Beyond seeds and tools: alternative interventions in protracted emergencies
by Kate Longley June 2003

Seeds and tools projects are often seen as a cheap and effective way of addressing food needs in protracted emergencies. But other approaches may be both easier, and more effective.

Distributing seeds and tools is generally regarded as a way of supporting longer-term food security, and is widely undertaken by agencies operating in post-disaster and ongoing emergency situations. In many protracted emergencies, seeds tend to be procured locally, often from the same communities in which they are subsequently distributed. But this begs the question whether relief and development agencies need to supply seeds at all. Are seeds the most appropriate form of support to farmers in protracted emergencies?

For many operational agencies, implementing conventional seeds and tools projects remains difficult: targeting beneficiaries, finding enough ‘certified’ or good-quality seeds, securing adequate storage and transport facilities, and the high costs of these projects all pose problems, as do issues relating to dependency. At the macro level, seeds have also become a lucrative and contested commodity in the relief economy.

This article argues that – in some cases – alternative forms of food-security interventions may offer better support for rural livelihoods in emergency and post-disaster situations. However, the lack of adequate techniques for assessing seed needs, together with a paucity of monitoring and evaluation studies that go beyond the logistics of seed delivery, have done little to assist agencies in realising these alternatives.

Assessing needs

Relief agencies need to develop a more detailed understanding of how farmers manage seeds, and how they obtain them in emergency situations. Existing guidelines contain very little in the way of advice on how to undertake needs assessments in emergencies. As a result, many seeds and tools interventions are based on an assumed rather than an actual need. It is generally presumed that, if a harvest is good, the need for seed distribution is low; if a harvest is poor, the need increases. Thus, seed availability is determined by food availability. Whilst this is certainly true at the macro level, it fails to take account of how small-scale farmers retain and acquire seeds.

After a harvest, the amount of seed a farmer retains is usually determined by the size of the plot to be planted the following season, rather than as a proportion of the overall amount harvested. In the event of a poor harvest, a farmer will usually try to retain the seed needed for the following season, even if this means less food from the overall harvest. In extreme situations, the whole of the harvest can be saved as seed, rather than eaten as food. Farmers in southern Sudan, for example, will do all they can to maintain seed stocks, even if this means eating only wild foods and vegetable leaves. The quantities of seed required by a farming household for planting are relatively small; the amount of seed sown to produce a year’s supply of a staple cereal crop would feed a household for less than a week.

The second misunderstanding is to do with how farmers make up seed shortfalls. Contrary to assumptions, seed systems are remarkably resilient, even in the face of disaster or war. In times of crisis, seeds can be acquired through friends, relatives or petty traders, as a free gift, by exchange, by cash purchase or in the form of a loan to be repaid after harvest. Farmers are generally far better than any relief agency at locating the most appropriate sources of seeds. Only in exceptional cases is seed simply not available: when widespread crop failure combines with weakened coping mechanisms and a lack of markets or mobility, or when population displacement makes farming impossible over several seasons. Yet once cultivation is resumed, even following exceptional circumstances such as these, local seed and cropping systems recover and/or adapt remarkably quickly.

Whilst seed is often available, access can be another matter. In times of crisis, it is frequently the case that only better-off farmers have access, and sometimes act as a village ‘seed bank’ in assisting others. The inability of some farmers to retain or acquire seed from one year to the next relates more to poverty than it does to poor harvests, or lack of knowledge or technical expertise. Without the means to obtain seeds through purchase or exchange, poor farmers may be forced to borrow from traders, or beg from relatives and neighbours. In the short term, seed distribution may be necessary, but in the longer term other forms of aid – particularly those that address more general issues of poverty – may be more appropriate than repeated distribution from one season to the next. In short, agencies need to move from free seed handouts to inputs which promote the rehabilitation and enhancement of local seed supplies.

Beyond ‘seeds and tools’: alternative approaches

A number of agencies working in emergency or post-disaster situations are implementing projects to support the production, access and exchange of seeds at local level, without necessarily providing seeds themselves. These alternatives fall into three broad categories: poverty-focused approaches that widen access to agricultural inputs; advice and training on agricultural technologies; and institutional arrangements for access to/supply of agricultural inputs and technologies.

Poverty-focused approaches

Where seed is locally available, some farmers may need help in obtaining it. Displaced farmers may not have well-developed social networks in the place where they have settled, and returnees may have lost the financial assets with which to procure seeds. In these situations, relief supplies, including seeds, can be exchanged for food, or even for locally-supplied seeds. Providing cash or vouchers could be another way of supplying farmers with the means to access locally-available seeds. Catholic Relief Services has implemented voucher schemes in Kenya and northern Uganda, and the Red Cross and Christian Aid have distributed cash to farmers in Honduras and Orissa. Where seed vouchers are supplied, seed fairs at planting time give local farmers an opportunity to exchange these vouchers for seeds from local traders. Although conventionally regarded as a way of allowing farmers in stable settings to acquire a wider range of planting material, Catholic Relief Services has had considerable success with seed fairs in protracted emergency situations in Kenya and northern Uganda.

Advice and training on agricultural technologies

Alternative agricultural technologies may be required when farmers are faced with unfamiliar situations: displaced farmers cultivating on soils that differ from their home environment, for instance. In other cases, farmers who remain in their homes may have to manage with fewer labourers due to population displacement or the death of family members. Technologies to address particular problems may be required, for example measures to control pests or crop diseases.

Farmers may appreciate the opportunity to try out new seeds for crop varieties that mature more quickly, are more disease resistant or better able to tolerate weeds, water-logging or poor soils. Providing new varieties is, however, very different from supplying emergency seeds. Rather than giving farmers enough seed for food production, new varieties should initially be grown on demonstration plots, and better-off farmers should be offered small quantities that they can test for themselves. If new seed types are appropriate to farmers’ needs, they will quickly become incorporated into local seed systems.

Pro-poor institutional arrangements

If the security situation is stable, some of the interventions suggested above are best implemented through existing institutions or through the creation of new institutional arrangements. For example, small packets of novel varieties or other agricultural inputs can be sold through existing market outlets and petty traders. However, attempts to establish more formalised seed multiplication and marketing systems are unlikely to succeed unless they are based on well-established seed markets, where there is an effective and continuous demand for seed of specific crops. Support to farmers’ cooperatives or producer organisations may allow farmers to market their produce more effectively, although where possible it is important to work with local traders who already have marketing experience, rather trying to replace them. Where appropriate, capacity-building interventions such as these can provide a more sustainable form of support to rural livelihoods.

Opportunities and challenges

In extreme situations, seeds may be simply unavailable, and relief supplies may be necessary. But this is the exception, rather than the rule. Where agencies are buying seeds locally, seeds are clearly available, and a more appropriate form of assistance would be to help farmers to gain access to them.

For agencies to know when there is a need, and when alternative strategies might be more appropriate, assessment methods need to be improved. There is potential to build on existing networks of field-based systems, particularly where the methods used focus not only on issues of availability, but also on access, for example the Household Economy Approach developed by Save the Children. Monitoring systems must also be designed as an integral part of any intervention.

In designing projects which address the need for improved agricultural technologies, implementing agencies should seek the technical advice of agricultural researchers. In most areas, there is a long history of agricultural research that can be useful in guiding the work of technical experts. Staff of national agricultural research systems and extension workers provide a body of experience and expertise, often informed by detailed local knowledge. Inputs from appropriate experts from international agricultural research centres may also be useful, particularly where national institutions have broken down.

The biggest challenge, particularly in situations of chronic political instability, concerns mechanisms for delivering emergency aid. Whilst current systems render the provision of emergency seed inputs relatively straightforward, the alternative interventions suggested here generally require longer time-frames than many existing budgeting arrangements allow. Identifying legitimate local institutions with which to work poses a further challenge.

At bottom, what is needed is a more detailed understanding of agricultural rehabilitation and developmental relief. These concepts remain poorly understood, and there is little to guide novel approaches to aid programming outside of current categories of relief or development. Whilst repeated relief seed distributions can potentially disrupt local seed-supply systems, implementing more developmental interventions must be approached with extreme caution. More effective assessment, together with appropriate monitoring and evaluation, are the first step. The budget lines and delivery mechanisms required to implement new approaches must also be established. Providing effective support for rural livelihoods in protracted emergencies is certainly no easy task.

Kate Longley is a Research Fellow in the Seeds and Crop Diversity Programme, part of the Rural Policy and Environment Group at the ODI: www.odi. Thanks to colleagues Richard Jones (ICRISAT-Nairobi), Tom Remington (CRS-East Africa), Paula Bramel (ICRISAT-Bulawayo), Anne Itto (Development Assistance Technical Team for Southern Sudan) and Rob Tripp (ODI).


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