Summary of Findings

Does Research Reduce Poverty?

An international workshop weighs the evidence of impact

As the 20th century draws to a close, the plight of massive numbers of disempowered poor people in the world weighs heavily on the minds of development specialists everywhere. Why, they ask, does poverty continue to reign in so many places, despite the huge social, economic, and technological advances of this century? And what can be done in the next century to open pathways out of poverty for the millions who are desperate to make the journey, or at least to secure passage for their children?

These questions deeply concern agricultural researchers in the tropics, including those working in or allied with the 16 centers of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). To eliminate poverty has been the Group's central goal since its inception.

For more than three decades, the centers have worked toward this end by helping produce "a bigger pile of rice," as one of the founders of the CGIAR liked to put it. Research on that and other staple foods has proved remarkably effective in combating hunger, one of the worst hardships that the poor must endure.


A rigorous examination

But doubts and questions have arisen about the impact of agricultural research. Is it truly effective in reducing poverty? Has it favored some places and groups of people more than others?

In September of this year, about 175 economists, agricultural researchers, and development specialists gathered at San José, Costa Rica, to conduct a rigorous examination of these and related questions. The organizers commissioned more than 20 papers for the workshop, and provided a forum for more than 80 researchers to share their results. In general, they dealt with broad trends, synthesizing numerous case studies of research that has made a difference in the lives of the poor.

This article summarizes key findings, relying on a presentation made in October by Douglas Pachico, CIAT's director for Strategic Planning and Impact Assessment, in the opening session of the CGIAR's annual meetings at the World Bank.

Workshop participants examined three main issues:

  1. How does agricultural research reduce poverty?
  2. How is poverty related to the environment?
  3. How can agricultural research be better managed to help reduce poverty?

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Avenues of impact

One key theme that cut across the discussion of these questions was the diversity of the poor. They live in varied environments and sustain themselves through many different livelihoods. They are small farmers, herders, city dwellers, and landless farm laborers. The poor are disproportionately old or very young. The majority are women.

Because the poor are highly diverse, so is the impact of agricultural research on poverty. It affects different people in different ways and to varying degrees. Most of the benefits, though, reach the poor by four main avenues:

  1. Raising farm income
  2. Generating employment for farm workers
  3. Reducing the price of food
  4. Fueling economic growth

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Farm income and jobs

Research improves farm income by offering technological innovations that boost agricultural productivity. Evidence reviewed by Peter Hazell, Mitch Renkow, and Keijiro Otsuka points to massive productivity increases during recent decades.

The best-known examples are the widespread adoption of modern rice and wheat varieties. But other cases were presented as well, dealing with virus-free sweet potatoes for poor farmers in hillside areas of China (Thomas Walker), livestock technologies in sub-Saharan Africa (Simeon Ehui), and new cassava varieties in Nigeria (Abiodun Falusi), for example. Though small farmers have sometimes adopted new technologies more slowly than large producers, huge numbers of small farmers have adopted and benefited.

The higher farm incomes made possible by improved technologies have enabled rural people to seize new opportunities. In Asia, for example, families that adopted modern rice varieties have managed to provide an education for their children, who have then obtained better paying jobs off the farm. Thus, far from locking rural people into poverty on small farms, Otsuka noted, agricultural research has helped many of them find an exit.

Research has also benefited landless laborers, who are among the poorest of the poor, through job creation in a more productive agriculture. Many farm workers have migrated from areas where modern rice and wheat have not been adopted to more favored regions where farmers have taken up new varieties.

Recent evidence indicates, however, that employment in Asia's rice production is declining. Future opportunities for finding work in agriculture will most likely come more from the production of high-value commodities (such as fruits, vegetables, and livestock) and from value-added processing of a wide range of tropical products. Papers by Gonzalo Rodríguez on traditional processing of brown sugar and by María Verónica Gottret and Melanie Raymond on cassava drying demonstrated the power of research to foment the development of small agroenterprises.

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Cheaper food in a global marketplace

Often, one of the greatest benefits of agricultural research in developing countries has been cheaper food, made possible by more efficient crop production. This has helped poor part-time farmers, landless labors, and city dwellers in particular, since they spend much of their income on food.

Lower food prices alone, however, cannot lift people out of poverty. Increased incomes, noted Derek Byerlee, have far more impact in reducing the numbers of poor.

Moreover, as markets become more global, agricultural innovation at the national level has less effect on local food prices, especially in urban areas that are well connected to world markets. In a global economy, gains in food production at the national level are relatively insignificant. However, in isolated areas cut off from international markets, explained Byerlee, these production gains can still help the poor by making food cheaper.

In countries whose economies are open to the global marketplace, new agricultural technology will in the future offer fewer benefits to poor urban consumers but potentially rich rewards to adopting farmers by making them more productive and competitive. A more competitive agriculture, in turn, will create jobs and fuel growth in other sectors of developing country economies.

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Pathways out of poverty

Rather than passively accept their lot in life, the rural poor actively pursue different "livelihood strategies" or "pathways out of poverty," according to Alain de Janvry and Elizabeth Sadoulet. In various ways research helps these people find a way forward.

For rural people who have some access to land, markets, and public services, developing the small farm is clearly a viable strategy. And improved agricultural technology can speed farmers' progress along this route.

Many rural families, however, cannot derive a living from farming alone but depend on work outside agriculture. In such households agricultural production is frequently the responsibility of women, who benefit from innovations in the production of staple foods and from labor-saving devices. They should also gain new opportunities from research on small agroenterprise development.

Leaving the countryside altogether is another important pathway out of rural poverty. Even in this case, agricultural research helps, at least indirectly. First, by raising farm incomes, creating jobs, and thus enabling farm families to educate their children, research contributes to an easier transition from village to urban life. Second, a prosperous agriculture, by fueling growth in other sectors, helps create a more favorable economic climate for migrants seeking work.

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¿A blunt instrument?

Despite much evidence of impact, it has become a cliché among economists that agricultural research is a "blunt instrument" for reducing rural poverty. It does not reach all of the poor, many point out, and some of its benefits are siphoned off by the well-to-do. There is certainly an element of truth in these arguments, but are alternative uses of public funds any more precise or effective in combating poverty?

Workshop participants shared the following insights on this question:

  • Credit programs tend to favor the well-off, with some exceptions.
  • Land reform is frequently ineffective unless it is massive, and such programs face formidable political barriers.
  • The record of agricultural extension programs is spotty, with only occasional successes.
  • Improvements in infrastructure, such as roads and irrigation systems, have large potential but are not always effective against poverty.
  • Education much improves the prospects of the poor but mainly outside agriculture.

It would appear then that these are blunt instruments too. They are not clearly superior to agricultural research as means of reducing rural poverty. Moreover, research improves the returns to credit programs, land reform, extension, and infrastructure improvement, and for that reason, it is a vital component of integrated strategies for reducing poverty.

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The geography of poverty

In addressing a second main issue--the relationship between poverty and the environment--workshop participants analyzed two sets of questions:

  1. Where are the rural poor? In favorable environments or in marginal lands where conditions for agriculture are harsh? Is research effective for reducing poverty in marginal lands?
  2. Is rural poverty a major driving force behind environmental degradation in the tropics? That is, do the poor "mine" natural resources (such as soil and biodiversity) for lack of better ways to support themselves and their families?

There is much that we do not know about the geography of poverty, but the general picture at least seems clear. In India, Shenngen Fan and others reported, 65 percent of the rural poor live in marginal environments. Similarly, according to Scott Rozelle, most of the rural poor in China are concentrated in remote upland areas. Clearly, many rural poor also live in favorable environments. But if research concentrates exclusively on such areas, it bypasses the majority of the poor.

Does agricultural research have much to offer the poor in marginal environments? Mitch Renkow cited the many studies showing the greater impact of rice and wheat research in favorable areas. Yet, according to Fan and others, a recent study of a wider array of crops in India found that research in rainfed environments gave higher marginal rates of return than in irrigated environments and did more to reduce poverty. Similarly, Abelardo Rodríguez reported that in dry areas of West Asia research has yielded attractive returns.

Others noted that the terms "favorable" and "marginal" are relative. Locations where rice and wheat are under high stress may be quite adequate for hardier crops, such as millet and cassava. Obviously, whether organizations give more weight to favorable or marginal lands depends in part on the crops involved. In any case this is not a simple either/or question. To reduce poverty, research must cater to both classes of environments.

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¿A vicious circle?

While reducing poverty in developing countries, does agricultural research necessarily favor the environment? That is, does it break the hypothesized "vicious circle," in which poverty drives natural resource degradation, which in turn further impoverishes rural people?

Cross-country analysis finds no relationship between poverty and soil erosion, according to Dieter Kirschke and others. But in local-level studies, the link appears to hold. In Honduras, for example, Helle Ravnborg found that poor farmers practice sustainable soil management less often than their wealthier neighbors.

A review of many case studies, presented by Sara Scherr, concluded that the "livelihood strategies" of poor farmers determine whether or not they degrade natural resources. There are plenty of examples of farmers who invest in resource improvement to raise their incomes. But in many other cases, poor farmers mine resources before exiting agriculture. Or they allow resources to degrade to some threshold at which conservation seems necessary or worthwhile.

Overall, the evidence suggests that poverty is not the main driving force behind environmental degradation in the tropics. The rich control more natural resources than the poor and often destroy them.

The poor may do likewise but on a more limited scale. In many cases, though, they can regenerate degraded land, and this has been shown to improve livelihoods in places where resource destruction is tightly linked to poverty. Such places present the CGIAR centers and their partners with valuable opportunities to confront poverty and environmental destruction at the same time.

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Institutional architecture

On the issue of research management, the workshop addressed two main questions. First, can agricultural research be targeted specifically to reduce poverty? And second, can it effectively accomplish multiple goals?

Many research organizations have given high priority to crops that are grown and consumed mainly by the poor, and they have targeted regions where especially large numbers of poor people live. Yet, empirical evidence cited by Derek Byerlee suggests that this research has not always registered high gains in reducing poverty.

Even so, tools are now available that enable agricultural research to serve these people and places more effectively. For example, participatory research methods were shown to improve the design of technology for poor farmers, as illustrated in a paper by Mauricio Bellón and others on maize variety development in Mexico. In general, researchers can bring their work more in line with the needs of poor farmers by actively involving them and giving them a voice in the governing boards of research institutions.

But is it expecting too much for agricultural research to meet the many needs of the poor in their diverse and complex predicaments--to improve food security, while reducing poverty, and at the same time improving the management of natural resources? By attempting to accomplish so much, do researchers run the risk of neglecting what they unquestionably do so well, which is to produce "a bigger pile of rice"?

Perhaps so, but the record of impact suggests otherwise. As Keijiro Otsuka and Mitch Renkow amply demonstrated, the increased agricultural productivity made possible by research has had substantial impact in reducing poverty. Moreover, as Sara Scherr noted, some poor farmers have succeeded in improving their management of natural resources in addition to raising productivity.

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Paying a moral debt

The prospects for continued impact from agricultural research on the food security, poverty, and environmental fronts have never been better. International centers, together with their many research partners, have accumulated a huge stock of "social capital" in the form of networks and other partnerships. And with this capital, they are generating a wider array of useful products than ever before.

These include improved crop germplasm for marginal and favorable environments as well as methods and information that help intensify crop and livestock production; protect water, forests, soil, and aquatic resources; strengthen national and local organizations; and improve government policies. Each of these products represents a potentially lucrative investment in better livelihoods for the poor.

Despite the mounds of convincing evidence compiled by this workshop, the debate about the impact of agricultural research on poverty alleviation will continue. Critics will remind us that some poor people have not received their fair share of the benefits and that some of these have actually gone to the rich.

Such criticisms will serve agricultural researchers as a constant reminder that their work can be better targeted and better managed. It will be a mistake, though, if the shortcomings of research divert attention from its impressive record of success in benefiting the poor. On the strength of that record, agricultural research must have a vital role during the next century in paying society's huge moral debt to the 1.3 billion people who live in absolute poverty.

Note: Selected papers presented at the international workshop "Assessing the Impact of Agricultural Research on Poverty Alleviation" will be published in April 2001 in the journal Food Policy.

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