Agriculture is the backbone of rural Ireland. The Central Statistics Office (CSO; 2016 figures) tells us the agricultural workforce has remained steady; employing between 265,000 and 272,000 people over the past decade. While farm incomes vary, we can agree that agriculture remains one of our nation’s most important industries.
In other countries, agriculture is also the backbone of rural areas. However, depending on the place, it might look a bit different to our own. Last week (from 3-5 July), Alvaro Lario, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), made an official visit to Ireland to advocate for continued financial support for small scale farmers in developing and underdeveloped nations.
IFAD is an international financial institution and a specialised United Nations agency. They take a practical, business-focused approach to rural development in medium-to-low income countries. This approach has worked well – since 1978, they have provided $24 billion USD in grants and low-interest loans; helping farmers develop their land in ways which works for them and their communities.
Around 45% of the global population resides in rural areas of developing countries. According to IFAD, this population depends on agriculture for both subsistence and income generation, but they are disproportionately poor – 80% of those living in extreme poverty live in rural or isolated areas; not cities.
Transforming rural economies
Irish Country Living met with Alvaro during his state visit to discuss the work of IFAD and what Ireland’s involvement entails as one of its 177 member states.
“Our mandate is to transform rural economies,” he explains. “For us, the way to really bring people out of poverty and ensure they can generate an income is to provide them with the tools to access finance, technology, land or inputs. In the case of Africa or South Asia, a lot of food is produced by small scale producers, so our mandate relates to rural economies [with a] focus on small scale farming and [particularly] vulnerable communities [indigenous people, youth and women]. We provide concessionary grants or loans to Governments, but [then] we design the programme with these communities - with farmers’ cooperatives or women’s associations, for example.”
“Small scale farming” means different things in different places. Alvaro explains that when they say “small scale”, what they mean is two hectares or smaller in size. As they work with such small farms, IFAD encourages farmers to work with or through cooperatives so they have better access to assets and economies of scale.
“For us, farming needs to be a business beyond subsistence,” he adds.
Working with nature
IFAD encourages farmers to use agroecology techniques and regenerative methods where possible, however, Alvaro insists that their work is ultimately people-led. Making farms financially viable is their number one goal.
“Agroecology and regenerative agriculture is part of how we believe we can make sure that many of [these farmers’] assets, like soil and water, are not depleted,” he explains. “We obviously favour these methods, but it’s not the only component or the main focus of our work. You have to work within the environment, but people are always at the centre of our programmes.”
It can be difficult for developed nations to imagine the extreme situations those in poorer areas often find themselves. Alvaro says that when there are no other opportunities, many join illegal mining operations or terrorist groups to make “fast money”. Others are forced to migrate; leaving loved ones behind. Investing in agricultural development has been significant in increasing the quality of lives of rural dwellers, because it has provided employment opportunities not just on-farm, but in processing, transport, storage and all other branches of food production.
Addressing gender issues in agriculture is also an important aspect of the work IFAD do. Not dissimilar to Ireland, women in low income countries lack assets, financial investment and legitimacy in terms of paperwork. It is largely understood that investing in women is a key component to reaching any development goal.
“Women need access to land, to financing and to inputs,” Alvaro says, “At the same time, increasing their income is not as difficult as, for example, giving them a voice in [decision making processes] or having access to land titles. The key issue is how they access assets themselves, rather than the generation of income.”
Part of IFAD’s remit is to provide low-income rural communities with useful farming technology. Alvaro tells Irish Country Living that the level of technology depends on the area.
“For example, in Indonesia we can provide drones so farmers can look at their irrigation systems on their mobile phones,” he says, “so when we’re working in middle income or lower middle income countries, there are certain technologies you can use.
“If you’re looking at the low income remote areas and poorer regions, then perhaps the type of technology could be drought-resistant seeds,” he continues. “We could be talking about, in some cases, solar panels for small-scale irrigation systems.”
He also says access to water is a huge issue in remote areas, with many having to walk several kilometres to find water sources. Building local, small scale dams has been a technological solution. The use of satellites is handy for looking at soil health or to develop early warning systems for cyclones, while mobile availability can be vitally important for farmers to access food and commodity prices (to ensure they aren’t taken advantage of by middle men or traders).
Working with Ireland
During his visit, Alvaro met with President Michael D Higgins, Seán Fleming TD, Minister of State for International Development and Diaspora and Charlie McConologue TD, Minister of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. He says, as a member state, Ireland has always been understanding of IFAD’s work. In the last three years, Ireland has provided €12.5million to support IFAD and contributed an additional €1million for their emergency COVID-19 response.
“I think by now Ireland is very familiar and aligned with our mission,” Alvaro says. “I think they are generally very supportive and Ireland very much understands the role of small-scale farmers. It’s always nice to come here.”
In 2021, global think tank the Center for Global Development named IFAD the most efficient multilateral institution in terms of impact and aid efficiency.
“We are associated with the UN system, but we are an independent specialised agency - our resources do not come from the UN,” Alvaro explains. “In this sense, we have to constantly show our results.”
Irish Country Living asks Alvaro what he would say to the Irish farming community if he had one message to share.
“The challenges that many farmers go through in terms of finance, soil health, extreme weather events, diversification – are the same across the world, it’s just the scale of the challenge and the support one might receive is very different.”
Visit ifad.org to learn more.
IFAD works in three-year funding cycles. In the 2019-2021 cycle, their investments:
• Improved the incomes of 77.4 million rural people by at least 10%
• Led to production rise for 62 million rural people
• Improved market access for 64 million rural people
• Helped 38 million bolster their resilience
• Improved the food security of 57 million people