Transforming NGO roles to help make food sovereignty a reality (part 1 of 8)

Woman watering field in village in Burkina Faso.

This field in Burkina Faso is flourishing thanks to agroecological farming methods.

This is the first post in an eight-part series about how we can transform the roles of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like Groundswell to make food sovereignty a reality. It was a collaborative effort by Steve Brescia (Groundswell’s International Director), Fatou Batta (Groundswell Co-Coordinator for West Africa), Peter Gubbels (Groundswell Co-Coordinator for West Africa), Cantave Jean-Baptiste (Executive Director of Partnership for Local Development), Steve Sherwood (Specialist in Rural Innovation at EkoRural), and Bern Guri (Director of the Center for Indigenous Knowledge and Organizational Development).

Later this year the full text of the article will appear in a book titled “Food Movements Unite!”, which is a collection of essays by food movement leaders from around the world that all seek to answer the perennial political question: What is to be done? It will provide a sector by sector road map for bringing the tremendous transformative potential of the world’s food movements together into a powerful transnational force capable of ending the injustices that cause hunger. “Food Movements Unite!” is being edited by Eric Holt-Giménez, Executive Director of The Institute for Food and Development Policy/Food First, and Annie Shattuck, a PhD candidate at the University of California at Berkeley.


Ecuadorian farmers harvesting traditional potato varieties in Carchi, Ecuador.

Farmers harvesting ancestral, native potatoes in Carchi, Ecuador.

We know that agroecological farming works for family farmers in Africa, Latin America and Asia, and that they represent the great majority of the world’s people who face extreme poverty and lack adequate food. We know farmers need net beneficial relationships to markets, and that it is necessary to create policies that support rather than undercut the wellbeing of rural communities.


How can NGOs best contribute to making food sovereignty a reality? We will attempt to answer such questions through drawing from our practical experience with prominent food movements in Haiti, Ecuador, Burkina Faso and Ghana.

Food sovereignty is unquestionably a powerful framework for organizing responses to the dysfunctional global agrifoods system. Linking local, democratic control and decision making to the foundational economic activity of all societies—producing and eating food—is a powerful agent of change on many levels. But what does the concept mean to a farmer watching for rain while planting seeds on an inaccessible mountainside in Haiti; a peasant organization in Burkina Faso looking for strategies to shorten the hungry season; or potato farmers in Ecuador trying to escape their dependence on expensive fertilizers and toxic pesticides? Bern Guri of Ghana says food sovereignty in his country means “people having access to sufficient food and nutrition, but also being able to have control over their own food system, producing what they eat and eating what the produce.” If NGOs are to play a useful role in these people’s lives, they must develop practical strategies to help them achieve their personal goals.


Peter Gubbels provides some broader analysis:  “For many years, Ghana has been seen as a model country, because it has been greatly influenced by the policies of the World Bank and other proponents of the neo-liberal economic paradigm. As a result, Ghana largely neglected its own food security. There is an alarming trend toward large scale export crops such as exotic fresh vegetables, pineapple, agro-fuel, and mangoes, and corporate control of resources for production. It is well documented that Ghana’s policies provide insufficient protection against imports from countries with generous subsidy regimes, resulting in Ghana importing a significant proportion of its staple rice and basic grains. This left the Ghanaian population – particularly the poor, most of whom are rural people – highly exposed to the spiral in world prices during 2008. The food crisis did finally stimulate the Ghanaian government to abandon its non-interventionist position and start investing in agriculture. Unfortunately, Ghana’s response is to modernize agriculture and increase productivity based mostly on a ‘green revolution’ approach, which has been tried many times in Ghana and never succeeded.” In this context, Gubbels believes that “working for food sovereignty in Ghana means promoting agroecological methods of production, enhancing biodiversity and local control of seeds, ensuring fair prices for small scale farmers, strengthening markets and processing links between peasant producers of healthy local food and urban consumers. It also means organizing and advocating for an alternative to green revolution approaches based on the principle of ‘African solutions to African problems’.”

So what are some practical strategies that NGOs can use to achieve these goals?

  1. Transform the role of NGOs in the intended participants’ lives
  2. Promote farmer innovation and agroecological production
  3. Expand territory for agroecology
  4. Build productive alliances with farmers’ movements and strengthen their base
  5. Advocate  policy reform without neglecting crucial practices
  6. Take advantage of new opportunities (health, urban-rural linkages, and climate change)

None of these strategies speak to the quick-fix mentality of many donor agencies, multi-national corporations and politicians. To thrive they must be rooted in local contexts and led by local people.

… look for part 2 on April 12.

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