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The nutritional consequences of agricultural and rural development projects

Paul Lunven
Chief, Nutrition Planning, Assessment, and Evaluation Service, Food Policy and Nutrition Division, Food and Agriculture Organization, Rome, Italy

In the words of a popular development slogan, "If you give a man a loaf of bread, you feed him for a day. If you give him a hoe, you feed him for a lifetime." That, in oversimplified form, is the theory behind integrating nutrition objectives into rural and agricultural development projects. Nutrition intervention-the giving of the loaf of bread-has proved to be only a temporary solution to the severe and debilitating problem of malnutrition. Rural and agricultural development-the giving of the hoe-is seen as the way to make the kinds of social and economic changes that will alleviate the poverty that is the root cause of malnutrition.

Funding agencies have come to realize that development must provide social as well as economic benefits. Many millions of dollars are being made available for development efforts aimed specifically at improving life for those most at risk of malnutrition: the rural poor in developing countries. This kind of integrated development goes into the parts of a country that have the greatest need, not necessarily the greatest potential for economic returns.

The "giving of the hoe" is supposed to increase productivity, employment opportunities, and income-which, in terms of potential nutrition benefits, will give the rural poor more food or more money for food and in turn reduce the risk of hunger and malnutrition. According to this theory, we should all be able to sit back and wait for world nutrition to improve. The hoes are being handed out. It is only a matter of time until the effects of development naturally seep through, and then malnutrition will be overcome.

But it this, in fact, what is happening? Are rural and agricultural development projects improving nutrition for the rural poor? Although millions of dollars have been spent, and many rural and agricultural projects have been pronounced successful, malnutrition continues to be a serious problem within project areas. Although world food production has increased steadily over the last few years, there has been no significant drop in the number of malnourished.

Evaluation of a number of projects has revealed that improved nutrition is not intrinsically a benefit of development. The economic and social conditions of a region can change with no real impact on nutrition. Or, even worse, the most well-intentioned development plans can have a negative effect on the nutrition of those at risk.

Why is there this discrepancy between the logical, reasoned theory of the relationship between nutrition and rural development and the actual nutrition impact of the projects? Perhaps there is more involved in integrating nutrition objectives in rural development and in achieving nutrition benefits than just "handing out the hoes."

In an attempt to analyse the failure of projects to provide nutrition benefits, and to ensure that future development efforts will live up to their potential to improve nutrition, we offer details from case studies of six rural projects.


Large areas of a developing country in Africa are arid or semiarid. The climate is severe, the terrain is rugged, the people are poor, and malnutrition is widespread. The inhabitants of these regions raise livestock (cattle, goats, sheep, shoats), slaughtering the animals to feed their families, selling any surplus animal products to earn income that can be used to purchase other food supplies. Because the land is rough and vegetation scarce, the herds must be constantly on the move to sources of food and water, making the work highly labour-intensive.

Over a period of about ten years these arid and forbidding regions have been hit hard by droughts and animal diseases. An already tenuous existence became even more vulnerable, and the risk and incidence of malnutrition increased. More and more households began to turn to crops to supplement food supplies, to provide another source of income, and to produce the fodder needed for the livestock.

The government of the country realized that something must be done to improve life for those living in these arid regions, and developed a programme, tested in one region of the country, whose purpose was to increase productivity and incomes.

The pilot project, consistent with the overall plan, provided for transportation infrastructures, social services, livestock development, rural industries, afforestation, soil conservation, dry-land agriculture, and small-scale irrigation. From the plans it appeared more than likely that the project would achieve its objectives, people in the region would be better off, and the risk of malnutrition would decrease.

An analysis of the project indicated that certain components were successful. The new rural industries, developed under the auspices of the project, created a market for local products (honey, inland fisheries, etc.), and provided alternate sources of income for people who otherwise would have been forced to go outside the region to find work.

The agricultural components of the project-irrigation, crop schemes-were less successful. To reinforce the shift from livestock to farming, which was already occurring in the region, the project introduced a number of small-scale irrigation and dryland crop schemes. The water provided by irrigation would help to compensate for the months of low rainfall, make the crops less vulnerable to drought, and make the arid region more productive. The irrigation systems were designed to be labour-intensive, bringing to the region not only water but jobs.

An evaluation of the irrigation/crop schemes revealed a number of problems that would hinder the project. First, the irrigation schemes were concentrated in the subregions of the project area that had the best soil, the closest access to water, the most innovative people, and the lower risk of poverty and malnutrition. The poorer subregions that were the areas most in need and most likely to provide the technical results and information that could be applied in other arid parts of the country were least likely to benefit from the project.

Second, the kind of seeds provided to the farmers were not as drought- or pest-resistant as they should have been, given the conditions and growing/storage problems in the region. The crops encouraged by the project were not as nutritious as others that might have been recommended, though the late introduction of cowpeas promised to benefit local diets.

Third-the most serious problem with the scheme-the demands for heavy amounts of labour for field preparation, clearing, burning, fencing, weeding, etc., coincided and conflicted with the time at which the livestock herds also demanded intensive amounts of human labour. As a result, those who could have benefited from the income earned working on the irrigation/crop schemes could not spare the time from their herds to do the work. Those who were trying to raise livestock and produce crops had to divide their time between the two to the detriment of both. Only those wealthier farmers who could afford to hire others to do some of their labour could hope to achieve good yields in livestock and in crops and increase their incomes and food supplies. With the kind of labour conflict created by the project, poverty and malnutrition will continue to be a problem for a majority of the people in the region.


In a region of an African country, population was increasing at an alarming rate while the land struggled to support it. Problems of poor soil quality were being complicated by frequent droughts and damaging agricultural techniques. Soil erosion, overgrazing, soil depletion, and deforestation were threatening to turn the area into a wasteland, making it even more difficult for the people to eke out a marginal, subsistence living. With the growing population there was less and less land available and more and more pressure on the available food supplies. Those most at risk of poverty and malnutrition were the landless and those holding very small tracts of land, who were unable to produce or buy enough food to feed themselves.

To counter these problems and provide more opportunities for production and employment, the government started a five-year integrated development programme. The strategy of the programme was to deal with the constraints facing the small farmers: inadequate extension services, the lack of training, inadequate inputs and marketing facilities, and the lack of available credit.

Through the project much progress was made in soil conservation and in providing water to households. But most of this work is concentrated in the central part of the region- the area least affected by severe climatic conditions, poverty, and malnutrition-and has not yet been extended to the most seriously affected areas. Those most in need are not yet feeling any benefits.

To encourage the small farmers to increase production, and therefore increase their incomes, the project included a credit programme. Farmers who agreed to plant two acres of cash crops-usually cotton-were eligible for a loan. The credit cooperative that administered the programme urged the farmers to plant, in addition to the two acres of cotton, one acre of staple crops and one acre of "rescue" crops in case the staple crop failed. Credit was supplied in seeds and agricultural inputs. There was also a guaranteed market for the cash crop once it was harvested.

The expected income increases from the sale of the cash crop might have had positive nutritional effects. But a closer analysis of the programme showed that the shift from food crops to cash crops put even more pressure on the food supplies produced and available in the region. An increase in income can only have a positive effect on nutrition if there is food available to buy. Not only does growing cotton take up land that would otherwise be used to grow food, but cotton depletes the soil and adds to the problems of soil conservation.

The main disadvantage of the credit scheme, in terms of those most at risk of poverty and malnutrition, is the land requirement. Two acres of cash crops, plus one acre of staple crops plus one acre of "rescue" crops means a minimum land requirement of four acres. This excludes all the landless and over half of the small farmers. Those who are most vulnerable are the least able to participate. If the credit programme continues as it was designed, the larger farmers will get larger and richer, food supplies in the region will be more scarce, and the landless and the small farmers will suffer more.


In a highland region of a developing country, tea-growing was a profitable business for those who owned large tracts of land or estates. On the other hand, small farmers managed only a subsistence living. A high rate of stunting and wasting was reported in the children of households owning only small tracts of land, and the standard of living was low.

In an effort to alleviate the poverty of the small land owner, the government introduced a tea-growing project. By providing training in tea cultivation, materials, transportation, and marketing facilities, the project would help the small farmer produce tea that could then be sold and bring a steady cash income into the household.

Researchers studying the project after it had been operating for a number of years discovered that those small farming households involved in the project did have higher incomes and exhibited other signs of affluence, such as better cattle. But there was no improvement in nutrition. In fact, the children of the tea growers had a higher risk of stunting and wasting than the children of those not growing tea. Why?

Perhaps those farmers growing tea were using land that had previously been used to grow food, which would decrease the amount of food available for home consumption. Perhaps those with the money to spend in the marketplace did not know how to buy food to ensure proper nutrition.

In addition, the project had a negative effect on the buying power and nutrition of those outside the project. With the shift in the region to tea-growing and a cash economy, land and food prices increased drastically. Those not growing tea were finding it more and more difficult to feed their families because they did not have the cash to purchase food in the market-place. It seems likely that the incidence and severity of malnutrition will continue to increase.


A developing country in Africa wanted to encourage agriculture in the high-potential regions of the country and improve rural conditions. Most of the land is held and worked by subsistence and small farmers. Although land potential is high, agricultural techniques are poor, and poverty and malnutrition are widespread.

The development program offered loans as an incentive to small farmers. Loans in kind (seed, fertilizer, extension services, marketing assistance) were available to farmers willing to grow cotton or maize, which were in short supply in the country. The cotton loans were managed by the cotton marketing company, the maize loans by the farmer's co-operative. The loan of seeds along with technical assistance and a guaranteed market for the crops would increase productivity and crop quality and give the farmers a source of cash income.

An evaluation of the project indicated that there were a number of problems. First, the poor farmers owning the smallest tracts of land, who were most at risk of malnutrition, did not qualify for the loans; and any loans they did manage to get were seasonal and had to be repaid within the year.

The second problem was administrative. The cotton marketing company ran a much more efficient, businesslike credit system than the farmers' co-operative. Cotton loans were based on the suitability of the farmer's land for growing cotton. Seeds and other inputs arrived in time for planting and were delivered right to the farm. Cotton extension workers paid regular visits to the farmers and supervised them from ground preparation through harvesting, ensuring large and profitable crops. The farmers' co-operative maize program, on the other hand, ran much less smoothly. The system for approving farmers' loans seemed to be highly influenced by local politics and had little to do with the farm land being used. Seeds and other inputs often arrived late, and the farmer was responsible for getting the seeds from the local stores to the farm. (This regularly involved great distances. Cart delivery service was expensive and had to be paid in cash that the subsistence farmer did not have.) Extension services were uneven: Most of the help was given to the farmers who held the largest tracts of land. Marketing practices were such that farmers were encouraged to sell their entire maize crop and buy back the maize meal (at a higher cost) to feed their families. in addition, the price for cotton was much higher than the price for maize. Given the smooth administration of the cotton program and the higher price for cotton, most farmers preferred to apply for the cotton loans.

The situation that rapidly developed in the region is that the poorest farmers have received no benefit from the credit program: Their farms are no more productive; their incomes have not increased. Those farmers holding slightly larger tracts of land are putting as much land as possible into growing cotton, and they are earning good incomes from it. Because of the failure of the maize program, less and less maize is being grown in the region, and food supplies are threatened. With food supplies down, food prices are up, and the potential is for increased poverty and malnutrition among those who cannot produce enough food to feed themselves and cannot afford to buy it.


In rural Asia, problems of poverty and malnutrition exist beside great wealth and affluence. The society is structured rigidly and it is difficult to improve life for the poor without threatening the wealthy and the powerful within the communities. As in most developing countries, the landless and those who own only very small tracts of land are the most vulnerable. There are severe problems of protein-energy malnutrition.

A few years ago the government of one Asian country initiated a co-operative dairy development project designed to increase the incomes of the smaller subsistence farmers and supply wholesome unadulterated milk to the urban poor. Because the dairy industry would be run through a cooperative rather than by middle men, profits would be reinvested in the communities to the greater benefit of the rural poor.

Over the short term, the project was, in fact, quite successful. Several milk processing plants were built, creating a larger, more profitable market for milk. More and more farmers attempted to take advantage of the opportunity for a higher income by buying cows. Any of the deficit farmers (less than 1.5 acres of land) and the subsistence farmers (2.5 to 5 acres of land) who owned cows were able to use the profits from milk sales and the bonuses from the co-operative to buy rice, vegetables, and fruit to feed their families. The project also created some limited opportunities for employment in the processing plants and in the milk delivery system in the cities.

A closer look at the social and economic situation in the region showed that there were potential problems with the industry. The landless, who make up a large proportion of the population and suffer most from poverty and malnutrition, cannot benefit from the project. These people, with no land on which to graze a cow, could not take advantage of the dairy project except through membership in a co-operative. An investigation of the co-operatives showed that the number of landless members is very small 110%) and dropping.

Although shares in the co-operatives were divided evenly, bonus payments were related to the quantity of milk sold. Therefore, the rich farmers, with more land and more cows earned more from the cash sale of their milk and received a disproportionately large amount of the bonus payments. The richer farmers invested no more in the industry than the deficit or subsistence farmers but, in fact, made a much greater profit.

Any landless members of the co-operatives were eligible only for the dividend on the share, not for any of the bonus payments, so they gained little from the co-operatives. The rich became richer, and though some of the poorer farmers were slightly better off, the gap between rich and poor grew steadily wider.

Within the co-operatives themselves, the wealthier farmers tended to dominate-as they did in most community structures. This meant that the co-operatives' investments in the communities did not necessarily serve the interests of the people the project was attempting to help.

In addition, the rich and powerful were prone to manipulate and victimize the poor through nefarious money-lending practices. With more money available from the milk profits to lend, and growing pressure on the poor because of rising prices and the importance of belonging to the co-operatives, the project may unwittingly have accelerated the pauperization of the small farmer.

It is also interesting to note that the price of the processed milk is so high as to be beyond the means of the urban poor, so there are no direct benefits to these people from the project. What began as a well-intentioned development effort for the needy has become a vehicle to maintain the wealth and influence of the powerful.


Social structures can be a major stumbling block in efforts to improve life for the rural poor. For example, in a country in Asia, the rural population lives in family groups that are strictly hierarchical. (A young brother must not speak before the elder and must defer to his opinion.) the position of anyone within the family hierarchy determines his position in any social group. The old and the wealthy dominate, the young and the poor are subservient. Outside the family groups there are other relationships that also make it difficult for the poor to make any progress. The poor labourer is bound by almost semi-feudal ties to the land-owner for whom he works. These social structures maintain the position and the influence of the rich; they keep the landless and the deficit farmers struggling for a subsistence living. Poverty and malnutrition are widespread and are accepted as a way of life.

The government of this country recognized that the poor needed to be educated out of their poverty, and initiated a development programme for small farmers and landless labourers. Workers for the project would go into rural communities and encourage the farmers and labourers to form groups and work together in activities such as potato farming, pond and river fishing, animal husbandry, rice husking, rickshaw service, net-making, and silk production. Through this kind of a co-operative the project hoped to give the poor alternative sources of income, and the confidence to break out of the subservient relationship with the wealthy in the community.

Some groups were successful. Where the project provided access to credit along with social and economic support for the changes, the poor in some groups reported a standard of living that had improved by 30 to 40 per cent in only two years. Food consumption increased in integrated terms, but there was still a great demand for food among the most deprived families. (This was indicated by the fact that according to group records, some business loans were "misapplied" for food by some of the poorer members.}

Other groups ran into serious problems. The traditional elite in some communities saw the groups as a direct threat to their position and influence. They feared they would lose their cheap labour and that the present system of production and profits would be destroyed, so they did everything they could to prevent people from joining, to the point of threatening their employees. Because of the hierarchical and semi-feudal relationships at work in these communities, these threats were effective.

In other communities, the wealthy saw potential for profit in the groups. They would join, take control, attempt to exclude the landless from membership in order to increase the size of the loans available to the group and use their position to borrow money from the project and then default with immunity.

On the whole, it is clear that the members are more concerned about accumulating wealth than encouraging total participation of the poor. To date the project has improved life for only a very small percentage of the rural poor. Most of the benefits have accrued to the wealthy. Poverty and malnutrition continue to be serious problems in these communities.


The above case studies are six examples of development projects that did not improve nutrition. All six were well-thought-out, well-intentioned efforts to improve life for the rural poor. The problems they encountered with their credit schemes, their co-operatives, and their choice of crops limited their effectiveness. Often the problems were ones of targeting: The projects were not reaching the people most in need or the regions most in need. In many cases it was simply a case of not understanding the social and economic situation in given areas. Sometimes it was a problem of not remembering that the project would affect people outside as well as inside the project area. And occasionally it was a matter of not considering the indirect as well as the direct effects of development.

Although the case histories seem like development "horror stories," I am not trying to discredit development. I believe that rural and agricultural development is the most efficient way to create the social and economic changes that will eventually ease world problems of malnutrition. But, if better nutrition is going to be a legacy of development projects, we have to do more than just sit back and wait for it to happen. We have to contribute to the process in order to avoid the kinds of problems and disappointments that arose in the projects just described.

For nutrition to be either an implicit or explicit objective of development, nutritionists must be involved in the early stages of development planning. To that end, FAO has developed a methodology that makes it possible to integrate nutrition considerations into rural and agricultural development projects.

The methodology includes:

a. a review of the project proposal;
b. an initial assessment of the potential nutrition impact of the project, based on any available demographic, economic, social, and nutrition data;
c. an in-depth study of the potential nutrition impact of the project, based on a more detailed analysis of the information used in the initial assessment or, if necessary, on new survey data;
d. a monitoring and evaluation of the effect of the project on nutrition in the region.

This process allows the nutritionist to determine that the project is truly intended to help the rural poor and has the potential to improve nutrition. The initial assessment helps identify the groups within the regions who suffer most from malnutrition and why. That information can be fed back into project planning so that project components can be designed with specific target groups and specific target areas in mind. Through the in-depth study, the nutritionist can predict the potential effect of the project on the nutrition of those both within and outside the project areas. That kind of analysis will help development projects avoid the mistakes that were described in the case histories. Monitoring and evaluation ensure that the project is achieving its objectives. The project team then has an opportunity to adjust for any weakness or problem before any irrevocable harm is done.

It is clear that it is not enough just to "hand out the hoes." We have to make sure that we are giving the hoe to the right people, that there is enough land to hoe, that the hands we are trying to put the hoe into are not too busy and overworked to use it, and that the people with the hoes know enough about how to feed themselves and their families that they can actually do so, given changes in agriculture and increases in income.

It is to the benefit of everyone involved-governments, funding agencies, those working with rural and agricultural development projects-to integrate nutrition into the early stages of project planning and to use nutrition throughout the project as a measure of project effectiveness. The methodology described very briefly here, and in greater detail in various FAO publications, can help ensure that rural and agricultural development projects brings about the kinds of social and economic changes that will begin the end of poverty and malnutrition.

It has been well recognized that polluted water supply, especially for drinking purposes, is the cause of diarrhoea, dysentery, gastro-enteritis, and other intestinal disorders and hepatitis. These infections constitute the single biggest killer of infants and children or even adults in many regions. Improvement of environmental sanitation could be attempted by involving families and village communities. FamiIies would be encouraged to provide in their houses soak pits and low-cost drainage systems."

- The Indian Sixth Five-Year Plan, 1980-1985

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