August 31, 2008 / 9:44 AM / 9 years ago

"Enabling aid" turns peasants into export farmers

DJILAKH, Senegal (Reuters) - Less than a year ago, the land around this small Senegalese village was parched bush pasture, studded with thick-trunked, knobbly baobab trees.

But over the last six months, ground pockmarked with anthills that lay hard and idle during the nine-month dry season has blossomed through irrigation into a thriving small commercial farm thanks to an aid project funded by Spain.

Trained and assisted by Spanish agriculture experts, around 100 peasant farmers and their families have become international exporters of melons to supermarkets in Spain and Britain in a commercial tie-up with a private Spanish farm company.

“Now there’s money in the village,” beamed Amy Diouf, her baby son strapped to her back, as she stood in fields crossed with plastic irrigation tubes that drip-feed moisture to crops planted at Djilakh farm, 80 km (50 miles) southeast of Dakar.

International aid experts meeting in Accra, Ghana this week will debate how best the billions of dollars of foreign aid pledged to help the developing world should be handled to have a direct impact on the poor, such as African peasant farmers.

Haunted by cautionary tales of millions of dollars of aid money being squandered on fruitless projects by a competing babel of aid organizations and NGOs, participants at the September 2-4 High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness will seek to translate lofty intentions into concrete guidelines focused on results.

To carve Djilakh farm out of the bush, Spain’s government development cooperation agency AECID used modest initial project funding of nearly 600,000 euros ($880,000) to build an access road, sink a well, lay down irrigation, put up a warehouse, train the farmers and help guarantee essential inputs.

AECID will provide an additional 785,000 euros ($1.2 million) to expand the farm’s irrigated land from 25 to 50 hectares. It helped organize the process that selected a farm produce exporter, Feralca, to market Djilakh’s melons.

“This ensured a sales outlet, the lack of which is often one of the biggest weaknesses of agriculture development projects,” said Juan Jose Lavin, who is in charge of Spanish development cooperation programs in Senegal.

So-called “enabling” aid projects plug developing country farmers and entrepreneurs into the world market and give them the means and expertise to produce for export. They are often seen as more effective than vast, vague aid plans that swallow up millions of dollars before they show any concrete results.

NEED TO “TRANSFORM LIFE OF POOR”

Aid experts say the need for effective assistance for the poorest on the planet is all the more pressing following the collapse in July of world trade talks -- the so-called Doha Round -- aimed at addressing the needs of developing states.

“The timing (of the Accra aid meeting) is important in the post-Doha debacle,” said Ben Bennett, an economist with the UK University of Greenwich’s Natural Resources Institute.

“There is going to be now a phase of consolidation and particularly a phase of bilateral negotiations which are very divisive and time-consuming for African countries ... everybody trying to look after their own interests,” he told Reuters.

Bennett added the aid effectiveness debate also needed to take account of the fact that the world’s most impoverished and fragile states -- many of them in Africa -- were now seeing their economies battered by high world fuel and food prices.

This year’s food price crisis, which exploded into street riots in some African countries, has produced a barrage of calls from world leaders and development campaigners for policies that emphasize fair trade as much as straight aid to beat poverty.

Ahead of the Accra conference, African Christian religious leaders appealed for aid that “reaches local communities.”

“Development aid should not be measured by the amount sent, but by how it transforms the life of the poor,” said a statement signed by the All Africa Conference of Churches and the Roman Catholic bishops of Africa and Madagascar.

For the villagers of Djilakh, their Spanish-backed farm means they can now earn a profitable living close to home during the nine-month dry season, instead of having to migrate to the coast or the capital Dakar to try to scrabble for survival.

BACK TO AGRICULTURE

The farm’s 100 members are grouped into five “economic interest groups,” including two women’s groups.

“The most important thing is that they are working for themselves,” said Gregorio Velasco Gil, an agronomist with the Spanish state agricultural development company Tragsa.

Six months of labor this year produced several hundred tonnes of melons and vegetables like courgettes for export and local sale. Each Djilakh farm member earned more than 250,000 CFA francs ($560) -- a small fortune for Senegalese peasants.

News of the dynamic success of the “khal espagnol” (“Spanish melons” in the local Wolof language) has spread. Spanish aid officials hope it will act as a catalyst and model for the Senegalese government’s REVA “Back to Agriculture” program.

The REVA plan aims to coax Senegal’s restive unemployed youth back into productive employment to stop them risking their lives trying to migrate to Europe in rickety open boats.

It has been criticized by some donors and by opponents of the government who call it vague and lacking detailed strategy.

Senegal’s octogenarian president, Abdoulaye Wade, has attacked the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and some aid NGOs as wasteful money-gobblers that spend more on high-priced consultants and travel than on real people in need.

Wade, who himself recently announced a grandiose food production plan, has called for what he terms “aid to help people stand up.” He has praised the Spanish cooperation.

Spain’s Lavin says Senegal, with foreign help, has the potential to be a self-sufficient food producer and exporter. He admits the small Djilakh farm is “just a drop in the ocean.”

“But this country needs to work on agriculture,” he said.

(For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: africa.reuters.com/)

Editing by Alistair Thomson

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