The Water Dissensus – A Water Alternatives Forum
Farmer-led irrigation development in sub-Saharan Africa: A policy paradox?
Climate change is reducing water availability and threatening food security, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. In response, multilateral donors are increasingly funding farmer-led irrigation (FLID). Donors and governments see FLID as a strategy to expand irrigation coverage to improve household food insecurity and alleviate rural poverty. FLID is a process where farmers drive irrigation investments by configuring agricultural technology practices, crop-specific market linkages, land and water governance arrangements, and interactions with informal and formal value chain actor networks (Woodhouse et al., 2017; see also this Special Issue). In other words, smallholder farmers autonomously self-finance technologies and crop inputs and act as the leading agents in irrigation expansion.
Evidence of FLID as a response to the failures of large-scale irrigation schemes can be found in the very language donors and others have adopted to operationalize FLID: "individual irrigation systems" (Waalewijn et al., 2019), "farmer-driven development," (Wahlin, 2018), and "small, private irrigation" (Wichelns, 2014). But a closer investigation of the growing support for FLID reveals a paradox. The 2021 World Bank Farmer-led Irrigation Development Guide advances FLID as a sustainable development strategy to increase irrigation access for female, youth, and other asset-poor farmers (World Bank, 2021). At the same time, this strategy also is open to any farm size or landholding and small-scale, FLID investments within large-scale irrigation projects (World Bank, 2021). Farmer-led irrigation may have started as autonomous development with farmers at its centre, but donor-driven FLID projects risk taking investment decisions away from smallholder farmers, including women, and privilege relatively asset-rich, commercial producers and companies.
FLID is, ideally, farmers' response to neoliberal structural adjustment policies and the subset of policy tools, such as Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) and Water User Associations (WUAs). Driven by structural adjustment and the focus on Irrigation Management Transfer (IMT) in the 1970s, the roll-out of WUAs and other decentralized water management institutions created challenges, not necessarily opportunities, for local water user participation (Waalewijn et al., 2019). That said, implementation projects can also advance and be complementary to these modes of water governance established by public and donor agencies (Harmon et al., 2023). For example, the World Bank is piloting public support for farmer-led and micro-scale irrigation for 800 farmers around the command area of two new large-scale irrigation schemes in Uganda's Isingiro and Kanungu Districts (World Bank, 2020). The National Irrigation Policy and World Bank funding support the development of micro, small, medium, and large-scale irrigation schemes in parallel, though the Irrigation for Climate Resilience Project appraisal report acknowledges that farmer-led irrigation has contributed to most of the irrigation growth in Uganda (World Bank, 2020). These dynamics in implementation projects complicate and even undermine the "farmer-led" nature of FLID.
An increasing number of donor, financial, and public agencies has integrated FLID into their development strategies in the last five years. Policy milestones that further mainstreamed FLID include the 2013 Dakar Declaration, the 2018 "Kigali Declaration on Farmer-led Irrigation for Smallholder Farming Enterprises", and the 2021 World Bank Farmer-led Irrigation Development Guide (World Bank, 2021). As multilateral donors shift to conceptualizing and funding FLID as climate-smart agriculture, the increasing incorporation of solar-powered irrigation technologies and agribusiness project components has created entry points for FLID (Wahlin, 2018). Some of the project-level transaction models discussed by the 2018 Proceedings of the International Conference on Farmer-led Irrigation include financial support for individual farmers to integrate into value chains, but also nucleus estate and out-grower schemes or community-level irrigation schemes for commercial farmers in tight value chains (Wahlin, 2018). These policy milestones opened the mechanisms through which donors finance FLID — small-scale FLID investments alongside public irrigation schemes, corporate farms, and input supply companies. But these initiatives also reinforce the FLID policy paradox.
Private sector and multilateral donor FLID investments illustrate this policy paradox. World Bank-sponsored reports document this trend of multilateral donor investments in small-scale, FLID within medium to large-scale scheme irrigation projects in Ghana (Dittoh, 2020), Rwanda (Nzeyimana, 2021), as well as Uganda. In Ghana, IFAD, the World Bank, and USAID have funded the dissemination of irrigation equipment to smallholder farmers in commercial nucleus and out-grower schemes as a form of "medium to large-scale FLID" (Dittoh, 2020, p. 16). Concerns have been expressed about the low level of smallholder farmer participation in farmer-based organizations to the benefit of medium and large-scale irrigators (Dittoh, 2020). Water-efficient irrigation technologies (e.g., sprinklers, drip) and solar-powered irrigation pumps are increasingly funded by the Government of Rwanda, bi- and multilateral donors, and private service providers across FLID models (Nzeyimana, 2021).
The emphasis on climate-smart agriculture, including the promotion of FLID, may fall into the same contradictory predicament. Greater public and private support for farmer-led irrigation and therefore the dissemination of solar-powered irrigation pumps exists in areas where wealthier farmers already produce high-value crops (Kafle et al., 2021). Notwithstanding, donors and development partners are, at best, levelling the playing field, rather than approaching the social and economic exclusion of some farmers as an inevitable outcome of FLID (Theis et al., 2018). Bi- and multi-lateral donors and development partners' diverging stances on the conceptualization of FLID expose its shortcomings as a sustainable development strategy. This emerging approach risks reinforcing conventional modes of water governance that already favour commercially oriented and private sector companies at the expense of resource-poor smallholder farmers. Further scrutiny of project-level FLID investments is necessary to ensure that FLID is not inadvertently reinforcing conventional modes of water governance and remains, at its core, a participatory irrigation process.
Dittoh, S. (2020). Assessment of Farmer-Led Irrigation Development in Ghana. World Bank. https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/35796
Harmon, G., Jepson, W., & Lefore, N. (2023). Farmer-led irrigation development in sub-Saharan Africa. WIREs Water, e1631. https://doi.org/10.1002/wat2.1631
Kafle, K., Omotilewa, O., Leh, M., & Schmitter, P. (2021). Who is likely to benefit from public and private sector investments in farmer-led irrigation development? Evidence from Ethiopia. The Journal of Development Studies, 58, 55–75. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220388.2021. 1939866
Nzeyimana, I. (2021). Assessment of Farmer-Led Irrigation Development in Rwanda. World Bank. https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/35798
Theis, S., Bekele, R. D., Lefore, N., Meinzen-Dick, R. S., & Ringler, C. (2018). Considering gender when promoting small-scale irrigation technologies: Guidance for inclusive irrigation interventions (IFPRI-REACH Project Note, Issue. IFPRI. http://ebrary.ifpri.org/cdm/ref/collection/p15738coll2/id/132933
Waalewijn, P., Trier, R., Denison, J., Siddiqi, Y., Vos, J., Amjad, E., & Schulte, M. (2019). Governance in irrigation and drainage: Concepts, cases, and action-oriented approaches—A practitioner's resource. World Bank. https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/ 32339
Wahlin, B. (2018, January 29-30). Farmer-led irrigated agriculture: Seeds of opportunity [Conference presentation]. International Conference on Farmer-led Irrigation, Washington, DC.
Wichelns, D. (2014). Investing in small, private irrigation to increase production and enhance livelihoods. Agricultural Water Management. 131, 163-166. https://doi.org/10.1016.j.agwat.2013.09.003
Woodhouse, P., Veldwisch, G. J., Venot, J.-P., Brockington, D., Komakech, H., & Manjichi, A. (2017). African farmer-led irrigation development: re-framing agricultural policy and investment? The Journal of Peasant Studies, 44(1), 213–233. https://doi.org/10.1080/03066150. 2016.1219719
World Bank. (2020). Uganda - Irrigation for Climate Resilience Project (English) [Project Appraisal Document]. World Bank Group. http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/860371591125380263/Uganda-Irrigation-for-Climate-Resilience-Project
World Bank Group. (2021). Farmer-led irrigation development guide — A what, why and how for intervention design. World Bank. https://blogs.worldbank.org/water/farmer-led-irrigation-what-why-and-how-guide
Photo credit: IWMI
 These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of the World Bank or national governments per the stated disclaimer.
I'm all for this kind of program. Centralized programs are so often over-subsidized, captured and one-size-fits all. A level playing field needs to level for ALL scales of farming!
The approach will certainly speed up the race to the bottom (of aquifers). Bizarrely, the intellectual lead on water resources management in the World Bank was not even aware that FLI was endorsed by the Bank.
I consider it important to address a critical approach to programs that promote sustainable development fostered by multilateral institutions such as the WB, USAID, UN, UNICEF, among others.
In most cases, the programs are promoted from neoliberal and market values and objectives that support productive and commercial groups from individualist logic that do not contribute to the reduction of iniquities, exclusions, and social vulnerability, and in the long-term increase unsustainability.
So these programs, as described in the article, create power conflicts between the actors and users of the programs.
The article documents this situation well and invites to rethink these programs in favor of a new vision on irrigation aid.
It is a good article.
Many thanks Grace. This seems to be a classic case of the type confronted regularly in neoclassical economics where an investment supported by external donors has a positive impact in terms of efficient production, but which has inequitable distributional effects. The conventional recommendation is to continue with the investment (in this case farmer-led irrigation development), capture the efficient production and consequent growth, and look to compensating policies to correct the distributional problem.
But that isn’t the end of the story. A policy prescription needs to be both theoretically sound and practically useful. In many of the countries where farmer-led irrigation development is taking place it is difficult to implement compensating policies to correct the distributional problem. Each country has its own barriers and potentials. A case I’m familiar with in northern Thailand has the potential to encourage farmer-led irrigation development using modern pumping technology to deliver underground water, while, at the same time, partly correcting the distributional problem through government support for traditional muang fai irrigation.
School of Business/Gulbali Institute
Charles Sturt University
In Eastern Africa the “reduced availability of water” is principally the consequence of land degradation including deforestation altering the hydrological cycle. The well-known consequences are diminishing low river flows and larger and often catastrophic floods.
Irrigation water demand in Kenya accounts for over 80% of the national water demand and is increasing with population growth. Water abstractions for irrigation are poorly regulated and often unlicensed. The consequences include rivers being emptied in their upper reaches during dry periods leaving people downstream with nothing. These result in water allocation conflicts that can only be addressed locally.
The international academia and donors meanwhile politely defer to “sensitivities” and pedal the ever-popular “climate change scape-goating” and are endlessly re-packaging “water management” laced with “smart jargon”.
The brute truth is that water allocation legislation has existed for decades and quite simply requires the political will to root out incompetence / corruption / vested interests and enforce legislation for the benefit of all water users.
The basic thesis of this blog is that support for farmer-led irrigation development from agencies like the World Bank and other donors poses the danger of undermining the fundamental nature of farmer-led irrigation development. If the provision of financial and other support becomes the main driver, then what is called "FLID" will really be the typical government- or donor-led development. Further, the way in which public support is provided tends to favour wealthier farmers, further exacerbating existing inequalities.
I agree with the thrust of this argument. However, much depends on what kind of support is provided, and how it is provided. Increasing the area and even more important the productivity of irrigation in sub-Saharan Africa is an urgent requirement to meet food and nutrition security challenges. Supporting individuals to acquire and use irrigation technologies like solar-powered pumps will likely achieve food security objectives more quickly and cheaply than continued investment in large public schemes -- though I recognize that there are important externalities such as aquifer depletion that much be addressed. I do not see how such private irrigation can be developed quickly enough without public support.
But here is the rub: first, the Uganda project mentioned has tacked on to a large public irrigation investment a small investment in small, individualized technologies; it is not a major investment in scaling FLID. It is tokenism at best. I think governments and donors need to be more creative in figuring out how to target more support to relatively small-scale farmers and to women and youth who lack access to credit, and the information needed to use irrigation productively. Multiple approaches to do this have been pilot-tested, for example modifying credit assessments to fit the needs of women. It is time to get serious about testing these approaches on a larger scale and then scaling out those that work.
Thanks to Harmon for critically examining donor articulation or assumptions in the farmer-led irrigation schemes. I studied the participatory irrigation management reform and found a similar pattern in Pakistan. In 1980, the World Bank began to promote Participatory Irrigation Management (PIM)
reforms to overcome disparities in the distribution of public irrigation water for agricultural
uses. Yet, in Pakistan as in other countries, PIM was unable to achieve its objectives of
equitable resource distribution and financial sustainability. I examine how the
neoliberal understanding of citizens’ participation/participatory development as demonstrated
in PIM fails because its underlying theory of change overlooks power asymmetry issues,
institutional politics, and farmers' engagement processes. Drawing on quantitative and
qualitative data collected through structured and semi-structured interviews, focus group
discussions, and participant observation in Pakistan’s agrarian heartlands of Punjab and
Sindh, we argue that traditional irrigation bureaucracy, donor agency technocrats, and
depoliticized participatory development approach intentionally or unintentionally ignore the
muted voices of small and landless peasants in the reform process. Under such
circumstances, reform cannot generate hydro-solidarity, trust, and collective action from
below. Moreover, the irrigation bureaucracy only mimics the institutions of participation under
an externally assisted push because the PIM model was never adequately tested and
implemented. We argue that without active farmers' agency—small and landless peasants,
these paper organizations cannot create multi-level accountability in irrigation management.
We elucidate an important but under-theorized factor contributing to these failures:
depoliticized irrigation management transfer processes that fail to redistribute social power.
Donor articulations of the PIM “theory of change” do not make explicit that a shift in social
power – not just management authority and responsibility – is necessary.
Thanks for this relevant and well written post. I can underline the concerns that you have raised and complement your story, based on our research in Kenya and Zimbabwe. Autonomy, learning and flexibility are key in the farmer-led irrigation, and exactly these distinct characteristics may be smothered through external policies and intervention, by either governments or development agencies. Also, we observe that farmer-led irrigation is extremely dynamic and fulfills different roles within diversified livelihood portfolios. Market-oriented farming and ‘modern irrigation’ is not always aimed for by all farmers at all times. This seems too often ignored in emerging FLID programmes, while this recognition could strengthen the approaches for sustainable agrarian development.
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