sábado, 20 de agosto de 2016

A tale from the Caucasus

The experience of the Georgian Agriculture Coordination Group

In 2011 the agriculture and food sector of the Republic of Georgia, in the Caucasus, was in a complete stage of abandonment by the government, despite that more than half of the country’s working force were farmers and that poverty was widespread in rural areas. The immense majority of the farmers were owning less than one hectare of land and most of what they were producing was for self-consumption, while the country was importing most of the foodstuffs required to supply the urban areas. The State was allocating a mere 3% of its budget to agriculture. Although the economy as a whole was growing, the agriculture productivity was declining, and yields of many basic commodities were at the levels of sub-Saharan countries in extreme poverty. There were no food safety measures enforced whatsoever. Food poisoning and breaks of lethal animal diseases were a normal recurrence.

Historically Georgia was an a very productive country, with an extremely good quality production and a long tradition of diversification and marketing. All that was dilapidated during the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the subsequent administrations did not pay any real attention to re-build the sector.

In 2016 the agriculture sector in Georgia is growing at high speed (faster that the economy as a whole); modern agriculture cooperatives and small business are booming; agriculture exports are expanding; European-like modern food safety and consumers’ rights standards have been developed and, more importantly, a sense of hope is back to the rural areas.

This Copernican change has happened for many reasons, but, without question, the most important driver has been the political will by the State and the society to bring impetus to the sector, putting forward a strategic long-term vision and investing substantial resources for the sector development.

During those dark days when the policy makers were not putting any attention to the problems of the farmers, a small group of highly motivated development experts and agriculture practitioners from different organisations (national and international NGOs, academic institutions, farmer groups, State agencies…) started meeting regularly, under the informal facilitation of the European Union and the FAO. They decided to join efforts in finding ways to change the policies that were impeding the small farmers to gain economies of scale and reach the markets.  The members of this loose alliance agreed to advocate jointly for the enactment of an agriculture cooperatives law, which could remove the fiscal and other disincentives that were in place for farmers to sale together and pool production resources, and would support the establishment of business-oriented farmer groups that could be the trigger to revitalise the sector.

After few months since the first meeting, the alliance, called the Agriculture Coordination Group, was pooling some 40 organisations. Specific working sub-groups were created, as well as a data base of publications and various others information and coordination tools. Still, the alliance kept its informal structure, which let it operate in a very flexible and efficient manner.

During the plenary meetings, in-depth discussions on policy and technical topics were conducted, research papers and projects’ plans and activities presented. The participants were extremely diverse, and range from diplomats and donor agencies staff, to university food safety and nutrition specialists, environmentalists, farmers’ leaders, NGOs’ field staff, heads of units of the ministry of agriculture…and many more.

A set of advocacy activities was approved by the Group, and each of the members of the group assumed the leadership on one or another of the agreed actions: CARE in the Caucasus organised the first-ever conference on small farmer’s and rural development in the country, where local policy makers were able to get firsthand information from world-class experts; a local business school did various research papers on the bottle necks that farmers were facing to reach the markets; Oxfam undertook consultations in all the regions of Georgia to collect inputs for the law on cooperatives to be drafted; the EU funded study tours for key government staff to help them familiarised with the coops in Europe; FAO brought legal expert to help drafting the law on agriculture cooperatives; various local organisations lobbied with the members’ of the Parliament for the law discussion and enactment…

All that joint and coherent efforts work out well. In a few months the tide begun to change. The media start discussing the problems of the agriculture sector, and some politicians, including the president, began also to realise that something should be done to help small farmers engage in the market economy and to alleviate rural poverty. For the first time in 15 years the budget of the ministry of agriculture augmented. A sector strategy started to be prepared (with inputs from the Agriculture Coordination Group) and the draft law on farmers’ cooperatives was introduced for discussion in the Parliament. Still, all those activities by the Administration were largely perceived as too little, and too late.

Presidential elections were coming. The members of the Agriculture Coordination Group worked with all the running parties, helping them to understand the food security and agriculture problems that the country was facing and putting forward concrete proposals to address them.

A new administration went to power after election in 2013. The new government decided to make agriculture a top priority for the country socioeconomic development. The Ministry of Agriculture under the lead of bright and committed leadership, was on top of all the sector reforms. The law on cooperatives was approved, and that was just the first amongst a battery of ambitious reform measures, which included also the approval of the agriculture sector strategy and action plan, the enactment of the food safety law, the creation of an Agriculture Cooperatives Agency,  the establishment of advisory centres for the farmers’ in all the districts of the country or the re-establishment of food control systems. All these processes were coached and supported by the Agriculture Coordination Group and its working subgroups.  

Eventually, and due to this intense constant interrelation amongst the members of the Agriculture Coordination Group, a sense of being members of a ‘family’ emerged (with all the good times together and also the difficulties amongst members that a family may encounter!) despite the different backgrounds of each member organisations and sometimes the different views and opinions.

Some purpose-specific new forms of collaboration arose, like off-springs from the mother root that the Agriculture Coordination Group was. For instance, CARE stablished a partnership with the Georgian Farmer’s Association (GFA), the International School of Economics of the Tbilisi State University (ISET) and the Regional Development Association (RDA), all of them  members’ of the Group, for conducting joint project activities and specific advocacy measures; the Georgian Alliance for Agriculture and Rural Development (GAARD), was also created as a derivate of the Agriculture Coordination Group, chaired by Oxfam and composed by all the national and international NGOs working in agriculture and rural development.  

The snow-ball effect prompted by the Agriculture Coordination group and by the impetus in the Ministry of Agriculture is still running on, with promising developments in many directions: Foreign investment is back to Georgian agriculture, due to the new confidence in the sector; sanitary controls are now enforced, and new rural development policies have been framed are now piloted; a seed certification system has been launched…

For those familiar with the desolate stage of the agriculture and food sector in Georgia not so long ago, its seems almost unbelievable what is going on right now. As a local media put it once, agriculture in Georgia was Cinderella and now is the Princess. Of course, there is still a long way ahead, but the sector is back on track and there is no way back.

The Agriculture Coordination Group played a key role triggering many of these changes. But, even more important than the measurable deliverables that the alliance and its members help to reached (more production, better yields…), the main legacy, perhaps, was and still is, the profound conviction that real change only happen when those motivated to change the reality for better, work hand-to-hand, joining forces in the same direction.