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Part 10: A practical service in response to climate change for agricultural project managers and farmers in low income countries

Hector McNeill
George Boole Foundation

A good deal of this series has reviewed essential information for farm and project planning and production in the context of climate change. This article describes the results of a joint effort between the units of the George Boole Foundation to develop a useful practical low cost support system for low income country practitioners. This system, based on a cluster network provides an extension infrastructure and access to advanced analytical and management tools.
Hector McNeill

The current support structure for agricultural sectors

From generalities to the specific

There is a significant break in practical communications between the international institutional levels, outlined above, and the practitioners managing projects and managing farms in a country and within agricultural sector bioclimatic conditions which vary significantly requiring targeted support.

The current setup

The diagrams on the right show the general structure of information flow from international organizations which oversee and record the conditions of Sustainable Development Goals and agricultural production.

The institutions concerned are the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) initiative (Agenda 2030) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Having worked for these organizations I have no doubt as to the good intentions of those within these organizations in attempting to serve the member governments with adequate orientation based of copious amounts of information, data and analyses. However, it is not governments who have to carry out the tasks involved in placing food in front of the millions of people living in low income countries. Invariably, for many, they consume the food they themselves produce and some others participate in the cash economy by producing food for sale and then there is a truly massive community of family farmers, mostly based on family groups. According to FAO, about 90 percent of the world’s 570 million farms are owned and operated by families. Most are small and are found in the rural areas of the developing world. Many of these small holder family farmers are poor and food insecure and have limited access to markets and services. For the rest of the majority of the populations in low income countries, they depend on the production of food through systems that can operate under regimes that maintain accessible prices.

The missing link - no specific agricultural sector SDG

The most striking omission from the SDG is the absence of a specific focus on the agricultural sector. Agriculture employs the majority of people in low income countries and provides the whole world with its basic foods, fibre and feedstocks. Although the FAO is attempting to respond to this gap, it does so at a very high degree of abstraction from the conditions on the ground. It cannot do more than this but this is not sufficient to bring solutions to projects and farmers in low income countries. As a result, there has been a 5 year delay, since the launch of SDGs in 2017, in arranging sufficient preparation to address this gap.

Economic policies

Since 1975 the IMF promoted a policy of monetarism which saw the balance of payments as a monetary phenomenon. As a result, the theory based rises in economic growth on investment and in particular debt (loans) as a way to accelerate "economic growth". The World Bank has operated as a source of loans supporting the same agenda. For the majority of low income countries this approach has not worked out as expected by the monetarist theorists in the agricultural sectors concerned. Indeed, the 2019 United Nations Sustainable Development Report registered the fact that the economic growth paradigm adopted was causing rising income disparity, declining sustainability and rising temperatures as a result of the application of inappropriate technologies and techniques which increased Greenhouse gas emissions.

In spite of these findings, which in reality have been evident since the mid-1970s, the COP 26 meetings only saw the same "solution" being advanced. This was the provision of $1 trillion in investment and loans while for well over 20 years no one has come up with the funds promised to combat climate change.

As recently as 2010 World Bank loan failure rates remained at around 35% and agricultural projects in excess of 40%. Only 20% of projects had been subjected to Economic Rates of Return analysis when World Bank regulations require that all projects undergo this evaluation. This only shows that before funds are applied, their justification is already on shaky ground.

For a more detailed analysis why monetarism is failing there is a recent analysis contained in the latest edition of the BSR-British Strategic Review. The most remarkable aspect of this analysis is that the BRS explains why monetary policy theory is flawed. The greenhouse gas emissions issue is largely linked to coal and hydrocarbon extraction and use and the BSR also explains why the world economy is so dependent on petroleum and why alternatives were not found since the last petroleum price crisis in 1973.

The previous article in his series, "Part 9: The importance and distinctions concerning coherence in project cycle management" explained the concept of gig-commodities or the need to change genotypes used even in a single project as time passes. The changes the nature of the objectives of project design, management and requires a more flexible less rigid approach to monitoring and evaluation.
The development of local agricultural support clusters

From specific micro-bioclimates to specific interest groups

There is a significant break in practical communications between the international institutional levels, outlined above, and the practitioners managing projects and managing farms in a country and within agricultural sector bioclimatic conditions which vary significantly requiring targeted support.

Gaps and needs

In order to bring agricultural sectors up to speed in order to gain guidelines on how to react to relatively rapidly changing circumstances under climate change there is a need for farmers and project teams to have access to locally relevant information. This cannot come from UN SDG administration or FAO because local circumstances relating to bioclimate factors are so variable. However, FAO, for many years has supported the techniques and completion of a global effort in completing agroecological zoning surveys and these are very good starting points. The next level of analysis of direct relevance to project and farmer decisions are local variations in land aspects and soil conditions, corresponding identification of the most adapted varieties of crops and livestock and the most appropriate cultivation techniques. Most of this information is atomized in that different aspects are known to researchers, different farmers and extension services. However, for any particular site there is usually an inadequate means of accessing all of the relevant information necessary for project design or farm planning. Since such information is distributed the best means of bringing this information into an accessible and useful format is to create networks of clusters of mutually interested parties or stakeholders consisting mainly of those who need this information to apply it in supporting their livelihood.

Therefore the closing of this gap and bringing people together as clusters to share information on mutually common interests related to the production options of their micro-bioclimatic conditions is essential.

The creation and sharing of applicable knowledge

Based on locational-state concepts it is a relatively easy process to identify different productivity potential clusters within a single agroecological zone. The differences tend to relate to altitude and soil condition variations - see box on the left.

Extended extension and farm advisory services

Over the last 50 years, farm advisory and extension services have become over extended as a result of inadequate investment by most governments and extension agents do a valiant job in attempting to cover many farms in an adequate fashion. This means that the more complex and relevant analysis of each farm is reduced to the resolution of current seasonal conditions such as spraying campaigns and the like. It is essential to lever the contribution of extension services by providing them with adequate recording, monitoring and evaluation facilities that cover, involving no additional effort on their part, the range of relevant issues of importance in raising farm and project sustainability in environmental and economic terms. This requires analytical tools used to optimize and record project designs and farm plans as well as monitor changing conditions such as seasonal water and temperature conditions and to provide support in decision making in response to such changes. While this is being addressed, it is also important to arrange information and knowledge in such a way that it can be easily accessed by the members of each relevant cluster within each farming community so that all remain on the advancing edge of awareness and learning. The timely sharing of directly applicable information helps advance the productivity of each farm incrementally leading to a significant impact on overall productivity, sustainability and profitability.

Our solution

As a non-profit, the George Boole Foundation operates on a very limited budget but through SEEL (Systems Engineering Economics Lab) we have 50 years applied experience project design and farm planning in the agricultural sectors in temperate, Mediterranean, arid and tropical agricultural zones in high, medium and low income countries. In 2010 we initiated the Decision Analysis Initiative to develop the types of support infrastructures and analytical tools which are the subject of this article. As a result we have created a set of analytical tools for design, setup, operational management, monitoring and evaluation of agricultural projects and farm production in the form of SDGToolkit and a knowledge-sharing platform linked to the data generated by the Toolkit in the form of the This has taken some time to establish because of the need to change technologies required to manage such a system. Previous attempt had suffered from component suppliers wishing to charge too much for their licenses. Therefore we now only use open source software and all components and are designed to reduce our own operational costs. The most significant operational costs reductions have been achieved in house based on our own specialized unit, Plasma.Systems.

Sustainable Development Facility Grants

In spite of now possessing a very efficient cloud-based operation we have studied launch strategies to identify those we feel will maximize the advantage of use of the system to practitioners in low income countries, including extension services, and therefore are introducing a very generous grant scheme, which is essentially a discount on the current SDGToolkit service fee. This, in reality is the classic loss-leader strategy or real incomes strategy where by reducing the cost of entry and operational fees we can facilitate take up while also growing income faster. The basic situation is that the more people take up SDGToolkit the more likely it is that the operational discount of 80% could end up as the long term fee; we hope this is the case. All funds received by the Foundation through SDGToolkit are reinvested in the services and applied development of the systems to advance the quality of services. In this context the SDGToolkit Network will provide feedback mechanisms which in addition to normal software technical support will begin to create requested modifications or the production of new analytical tools required by the cluster communities using the system and network.

The theory behind this strategy was robust and was developed by the previous incarnation of SDGToolkit in the form of Navatec, by SEEL-Systems Engineering Economics Lab, see left and right.

The baseline message is that the more people use SDGToolkit the more rapidly will the system become more accessible but the rate of systems innovation and service quality will also accelerate and operational prices will remain very low. This is why the first three months of use will be free of charge and the following 9 months will operate at the 80% discount. If the take up is rapid enough then it should be possible to maintain the 80% discount as a permanent arrangement.

For very low income countries within the list of 143 qualifying countries, see the list here, we think that some institutions or farmer groups might not have sufficient ready cash flow to even pay the 80% discounted fee. We will, therefore, offer governments an annual registration option that will provide all institutions and farmer groups within their country SDGToolkit and Network services free of charge. The final terms of these agreements are being drafted and should be ready by 1st April, 2022 or thereabouts.

Final remarks

In meetings that occurred Saturday, 12th March, 2022 it was decided that in order to prevent the possible stretching of SDGToolkit and Network resources and maintain service quality, the SDF, in agreement with, will establish grant quotas to manage Network membership on a first-come-first-served basis. The size of these quotas have not yet been decided but these will be finalised on or around 1st April, 2022. As a result of consultations, and taking into account the trends in current economic circustances, the number of qualifying countries for grants could increase as a result of expected global economic contraction during the period 2022-2023. Therefore the qualifying country list will be updated every 6 months as from 1st April, 2022.

Posted: 20220312
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