A Discussion with Stephen Carr, World Bank Retiree and Veteran African Agriculturalist

With: Stephen Carr

March 26, 2011

Background: This exchange is based on a November 3, 2009 telephone conversation between Stephen Carr and Thomas Bohnett, in advance of a World Faiths Development Dialogue-sponsored consultation held at Georgetown University on links between faith and agriculture. The interview was updated by email correspondence in March 2011. Mr. Carr starts by highlighting his experience working with smallholder agriculture in Southern Sudan, Uganda, and Malawi, and stresses that working through religious communities is what makes the most sense, given their presence virtually everywhere. Extension services are so thin on the ground that their capacity to reach the poorest farmers is highly constrained. He describes remarkable success in working especially through women’s church groups. Regular meetings, keen interest, a large pool of volunteers, and thus a multiplier effect are the key assets. Sound technical training of staff and rigorous monitoring and evaluation are essential.

The lessons of agricultural failures in Africa are not being taken fully into account, above all failures of government ministries and weak agricultural training. The real benefits of health spending, in the face of need and suffering, help to explain the shift of resources from agriculture, where disappointments were rife, to health. Working with NGOs is an important alternative but much higher standards and management are needed than is often now the case. At the implementation level, individual denominations are the key partners, but National Councils of Churches can help materially with entry.

He reflects on the impact of climate change (the worst is yet to come) and population growth (with recent population growth farmers do not have a hope in hell without inorganic fertilizer). Africa’s challenge of shifting to more intensive agriculture in a short time is without precedent in history. He highlights that the success of Malawi’s agricultural miracle owed much to the clamoring demand of farmers for fertilizer and hybrid seeds. He argues that “land grab” issues need to be looked at case by case. He concludes with observations on the comparative benefits of working through churches. He also comments on the GMO debates and their impact on Africa.

You have written to us about your long experience working with churches to address agricultural challenges in sub-Saharan Africa. Can you give us a bit of context—when, where, and how did you start your career?

I started life in the southern Sudan by arriving keen, eager, and with a good degree, to find that 50 years of British colonial agricultural administration had not made any difference at all to local farming. I had a wife but no children, and decided that I wasn’t going to spend 50 years making no difference. The only way to find out why people didn’t take any notice of British agricultural extension workers was to go and live among the people. And so for eight years my wife and I became white peasant farmers in the southern Sudan. We learned an enormous amount, both about tropical agriculture but also about why smallholders do things. It was on the basis of that accumulated local knowledge that I came to see that using the church groups could bring about major changes. I took that with me when I moved next to Uganda and now here, to Malawi. But I didn’t jump in as a young graduate and say that I knew the answers. I spent eight years learning the answers before I started.

Africa is studded with church women’s groups and mosque groups. Obviously in the mosque groups you haven’t got so many women’s groups because of the nature of Islam, but across the Christian parts of this continent you’ve got tens of thousands of existing village groups. Governments are wary of using faith groups, for several reasons, and so they try to form artificial clubs which have no real foundations in the community. It’s infinitely preferable to use a group of people that already meets regularly. Whether there’s an agricultural message or there isn’t, the Mothers’ Union or the Presbyterian Women’s Group or the Catholic Sisters or whoever they are, are going to meet on Tuesday afternoon. In contrast, if you form an artificial agricultural club, which is what governments and major NGOs tend to do, the moment you stop funding a program, the club falls apart.

We hear concerns that government extension and policy tends to focus on large farmers and to neglect smallholder farmers. What is your experience with this?

I think it depends on which country. Certainly in Kenya that isn’t true; in Malawi it isn’t true and in Uganda it isn’t true. What is true, and what is inevitable, is that the ratio of government extension workers to farming families is absurdly high. In Malawi it is something like one extension worker to three thousand farming families. On a bicycle, what can you visit? One hundred, perhaps, if you’re quite keen? And which 100 are you going to choose? You are going to choose the people who’ve got some money, the people who can buy the fertilizer you recommend to them, the people who would experiment with some new seed you’re suggesting. You are dealing with 100 or if you’re very, very keen, 150 farmers out of 3,000. The odds are, human nature being what it is, that you choose the people who are the easiest to deal with, and so you inevitably choose the wealthier members of the community. While it wouldn’t be true in a number of countries to say that they deal with large scale farmers, they certainly deal without any doubt, with the richer members of the smallholder community. That often means that in many poorer villages nobody has seen an extension worker for three years.

The fundamental point about government extension services is that when you’ve got ratios of one extension worker to 3,000 or even 1,000 individual farm families, you really aren’t going to have much impact. What the World Bank and other donor agencies are grappling with is what you do about it. Under the current situation, you can’t employ another 10,000 extension workers because the budget won’t carry it. You’ve got to look for alternatives, and so the Bank in the past has said, “Let’s use the private sector.” The problem, of course, is that no chemical company or marketing organization is going to go visit women who haven’t got two pennies in their pockets and produce no surplus produce. And so when you put extension in the hands of commercial operators, they concentrate on the same 120 farmers that the government extension workers are concentrating on. People are grappling with how you can get out to these people. My answer is, “Why don’t you use 100,000 church women’s clubs that are just sitting there, waiting to be contacted?”

To give you some idea of how this works: When I started this approach in Malawi, I took ten staff, with the permission of the ministry, out of the ministry and under my own wing, and scattered them out through the country. Before they came to work with me they’d been dealing with 50 or 60 farmers belonging to farmer’s clubs which already had formed. I said, “Forget all that.” We went to work with church women’s groups. In the first year we introduced a new variety of soybean. The instructions I gave were to sell them, not give them away. The staff were told to sell two kilo packets of these soybeans after they had given women lessons on how to plant the seeds and cook the product. I said to the staff not to ask me for more seeds than they could sell. One day, this young man comes up and says, “I want 1.9 tons of seed.” I said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “I’ve got 500 Roman Catholic women who meet together in one prayer group each morning in this parish, and I’ve got 400 women who meet together for prayers before they go to their fields in another parish,” and on and on. In his old position he would have been contacting seventy or eighty farmers, but now he was in contact with a couple of thousand farmers through the women’s groups, and he truly sold those 1.9 tons of seed. That is the scale of what can be done when you work through these groups.

What about the criticisms of church groups as simply not being technically equipped or well organized enough to replace extension services in any systematic way?

What I did was train ten staff of the national extension service to demonstrate what could be done through working with women’s groups. What was required within the women’s groups was really not high technical knowledge. The program was highly successful, and the World Bank then came in and said that they wanted the whole national program to follow the same pattern. I left my good wife at home for most of six months and went to give training to 2,000 staff in the ministry of agriculture. In the end, however, the program didn’t work. The central reason was that the extension workers were supervised by officers with low morale and little deep desire to make a difference. In consequence, they did not follow up at all on the field staff, who in turn did not go to the trouble of trying a new approach. We had a few decent supervisors, and the 10 that I trained, but beyond that, there wasn’t anybody else. I expect that this approach is still on the books in Malawi as official policy but it’s long since been forgotten.

Another thing we learned is that you can have a multiplier effect through the recruitment of volunteers from among the groups. These volunteers got no payment, no perks, and came out of the churches. In any society you get a few people who are a good deal keener than others, who are willing to take on extra responsibilities. In consequence, instead of having one extension worker in an area, I had 25 dealing with church groups, and only one of them had to be paid. The other 24 were doing it because of their basic Christian commitment.

It’s often difficult to deal with governments. The alternative is to work through the NGOs, but they will have to do a better job of training their agricultural specialists, and then also be willing to work with church groups. This is one way to be really effective on a broad scale. The final prong is that they absolutely have to learn the value of monitoring and evaluation. You cannot just keep on going along without analyzing what you’re doing.

We are concerned that in the recent renewed push to fund agriculture projects in Africa, lessons that your generation learned are not being properly incorporated into the new plans.

Absolutely, I couldn’t agree more. I recently received a paper about a new contract farming experiment, written by somebody I know and respect. Contract farming was one of the World Bank’s interests. The idea is that you get a commercial firm to contract with smallholders. A man named Richards, who himself had very sound knowledge and over 30 years of agriculture experience, analyzed this kind of scheme as it was applied in Ghana and found that it didn’t work. First, the research people had gotten their farm budgets wrong so their technical advice was economically unsound. Secondly, the technical message itself wasn’t quite right. Thirdly, there was very poor documentation of the actual agreement between the commercial buyer and the smallholders, and so there were endless disputes. Thus the initiative was a failure and was having to be re-vamped. I wrote to Richards, noting: “There’s something called the Niger Agricultural Project that ended almost exactly 50 years ago.” The central criticism of the Niger Project was that the technical messages were not sound, the economic advice wasn’t sound and there were misunderstandings between the corporation and the smallholders. What have we learned in 50 years? You’re reporting on a repetition now of what was done then.” I’m profoundly disturbed that the message is that we should be doing more of the same. If the same didn’t work, why do more of it?

What is your sense of why the Bank and other funders of development assistance got out of agriculture in the late 1980s and 1990s?

I can only speak for sub-Saharan Africa because that’s where I worked. I used to be so envious (I hope in the right sense of the word) of friends who worked on China. The projects they worked on finished two years ahead of schedule, with 15 percent better results than originally projected. We were battling with endless poorly performing projects in Africa, whose problems stemmed basically from the weakness of ministries of agriculture through which the Bank worked. The Bank spent billions of dollars seeking to strengthen ministries of agriculture across Africa but they failed—no question, they failed. When you start getting project audits and project completion reports, and one after the other says, “This hasn’t worked. And neither has this or that or that,” if you’re sensible, you don’t go on throwing money at it.

The Bank said to governments that if they came up with some really new ideas which clearly did not include the same weaknesses of their last three lots of projects, we will look at them sympathetically and be delighted to lend. Governments just didn’t do it; they did not come up with those new approaches. In Malawi, the Bank just pulled right out of agriculture altogether for six years and did not lend a single penny. There is now increasing pressure to fund agriculture. But today the Bank really doesn’t have a strong technical agricultural cadre to rise to this new challenge.

Ridley Nelson, a friend, was part of a team that put together a critique on the Bank’s experience on agriculture, and found that something like 70 percent of projects did not achieve their objective. The fundamental reason they found was that Africa had not yet developed a cadre of committed civil servants. The experience with education is, on the whole, a bit better. That may be because with a school you have parents who are prepared to make a fuss if they think teachers are not doing their job. Nobody makes a fuss if the agriculture extension worker does not do his job.

In the education sector a teacher deals directly with children and with a syllabus and a time table, so you have something to work to; they get on with it. In the health sector, if you’re a doctor or medical orderly, it’s perfectly obvious whether you turn up and once you do, you really can’t do much except start treating patients because they’re streaming in front of you all day long. Once again, people are concerned about getting treatment and are going to make a fuss if they don’t get it.

But in agriculture, because the extension service has been so weak for so long, there’s no public outcry. When you find that a village hasn’t been visited for the last three years by the extension worker, you ask if they’ve been to complain, and they say, “No, we haven’t, because he wasn’t any use when he did come here, so why should we want to complain when he doesn’t?” The extension worker doesn’t show up because his supervisor doesn’t visit him.

The World Bank put much faith in an extension system called the “Train and Visit” system, and it imposed it on many countries in which it worked in Africa. Under that system, each extension worker has to visit a given number of farmers every day. His supervisor has to visit him every two weeks. That supervisor has to be visited every month. I used to go round checking on extension workers ten miles away from the nearest headquarters, where everybody had a motor bike. Some villages had not been visited for 12 months. Yet if you had gone to the headquarters, you would have found a nice little program ready for a World Bank supervisory mission, saying that that farmers and the extension worker had been visited every two weeks. The system never took off because all you had were time tables and schedules stuck up in offices, World Bank staff coming around and being shown these, and the reality that few of these people ever got off their backsides.

This is why the Bank just got completely disillusioned and stopped lending.

We hear one narrative that the envelope that was dedicated to agriculture was largely reallocated to health.

In Malawi we’ve now got 100,000 people on antiretroviral drugs. There is a triple ARV available in Malawi. My next door neighbor is a poor woman with a club foot. In any other country she wouldn’t even have a club foot; it would have been corrected at birth with an operation which takes a few minutes. But it wasn’t corrected for her and so her whole life is blighted. She lost two daughters and two grandchildren from AIDS. I went on holiday, came back, and found the next daughter, whom I’ve known since she was born, completely prostrate on the ground, not able to stand, not able to walk. Her mother was getting ready for her to die. Now, either through Gates or USAID, there is a free ARV program in Malawi. I was able to get the girl on it, and within a month, she was back at work again, walking seven kilometers to work, walking seven kilometers back, supporting her mother and with the same gorgeous smile that she always used to have. This is to say that ARVs are really well worthwhile. That’s what AIDS money is doing, and if Gates comes and meets a few hundred people like that, it will give him an awfully good feeling. It’s so much more difficult to see anything that many African governments have done which gives you the same kind of feeling in agriculture.

So I come back to where I started—since it has proved so difficult to get governments to run effective extension services, should we not try something with NGOs? But this time, with standards which they’ve never adopted in the past; standards of training for the staff and standards in monitoring and evaluation with proper supervision and proper accounting at the end of a project to see what they’re doing. One or two of the secular NGOs are doing that, but so many of them have absolutely no concept of economics and don’t count what it costs to achieve something. They take you along to show you five acres of irrigated maize with two people supervising five acres to show you what a success it is. As long as each maize cob is valued in gold, I suppose it is fine.

It is not simply the training and the technology of agriculture, but also training in basic economics and in monitoring and evaluation. It’s training in understanding why smallholders adopt some things and reject others. If you had a group of young graduates that have had one or two years experience in the field, and if you gave them six months of really appropriate intensive training, we could start building up a cadre that could do something with these church groups. But it is an utterly impossible job to do without training. You come straight out of agricultural college, whether in Africa or in Europe, which impresses upon you that once you’ve got your degree, you think you are now a really skilled person who can go and shine the light of your knowledge on the lives of these poor, ignorant, backward peasants who actually know more in their little finger about farming in a difficult environment than you do.

Are the National Council of Churches effective networks or frameworks that could be used for advocacy or to set up a program like the one that you’re talking about?

As a means of entry, they are quite useful. You have all the denominations together and therefore if you can get them behind you, you have a backing. When I started here, I got the Christian Service Committee, the service arm of the National Council of Churches, to announce that they fully supported the work that I was doing. They asked all churches to cooperate, and so that gave us the entrée. But many such councils would not be suitable groups to do the actual implementation of a program. It is the individual denominations that have really got to implement programs. The National Councils are bureaucratic groups, made up of bureaucrats.

But the entrée does make a huge difference. I was able to bring about major changes in three or four months because wherever I went, the church said I was their man, whereas if I had been a government servant, I wouldn’t have begun to have the same cooperation from local people.

Another message is the need for long-term commitments to institutions and programs.

Yes, a shift in focus to working with churches would not be a quick three year program. It requires a firm and long-term commitment. Say you could recruit half-a-dozen really good agriculturists and provide their salaries. They would need six months training. With that, they could really put some beef into your agricultural program. If after two years the funds dry up again, the effort is futile and you have achieved nothing. There needs to be at least a 10-year commitment.

Zooming out a bit and thinking about the overall agricultural challenge in Malawi and sub-Saharan African now versus 50 years ago, are the underlying challenges any different? Have climate change, population growth, soil degradation, etc. made it a more difficult row to hoe, so to speak?

I’m not so sure about climate change. The terrible drought of the 1970s, which ravaged much of West Africa, had nothing to do with long-term climate change. We’ve had droughts and floods in Africa for a long time. I’m not a climate change denier—I believe that it is happening, but at the moment, the fluctuations we’re getting are no greater than the ones we’ve had over the last 50 years. I’m sure the worst is yet to come.

A major problem is population growth. This country 60 years ago had a population of three million, and families had three hectares each. They could use one for their farm, they could rest two and they could feed themselves very nicely, thank you. Now with a population of 14 million there are many farm families with less than 0.7 of a hectare. Without inorganic fertilizer, they haven’t got a chance in hell of feeding themselves. So many people, here and in Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, Nigeria, are down to small patches of land. People say quite rightly that the Chinese have much smaller pieces of land, but there are two differences. The Chinese have been having to farm on the same piece of land for 1,500 years. The times when the Chinese could leave their land for a 15-year fallow are back in the times of Christ, so they have built up skills over hundreds of generations to maximize the productivity of the land.

People ask, why don’t Africans terrace their land? Why don’t they make 20 tons of compost and so on? Well, their grandmother could get really good yields without doing any of those things, because she could leave her land for eight or 10 years to rest. That restored its fertility. Suddenly, in two generations, that has just completely changed. You’re pinned down on three quarters of a hectare of land. You can’t rest a single bit of it. You’ve got to farm all that land year after year, something which nobody in your community has ever done before, in history.

To farm intensively, you’ve got to apply a lot more labor to it, and that’s not an easy message to pass on. In addition, you’ve also got to give people access to inorganic fertilizer. There’s no other way out of it.

The Minister of Agriculture asked at a public meeting a few years ago, “Why can’t Malawians produce as much as the Chinese?” I said, “Mr. Minister, that is the easiest question that anybody has ever asked. We are now using 23 kilos of fertilizer per hectare and the Chinese are using 640. If we were using 640, we’d have food spouting out of our ears. And so I, in Malawi, for the last four years, have been supporting a subsidy program so that 1.6 million farmers get subsidized fertilizer and seed. We’ve jumped up a million tons in our food production, and instead of being a famine relief basket case, we now export modest amounts of maize, having satisfied all our needs.

This has to become the model on the rest of the continent. The world is only fed by inorganic fertilizer. If China and India and Bangladesh didn’t have inorganic fertilizer, they’d be starving. When I worked in Uganda 30 years ago, nobody had ever heard of inorganic fertilizer; you did not need it because the soils maintained fertility without it. That situation is gone and so there are profound differences. The population of this country 100 years ago was 720,000. Today it’s 14 million.

There are challenges but luckily we do have some, if not all, of the technical answers. But if we’re going to help farmers, it isn’t just telling farmers what to do, it’s helping farmers to gain access to inputs that are now becoming essential. They weren’t essential 50 years ago, but they are essential now.

We’ve heard about the Malawian agricultural miracle over the past four or five years. How were so many farmers reached, if these extension services aren’t reaching the poorest small farmers?

The miracle had nothing whatsoever to do with extension workers. For many years, under a World Bank project which lasted for 20 years, the richest 15-percent of Malawian farmers got fertilizer on subsidized credit. Consequently in every village in this country, there were people who had to walk past their neighbor’s field, in which the land had been cultivated on the same day as their own, the maize had been planted on the same day, the maize had been weeded on the same day, and they were getting 700 kilos and the next door neighbor was getting two tons and the only difference between them was that the one had fertilizer and hybrid seed and the other didn’t. And so in every survey we carried out among ordinary farmers, if you said, “What’s your number one need?” They said, “We want inorganic fertilizer and hybrid seed.” You were responding to a clamoring need. You didn’t have to teach anybody, you didn’t have to encourage anybody. People were fighting to get at it.

The same would apply to Kenya without any shadow of a doubt. The same would apply to Zambia. The same would apply to Zimbabwe. It wouldn’t apply everywhere on the continent but there are plenty of places where a privileged few have had access to fertilizer for some years and so everybody else in their village has had to watch them get three or four times their yield, using just the same management, purely and simply because one could afford fertilizer and the other could not. So we were not trying to introduce a new technology. We were giving people what they had been banging at the door asking for, for the last 20 years, and which the donors had flatly refused to give them. People said, “You subsidize brown people, you subsidize yellow people and you subsidize white people, but you don’t subsidize black people.” I had to actually go to the House of Commons in England and speak for forty minutes to the International Development Committee to try and encourage the British government to help farmers to gain access to essential farm inputs when there was talk of canceling aid for agriculture in Malawi as Malawi was considering subsidies for fertilizer. I had to go to Washington and deal with the World Bank, which was also strongly opposed to the subsidy program. There was huge opposition. When in the first year of the subsidy Malawi almost doubled its national maize output, the opposition got a good deal quieter, I must say.

What about foreign interests buying up large tracts of land in sub-Saharan Africa?

Here we are in Malawi, desperately short of land, and there is talk that some 20,000 people are going to be chucked off a piece of land, and Lord only knows where the government is going to settle them, so that a Middle Eastern group can grow sugar under irrigation. But one needs to analyze each case as it comes. South Africans moving to Mozambique is a different case. Mozambique is largely empty and the South Africans are going up there to farm, and they will grow crops that they can sell. They are going up as individual farmers to farm a thousand acres just as they would have done in South Africa, but they just don’t like the way things are going in South Africa and so they’re moving to Mozambique. They will not displace smallholders nor just produce for a foreign organization. Perhaps one’s concern should be that of their relationship with their workers and neighbors rather than simply their occupation of land!

Something totally different is the possibility of the Chinese buying up 2.8 million hectares in DRC in order to grow oil palm, so as to produce fuel for China. On the basis of current experience, it is likely that they will import Chinese labor to do the work. The Economist claims that there are already a million Chinese farm laborers in Africa. People say, look at all the spinoff benefits for DRC. I can’t see any spinoff benefits at all. There’s going to be no technical passage of knowledge, because the palm plantations bear no relationship to small-scale farmers. There’s going to be no mass employment of local people if they’re going to bring in all Chinese labor, and there’s going to be no benefit to the local economy because the Chinese are simply going to ship this out as diesel fuel. I think that that is not at all the same as white farmers going into empty country in Mozambique. So we need to look at each case in its context. The middle of Sudan is almost as big as the prairies of the United States. It can absorb a lot of people producing grain, whereas Malawi or Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Kenya, none of them should be allowing foreigners to come and take a single acre of their land.

Can you highlight your personal perspective on why a sharper focus on the role of churches in agriculture makes sense?

My own background in this sphere is that for my first 20 years in Africa, I worked as an agriculturalist with the British Church Missionary Society. Following on my retirement from the World Bank in 1989, I organized an agricultural extension and development program through the various churches in Malawi.

My experience of working through churches as opposed to the civil service can be summarized under three heads:

(a) Churches offer easy access to people and societies through organizations which they trust and to which they relate personally, as opposed to government which may not be trusted and is seen as remote from the realities of rural people.

When my wife and I lived in a remote village in Southern Sudan, we would never have been accepted had we been civil servants, but we were welcomed as members of the same church as the local people. With this experience I was able to produce a quite different agricultural strategy for the Southern Sudan, including the introduction of a range of new crops. This was of enormous value when the new southern Sudanese government asked me to move back to the Sudan in January 1973 and head up the crop section of the Ministry of Agriculture. It also provided the foundation for all my subsequent work in Africa.

Following our expulsion by the Arab government of the Sudan in 1962, we moved to Uganda and initiated a range of new projects there. Working through the church meant that once again we were rapidly accepted by the local community and were able to initiate completely new ventures (smallholder tea, smallholder dairying, and significant population movement into empty country) in a short space of time because of the trust and cooperation of the local people and church leadership. Because these initiatives were grounded in a local church organization and not in government, they survived the Amin years and 45 years later they still flourish, with thousands of acres of tea, 5,000 Friesian dairy cows and thousands of re-settled families, despite there having been no further external management.

In Malawi I found that by being introduced to communities by church leaders I was able to have a new extension service up and running in three months; that would have been quite impossible had I been working through government.

(b) Working through faith groups (in my case all my experience is with Christian churches) provides a level of flexibility which is far more difficult to obtain in the civil service. In the Sudan, Uganda and Malawi I introduced quite new technologies, learned from experience elsewhere, in a manner which would have been far more difficult had I been a civil servant. At the same time I sought to develop a fresh approach to small-scale farmers based on an understanding of their constraints rather than on the perceived superiority of knowledge which has marred too much government research and extension in Africa.

(c) One of the great advantages of working through the faith organizations in Africa is the existence of a network of village groups across large areas of the countryside. In the case of the Christian parts of the continent this means that there are strong women’s groups with loyal membership which meet on a weekly basis and provide a point of contact with local farmers which no other organization can match. When I initiated my extension service in Malawi, I took over staff from the Ministry of Agriculture (with official consent) and trained them to work through church women’s groups. They had previously been working with 50 to 70 members of wealthier farmers who belonged to government organized credit clubs. They suddenly found that they each had easy and close contact with hundreds of women farmers. As an example of the potential impact of this strategy the sale of the seeds of a virtually new crop (soya beans) reached 150,000 packs in a season just three years after I had introduced the seed from Zambia. This is the asset of faith organizations whose use could have the greatest impact. Here are existing long term groups which have not been artificially developed to promote agricultural change but which are more than open to receive extension staff whom they think have something to offer which is in line with their own perceptions and needs (e.g. better nutrition for their children, simple methods of increasing the productivity of their farms which are within their capacity). Of course not only women are involved; in a Muslim society it would be men’s groups related to the mosque that provide ready-made and accessible groups that offer focal points of agricultural change.

With these advantages to working through faith organizations, why have they not been more widely used?

Over much of Africa, agricultural extension and development is still largely in the hands of government staff who have failed to make use of the faith groups in their work. Some reasons for this became obvious from my own experience in Malawi. Because of the effectiveness of my church-based initiative, the government asked the International Fund for Agricultural Development for funding to make it a national programme and this was agreed. I spent six months introducing 2,000 extension staff of the Ministry of Agriculture to a strategy which was based on a respect for the knowledge of farmers, used existing faith groups as the points of contact in the villages, and embodied the technologies which I had developed. The first objective proved the most difficult. After years of being inculcated with the idea that their college training had fitted them to go and shine the light of knowledge into the darkness of “ignorant and backward peasants,” the staff proved resistant to the idea that Malawian farmers made sound and logical decisions on the basis of their actual constraints, and that their rejection of much extension advice over many years was based on experience and not ignorance. The objection to using faith-based groups was that the staff did not control them and could not order them to follow their advice. “Sir, how can we force them to do as we order?” was a common question during the training resulting from their experience with the small farmer credit groups with which they worked and which were dependent upon them for credit to purchase inputs. The adoption of the technology was not a problem as the practices which I had developed had become official policy. The outcome was that with few exceptions the majority of the staff would not submit to the indignity of being guests at the meeting of a group which they could not control and for the establishment of which they could command no credit. This is just one example but I believe that in many countries, a fundamental change of attitude on the part of extension staff towards small-scale farmers will be needed before they can work effectively with groups over which they have no control. I was able to do this with intensive interaction with a small group of workers but not with brief contact with 2,000 staff, many of whose senior officers shared similar attitudes of superiority.

Within the churches, and I suspect in some Muslim quarters, the clergy of various levels of seniority see involvement in agricultural development as not being a “religious” concern, and therefore offer no leadership in this sphere. A number of Christian organizations have been working in Africa to try and change this perception. Among the most effective of these is RURCON, founded by Peter Batchelor, an outstanding agricultural missionary who was working contemporaneously with me in Nigeria in 1952. He has now retired and the organisation is run almost entirely by Africans. There is a British representative who chairs the British-based Board and raises funds for the head office in Nigeria, Dr. John Wibberley.

The churches have had difficulty in recruiting agriculturalists with a real grasp of the potential, constraints, and attitudes of small-scale African farmers. They are often graduate volunteers with a lot of commitment and enthusiasm (features often lacking in government staff) but with little understanding of why so many research station “messages” have been rejected by farmers in the past. Any serious attempt to make wider use of all the positive advantages which faith-based groups possess would have to embody some intensive re-orientation of agricultural staff in leadership positions, whether local or expatriate. A British church-based group with considerable experience of carrying out development work through local churches is Tearfund.

Secular NGOs, which might be expected to enhance their existing efforts by using the readymade network of thousands of faith-based groups in rural areas, are frequently not permitted so to do by their terms of reference. This is particularly true of European organisations which are frightened of the impact on their supporters if it were known that any of their resources were being channelled through a Christian group.

What could be done?

Government extension and development services are proving ineffectual in a range of African countries. The great majority of poor small-scale farmers will be of no interest to commercial input organization advisory services or to those of marketing boards, which tend to involve the wealthier surplus producers. Faith-based groups offer a means of reaching small-scale farmers through existing structures and groups. Additional funding could initially be channelled through those NGOs, which are prepared to work with faith-based organisations (e.g. World Vision, Tearfund, Christian Aid) but on condition that their senior staff went through a post-qualification reorientation and training period of three to six months before their field posting so as to overcome the weaknesses which have marked some of their previous efforts.

What advice can you offer on the stalemate around GMOs?

This is an interesting social phenomenon as far as England (and I suspect other European countries) are concerned. The middle class has enjoyed 50 years of abundant cheap food, while becoming ever more isolated from the processes of production. They have developed a deep seated grudge against farmers whom they see as absorbing their tax money and despoiling the countryside with intensive agriculture. The fact that it is their insatiable demand for increasing amounts of cheap high quality food that has forced farmers into these intensive and subsidized methods does not seem to be realized. There has been a big drive against fertiliser but genetically engineered crops offer an easier target on to which they have latched with surprising ardour. They are certainly not opposed to genetic modification and spend billions of dollars every year on pharmaceuticals which rely entirely on genetic modification for their production (insulin being the most widely used). Their ignorance of the underlying science is sometimes frightening. I was the governor of a London University college for many years. At a dinner party on one of these visits given by staff of a non-scientific faculty I had to sit through a tirade against intensive farming and the evils of genetically modified crops. A half an hour later I mentioned that the college with which I was associated was seeking to improve on the quality of protein in yams which are eaten by forest dwelling people who are short of grain protein. This was being done by transferring the protein quality of potatoes into yams. Loud acclaim all around for such an imaginative development. There was apparently complete ignorance of the fact that the only possible way of transferring protein quality was by transferring genes and creating a GM crop.

Much of this ignorant opposition stems from Monsanto’s work. I must confess that they have done agricultural science a great disservice by initiating the first widely grown GM crop simply to raise the declining sales of their flagship herbicide. Had the first major releases been of high protein yams or high vitamin rice I am sure that the opposition from the urban middle class would have been much less.

In Christian circles the opposition stems from “interfering with God’s creation.” The fact that the whole lifestyle of middle class Christians does infinitely more harm to God’s creation than GM crops can ever do is once again ignored.

One of the criticisms which I find most offensive is that which states that GM crops do not benefit farmers, and therefore the 13 million farmers who have adopted them are all ignorant fools who have been duped by multinationals. This is a further example of the profound ignorance of the realities of agriculture on the part of the critics.

I am obviously in no position to make a judgment on their possible danger to human health and can only rely on the opinion of the respected scientists who have so far found no grounds for expecting any dire consequences from their consumption.

Where do they fit into the future?

I believe that this technology has developed at a crucial moment. If we start to get changing climatic conditions in a given area, there will be a need to rapidly develop appropriate crop varieties. As we as yet do not know what the changes will be in any given region, we cannot use a 20-year time frame needed to produce new varieties by conventional breeding and will have to resort to the short cut which GM offers of simply being able to transfer a desirable gene without having to carry a whole lot of unwanted baggage with it which takes years of work to remove. Despite European opposition and unless a new danger suddenly appears for human health, I expect to see an ever increasing number of GM crops widely grown in the coming years. I wonder how many Americans buying a pawpaw from Hawaii in a supermarket realize that the whole of the island’s pawpaw crop was wiped out by a virus and the industry was only restored by developing a GM plant resistant to the disease, so any pawpaw from Hawaii is a GM fruit.

Discover similar content through these related topics and regions.