups overlook. People living in rural areas are less likely to have access to schools, health care, clean water, and toilets.

That doesn't mean that the world should write off rural areas as backwaters. In fact, part of the reason that IFAD was set up (after the 1974 World Food Conference) was the strong evidence that countries that invest in their rural areas have made some of the best progress in raising incomes everywhere. (And the realization that hunger results not so much from a lack of food, but more from poverty.) The growing prosperity of millions of small farms in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan following World War II, and in China in more recent decades, inspired the dramatic economic booms those countries enjoyed. In contrast, persistent poverty in sub-Saharan Africa correlates with stagnant farm production and low investment in rural areas.

Today, IFAD's portfolio includes 192 projects in 115 countries. Its budget totals about $400 million per year, roughly one-fiftieth of U.S. spending on pet food. IFAD has been particularly effective in drought-prone areas, which haven't shared in the agricultural success of wetter areas with irrigation.

Unfortunately, over the last two decades, governments and international aid organizations have consistently reduced their investments in rural areas. In six West African countries, the average government spent just 4.1 percent of its budget on agriculture in 1980 and an even more meager 1.7 percent in 1998. U.S. agricultural assistance to Africa has declined an estimated 5 percent in real terms since 2000.

Right now, United Nations officials are discussing whether to replenish IFAD's funding for 2007-2009. IFAD's mission is more relevant than ever, as we approach the Millennium Development Goal of halving the proportion of people living in extreme poverty by 2015. With tight national and UN budgets, funding IFAD's work in full is money well spent.

-Brian Halweil, Worldwatch Senior Researcher