The word "farmer" conjures up different images for different people.
The quaint, somewhat antiquated image of the dusty ol' farmer out working his field in Murray McLaughlin's ditty still resonates with many.
But the far more common face of farming presented to the Canadian public these days is that of the young, successful, well-educated -- and above all else profitable entrepreneur. Why? Because success attracts success. And nothing attracts young blood back to a business in which 40 is considered young better than the prospect of a good living.
The need to put a positive face on farming is perhaps even greater in less well-off parts of the world, where the majority of the population still lives on tiny farms producing barely enough to feed themselves and their families.
"The farmer in Africa is portrayed as a woman with a baby on her back and a hoe in her hand," Kanayo Nwanze, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) told a seminar at the University of Manitoba this week. "Who is attracted to that kind of image? Farming is attractive when it is a money-making business."
In the past, it was commonly believed urbanization and "modern, large-scale" farming would be the key to economic growth in poor countries. We also hear lots of talk about farmers in the industrialized countries "feeding the world" through their mammoth productivity.
But there is growing recognition those approaches aren't a solution. Neither is the single-minded focus on technology that increases production. Small farmers already produce 80 per cent of the food consumed in the developing world. And up to 40 per cent of the food they produce spoils because they can't get it to market.
Besides, there is no point pushing people off the farms to the cities if there is nothing there for them to do.
"Unless these people can feed themselves, take care of themselves, there is no future. Their kids are being thrown into the streets in northern Africa and now a lot of them are joining extremist groups," notes Kevin Cleaver, IFAD's associate vice-president.
So to IFAD, a unique UN partnership of 172 members from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and many developing countries, putting a more successful face on farming matters a lot.
IFAD, which is quite possibly the most effective international development agency you've never heard of, purposely works under the radar through partnerships and co-financing arrangements with local governments, communities and the private sector. Its goal is to empower local populations through capacity building and entrepreneurship rather than sweeping to the rescue with aid.
Redefining the image of farming in poor countries isn't about displacing that woman with the baby on her back; it's about making her more productive and profitable -- in many cases, by arming her with knowledge about her rights.
Nwanze said the evidence is clear: Women are better at farming as well as business. Given access to the same resources, women's productivity increases are 30 per cent higher than men's. They do a better job of looking after the environment too.
"IFAD's role is to see how we can help them to better organize themselves to increase productivity, to produce more, feed their families, have enough to sell on the market, make some money to improve their lives," he said.
Canada is one of its biggest supporters, having funnelled more than $377 million into IFAD initiatives since it was first established in 1977. Currently, its contributions are ranked third-highest among supporting members. But you won't see those contributions proudly displayed on billboards. Local ownership and control of the resources is key.
"All of this international support, all the aid is worth nothing if it is not internalized by the countries. I know of no country in the world that was able to develop itself through international assistance," Nwanze said.
"Development is an intrinsic process. A plant can only make use of the energy of the sunlight if its roots are firmly anchored in its own soil," says Nwanze.
Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 792-4382 or by email: email@example.com