Background

Agricultural research and technology development have been charged with benefiting the rich more than the poor, people in well-endowed regions more than those in disadvantaged areas, the landed more than the landless, the agricultural more than the nonagricultural rural sector, and men more than women and children. Yet much evidence suggests that agricultural research has helped raise incomes and productivity, enable growth in food production to outstrip population growth, reduce prices for food below levels that would otherwise prevail, generate savings for the poor (because they spend so much more of their incomes on food), and stem the degradation of natural resources.

The 16 international agricultural research centers of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) spend over US$300 million annually worldwide on agricultural research, with poverty reduction being a principal aim (though not the only one). Is this objective feasible for institutions engaged in strategic international agricultural research, involving the range of biological, social, management, and policy sciences? For institutions engaged in agricultural research at the national and regional levels? How can the agricultural research of the CGIAR best improve the conditions of the poor? Has improvement, in fact, been occurring? (Is it not a sad commentary that this question is a valid one, while the recent worldwide economic crisis led to such quick fixes for capital?) What kinds of agricultural research projects, especially in the CGIAR centers, could lead to further abatement of poverty? And is agricultural research an important instrument in the tool boxes of policy makers and the development community concerned with alleviating poverty?

These are questions CIAT believes merit rigorous examination; answers should be of particular value to CGIAR centers, national agricultural research systems, professionals working to reduce poverty generally, and the policy-making community. To accelerate and intensify that examination, the Center--joined by member countries of the CGIAR from CIAT’s host region, including Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, and the USA--will conduct a workshop for two and a half days in September 1999. Although rural poverty in the Americas will constitute the starting point, urban poverty and the implications of presentations and findings for all developing regions will be included, as the forum is to be global in nature and to be concerned with poverty in all sectors.

CIAT believes that rural poverty in the Americas is an appropriate point of departure for several reasons.

  • First, conclusions and findings will be of relevance to a number of countries because of similarities in their economic, social, and cultural circumstances.

  • Second, poverty is a rural problem in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC). The number of rural people living in extreme poverty (with incomes of 50 cents per day or less) equals or exceeds the number in urban areas in most countries (1l of 16 for which poverty data are available). Most striking is the case of Mexico, where the poorest of the rural poor outnumber the poorest of the urban poor by a factor of almost eight to one.

  • Third, the "opening of the Americas" and the consequent intensification of trade flows among countries in the region have led to expectations that the benefits of agricultural research will now be seen more in terms of enhanced rural incomes than decreased food prices and increased purchasing power for consumers. ("International prices," less affected by the changing food supplies of a single country, are more likely to determine prices at the national level as a consequence of the opening of the Americas. Therefore, it should be possible to raise rural incomes by raising production, as prices will remain about constant.) This offers new region-specific opportunities for reduction of rural poverty that deserve attention.

  • Fourth, unlike other developing regions of the world, evidence in LAC indicates that the largest share of the rural poor are small farmers rather than nonfarm rural residents. For this reason, the policy and program design implications for poverty-targeted agricultural research may well be different in LAC than in Asia or Africa.

  • Finally, LAC is the steward of a disproportionately large share of the world’s natural resources of high quality. Yet most of the poor of the region are in areas of poor agricultural potential. This provides some striking contrasts that lend themselves especially well to clarifying the vicious circle between natural resource degradation and poverty and to better understanding the role of agricultural research in breaking this circle.

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