Last week I visited Oxfam’s Philippines programme. Such trips follow a pretty standard format – our national staff and relevant partners
whisk me through a series of site visits and conversations with farmers, civil society organizations, local government officials and anyone else who’ll talk to you. For a few days, I’m engrossed, wrestling on multiple levels, first to understand the intricacies of the projects, and then to try and get at the meta-questions: what are the strengths and weaknesses in our work? What could we be doing better? Is there a clear power analysis and theory of change? Discussions continue in vehicles to and from the visits, over dinner and (sometimes) in the bar, as everyone grapples with the incredibly difficult business of ‘doing development’. It’s intense and definitely the best bit of the job.
I went to Mindanao, one of the poorest and most conflict-ridden islands in the Philippines archipelago, and home to 23m of its 94m population. The focus was our livelihoods work (I hate the term, but can’t think of anything better to describe the complex ways poor people find to put food on the family table). Such work forms the backbone of many of Oxfam’s programmes. In Mindanao, we’re working with women farmers to introduce new crops or upgrade existing ones:
Crop 1: Moringa – a magical tree whose fruit is x7 more rich in Vitamin C than oranges, has x4 more calcium than milk, and x3 more vitamin E than Spinach. The leaves can be made into a herbal coffee or poultry feed. The plant has medicinal properties – arthritis, blood pressure etc. It’s also a good crop for women farmers – easy to plant and harvest (those I talked to had an average of over 4 kids each). The problem for local partner AADC is linking up moringa producers in the idyllic forested mountains of northern Mindanao with the market chains that can deliver reliable customers and improved prices. Possibilities include a herbal remedy exporter to the US and a Philippines health food producer, but for the moment, the main customer is a poultry feed company.
Crop 2: Rubber. Not a new crop, but one which was previously produced on a plantation model, and then replaced by oil palm. Now small farmers are picking it up, but with low grade seeds and poor quality control, and at the mercy of buyers who advance them credit and then force them to accept rock bottom prices. Our partners there are developing a big seedling nursery and bringing in new ideas on climate change adaptation (a real issue here – for example, the project encourages farmers to plant ground cover crops like legumes to retain moisture, as climate change is producing months without rain where previously the two settings for the weather were ‘wet’ and ‘very wet’.)
Crop 3: Abaca: a traditional crop, and relative of the banana. The fibrous bark is stripped and woven into a hard wearing rope. It’s also used in paper manufacture (hence the ‘manila envelope’ – 85% of world production comes from the Philippines). The issue here is how to add value, find better markets and develop women’s participation – Oxfam identified Abaca through a feasibility study as one of the crops with best potential for women farmers in this area (Agusan del Sur).
traditional income generation? For decades, NGOs have been showing up in communities and persuading people to raise chickens or rabbits, open tailors, or plant the latest new wonder crop. The record is decidedly mixed. What’s different about this latest round? I think Oxfam is trying to pull off a really difficult trick here, known in the execrable jargon of the business as ‘leverage’ or ‘scaling up’ – how can a limited intervention trigger a much wider and long-lasting process of change that benefits poor producers? The key differences with the old give-em-a-chicken-coop school include:
- Involve local government and private sector from the outset – they are the only long term guarantors of ‘sustainability’. Similarly, the NGOs’ exit strategy, whether as funder and implementer (often a local NGO) has to be built in from the outset.
- Scale – it’s no use just running a pilot and then crossing your fingers. From the outset, you have to think how your intervention needs to be designed to benefit 100,000s of people , rather than 100s
- It’s about value chains, not just production. Often the real barrier is not growing or making stuff, but finding the credit you need to keep you going between planting and harvest, getting the product to market (the roads here are terrible, gulleyed by rain and gouged by illegal logging trucks), or finding a reliable buyer who pays decent prices. Multiple actors need to be involved – it’s no use just funding a local NGO to hand out seedlings. Systems analysis is essential, which in Oxfam’s case includes analysing the gender aspects of the value chain.
- Advocacy: a systems approach resembles a micro version of Dani Rodrik’s bottlenecks to growth. Resolving one bottleneck (eg supplies of decent seeds), allows the effort to move on until it hits the next one (roads, access to finance, quantity and quality). Some of these can be incorporated into the programme, but many require local level advocacy (eg lobbying the public works department to do something about the roads, or the state bank to start lending to long gestating crops like rubber).
This new dispensation often seems ridiculously ambitious/quixotic – with relatively limited spending we presume to ‘transform’ (another favourite buzzword) whole systems. Unsurprisingly, staff can get frustrated and ‘just want to get on with the project’, but I think we have to aim high, and every now and then something really comes off and it’s worth it.