Technical Convening on

Smallholder Agricultural Transformation

May 7-8, 2015 Crystal City Marriott at Reagan National Airport ■ Arlington, VA


The process of economic development in market economies historically has followed a predictable path. As economies grow they change from primarily rural agrarian societies to ones that are more industrialized and are led by knowledge-intensive industrial and service sectors. This type of transformation has been sufficiently common that development policies have been designed to encourage it and quicken its pace. While the intention of these policies may have been well meaning, that is to spur growth and reduce poverty, they often had unintended consequences such as unsustainable urbanization and increasing sectorial income inequality.

While aforementioned aspects of agricultural transformation may still hold, there are reasons to suggest that there may be many different pathways from agrarian to high income societies, some of which may be more appropriate and desirable for today’s low income countries than others. Consider, for example, that many countries’ agricultural transformation resulted in rapid urbanization, putting stresses on urban infrastructure, the environment and families. Moreover, the experience of many countries suggests that agricultural transformation often came at the expense of the smallholder whilst benefitting large, commercial enterprises. In some cases agricultural transformation was associated with deleterious environmental effects; today these effects may be less accepted by society and in the future they may be exacerbated by global climate change. Dietary transitions have been successful in achieving national-level caloric sufficiency, but in many developed and developing countries these transitions have resulted in nutritionally incomplete and otherwise unhealthy diets for the majority of the population. It is therefore useful to contemplate whether such situations can be avoided, while still achieving growth and poverty-reduction goals.

In addition, new opportunities and constraints may create an environment that is more conducive to a rural centered agricultural transformation. The increased competition for export markets, and the decline in manufacturing’s share in total employment implies that growth based primarily on export-led industrial development may be limited for present-day less developed economies, especially in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). At the same time, new opportunities in the form of agricultural value-added products and services closer to farms allow households to generate incomes through non-farm activities. Institutional advances are allowing some smallholders to capture (as a group) economies of scale, such as mechanization in China. Advances in information and communication technologies and other technical advances enable small-scale rural manufacturing and service development, and enhance opportunities for improved rural lifestyles, e.g., through better medical care via health information technologies. These more decentralized economic activities could slow the process of migration to urban centers, which would be a potentially significant development as, over a 20-50 year scenario, global climate change raises questions about the viability of low-lying coastal cities in the coming decades

Whether or not future agricultural transformation is going to be different from what the world has experienced in the past is an open question with implications for policy. Policies that are based on outmoded notions of agricultural transformation could be irrelevant or even damaging, and are likely to deflect attention from those policies that could be most effective at stimulating successful transformation. Therefore the objective of this Convening is to provide clarity and further our understanding of agricultural transformation in the 21st century, as well as the role of agricultural, food and nutrition policy that would enable a successful agricultural transformation centered on smallholders. Organized by Rutgers University and USAID, the two-day Convening will bring together leading researchers, academics and policy makers to discuss and debate emerging policy issues in smallholder agricultural transformation. Specific questions that will be addressed at the Convening are

1)      What is the role of agricultural transformation in economic development and how has this role changed over the years?

2)      What is the evidence in support of different perspectives on contemporary agricultural transformation?

3)      What is the definition of a successful smallholder agricultural transformation?

4)      What are the different pathways—aspirational, theoretical and/or practical—to achieve a successful smallholder agricultural transformation?

5)      What is the role of policy systems in stimulating agricultural transformation?

6)      What are some examples of specific policies that have had impacts on agricultural transformation and poverty reduction?

7)      How do we measure the contribution of improved policy and policy systems in progress towards agricultural transformation?


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