What can donors do for business?

I just wrapped up a final evaluation for a business-oriented agriculture project that was implemented by a large, international NGO. The gist behind the project was this: Train small scale farmers in drought prone areas to grow a drought tolerant crop, then get them to sell that crop to a large, commercial market.

It sounds so simple when you say it like that. The reality, unsurprisingly, was not so simple.

One of the biggest findings from the evaluation was that implementation was significantly hampered by the NGO’s culture and identity as a relief organization. When farmers saw their land cruisers coming, they expected food aid, not a business opportunity.

The result was an ineffectively implemented project that messily mixed messages of a welfare approach (relief and social protection) with those of a business approach (economic development).

During the findings workshop for the evaluation, where leads for all agriculture and business related programs and projects were present, the prevailing sentiment was that this NGO is having an identity crisis.

Are they a relief organization, or a development organization, or both? What is the biggest need? What are they best at? These are tough questions to ask, and we didn’t leave the meeting with any clear answers.

My main thought is that most NGOs exist because they serve a social need or because they’re gap-filling in lieu of public services. This is an incredibly important role for donors and NGOs to play.

But what about business and economic development? Should donors get involved? What role should they play? Should aid have to play by the bottom-line rules of business? Is that even possible?

What role should donors play in the development of agricultural industries in sub-Saharan Africa?

This post leans to one side of the argument, but I’m on the fence.  I’m trying to figure this out and will re-visit the question on this blog as I do. What do you think?


2 Responses to “What can donors do for business?”

  1. 1 Mark October 5, 2009 at 5:23 pm

    sounds like the problem was more related to this one NGO in particular than its related to all the other NGO’s.

    My question back to you is – are there any donors playing a positive role in the development of agricultural industries in sub-Saharan Africa? If yes – why can they do it and others can’t?


  2. 2 Daniel Ball January 22, 2010 at 12:42 pm

    Donors can work with businesses that are involved in marginal areas or sectors to address the risks that are inhibiting growth and progress in under developed or infrastructurally-challenged areas.

    Economic growth is blocked or inhibited in many areas of Africa for many reasons that we do not have in more developed areas. Lack of finance, poor or non-existing infrastructure, lack of qualified human resource are but three of these. Donors can be involved in reducing risk by addressing these areas and thereby enable and leverage economic growth to take place. However, this must be done carefully and strategically.

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Working to include smallholder farmers in agricultural markets, we know there are no easy answers. This blog is a place to ask "What does it take to make it work?" and to share what we're seeing and learning.
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