Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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USAID, Water, and Food Security

by Isobel Coleman
April 25, 2013

A Sudanese farmer prepares his land for irrigation on the banks of the river Nile in Khartoum on November 11, 2009 (Mohamed Nureldin Abdallh/Courtesy Reuters). A Sudanese farmer prepares his land for irrigation on the banks of the river Nile in Khartoum on November 11, 2009 (Mohamed Nureldin Abdallh/Courtesy Reuters).


With its recently released Water and Development Strategy, USAID highlights some practical and potentially powerful initiatives both to improve health by expanding access to clean water and sanitation and to improve food security through better water management in agriculture. With respect to food security, the report singles out two areas for action:

1) Make rainfed agriculture work better. As the report argues, “The greatest and most cost­ effective potential for crop yield increases are in rainfed areas. Half of the increase in the projected demand for water by 2025 could be met by increasing the efficiency of irrigation in these areas.” The report also notes that “in many instances, the major obstacle to rainfed agriculture is not the absolute volume of rainfall; it is management of that rainfall.” The report seems optimistic about the solutions available to bolster rainfed agriculture. For example, it points to a basic agricultural technique (ridge tillage) that allowed rainfed farmers in Mali to increase the yields of cereals “by 30 to 50 percent.”

2) Make irrigation more effective. The report announces that “USAID will focus on increasing irrigated agriculture in select countries, including expanding irrigation in a responsible, sustainable, and climate-resistant way. The most cost-effective investment for USAID in irrigated systems will be in improving the efficiency of existing irrigation systems and building the capacity to manage those systems like a business, whether through community based organizations or private investments.” The report points to the reality that without good management, “irrigation infrastructure has often fallen into disuse at the end of a project because benefits were too small and/or users were unable to cover recurring costs.”

According to USAID, rainfed agriculture is responsible for over 60 percent of food produced globally. Thus, the focus on improving the productivity of rainfed agriculture is sensible–indeed, working to improve preexisting systems and business processes should be seen more in international development efforts. Kickstart, a nonprofit organization that I’ve written about previously, takes this practical approach. It is currently selling affordable, portable pumps to smallholder farmers in countries in Sub-Saharan Africa so that they too can experience the benefits of irrigation on a continent where only about 6 percent of the cultivated land is irrigated (versus 37 percent in Asia, for instance). Kickstart estimates that since 1991, its affordable pumps have alleviated poverty for over 700,000 people.

As the global population continues to climb toward 10 billion, and more people enjoy the higher caloric intake of middle class life, finding sustainable ways to improve agricultural productivity is increasingly important. As the USAID strategy makes clear, more careful water management will be a critical part of the solution.

Post a Comment 6 Comments

  • Posted by Caroline Kirby

    Does the report suggest specific policy actions for food insecure countries in MENA, such as Yemen?

  • Posted by Augustine Yada

    As much as we appreciate and value every effort and contribution, being made by USAID, in supporting development initiatives to improve the lives of the poor, materially, in the developing world, one of most important things we consider key and fundamental to a successful and sustainable development is, education and training, needed to build local capacity of development partners, who are also development participants and owners and ultimately beneficiaries.

    USAID should be focusing on this aspect and work directly with rural, peasantry communities, in strengthening local capacities and infrastructure, enabling rural communities to become more functional, in effective use of technologies employed in sustainable development, as opposed to funding development projects through national governments, especially some of the governments in sub-Saharan Africa.

    Most of these governments, have become prone to excessive corruption that, they are stealing every single development fund, to which they are exposed, often leaving the rural poor, highly exposed to abject poverty and disease.

    This is one of the key reasons why there is a wide spread illiteracy, poverty and disease in most rural communities, across most of sub-Saharan Africa. Certain governments, in some of these countries want it that way, so that it is much easier to control their populations, so as to remain longer in office and keep feeding themselves on development aid money.

    I am appalled and disgusted to see so much development aid money being stolen by Ugandan government officials, with so much impunity that, it has become a norm, for government officials and politicians, to live off the avails of institutional corruption and nothing good gets done, to uplift the poor from dire conditions of adverse poverty and divergent diseases.

    Any talk of inclusive democracy and the rule of law, is going to the local dogs, if not down the drains, which are visible all over the dusty and over crowded cities. Why does the USAID continue to fund development projects, through such obviously very corrupt, inefficient and irresponsible governments, like of the National Resistance Movement in Uganda?

    Isn’t it about time, to get rid of such regimes, for the sake of democracy and development and for the common good of the poor?

  • Posted by Adamu Abdullahi

    I think USAID should collaborate with civil society organizations to participate in monitoring and evaluation of developmental projects to ensure citizen-centric governance approach and ownership by beneficiary communities.
    Truth is,we have farmers user groups in Nigeria and community projects management committee which mobilize support for initiatives that are funded by annual governmental appropriations and external donors.

  • Posted by Isobel Coleman

    Corrupt and inefficient governments are appalling (we’ve got some of that going on in this country too), but I have little interest in committing the US to getting rid of such regimes around the world – the list is long and we’ve proven that regime change isn’t a panacea for democracy and development. Whether USAID should keep funding governments in the face of corruption and inefficiency is a long-standing question – in some cases, humanitarian issues are compelling reasons to continue to do so simply to mitigate human suffering. In others, the funding is directed towards strengthening institutions and improving governance. But in most cases, I think we should focus our energies on those countries that are committed to good governance and helping themselves. That’s the idea behind the Millennium Challenge Corporation.

  • Posted by Isobel Coleman

    The focus of the report is more general, but Yemen is mentioned as a “strategic priority” for the clean water/sanitation aspect of the strategy. (The water situation in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, is so severe that there is talk of moving the main government functions to another spot.)

  • Posted by Isobel Coleman

    Absolutely – country/community ownership is vital to making development projects work. The report has some information on partnerships (e.g. page 19).

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