Blog Post

Building consensus for systemic change: The role of donors in food systems transformation

Despite tremendous progress made in the last decade to produce enough food to meet the demands of the growing population, around 811 million people lived in hunger in 2020 and nearly half of the world’s population lacked year-round access to adequate food due to climate change, poverty, and the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the 2021 State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) report.

Global food production systems have the potential to improve these numbers, but those systems face large-scale challenges themselves. Many of the workers employed in food systems around the world remain without decent working conditions or wages. In addition, the food production sector is one of the biggest contributors of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that lead to climate change and environmental degradation. It is crucial for all the actors involved in global food systems to have honest conversations about these challenges to transform food systems to align with a healthy, sustainable future for both people and planet.

A recent high-level food systems event, Leveraging Change: The role of donors in food systems transformation co-organized by IFAD, European Commission, USAID and Global Donor Platform for Rural Development (GDPRD), was organized with this context in mind. In her opening remarks, IFPRI’s Director for Africa Jemimah Njuki said, “Donor funding towards initiatives and projects is critical to help transform food system . . . But it is key to channel these funds properly.” Njuki highlighted three broad areas that require radical change for donor funding to work for improved food systems:

  • Prioritization – It is important to prioritize effective projects that deliver real benefits to the people in the countries in which those projects are implemented. Priorities must be country-specific, and each country should take full ownership and lead the agenda to ensure projects align with the country’s medium- and long-terms goals, as well as its capacity to absorb all available financial resources. Additionally, women, youth, and other marginalized populations must be prioritized, as they are often the threshold toward making change.
  • Targeting – Existing funds are not always accessible to the groups who need them most (SMEs, women-owned businesses, etc.). Therefore, more effective targeting is crucial. Funds must be redesigned to give small businesses more access and agency.
  • Coordination – There must be smooth coordination and accountability across major players in the agricultural sector, including government ministries, private sector entities, donors, and implementing partners in middle- and low-income countries. Such coordination is crucial in ensuring better delivery of results and accelerated development and in minimizing any duplication of efforts.

The event then moved into a panel discussion, moderated by international broadcaster and media consultant Henry Bonsu. During the discussion, increased investments emerged as a common theme to help drive food systems transformation. Today, investments in global food systems remain startlingly low.[1] IFAD’s Chief Financial Officer, Alvaro Lario noted that current financial investments in food systems stand at a modest 8% and it is therefore important to catalyze and de-risk financing by establishing robust and resilient food values chains and identifying their weakest links. “Donors must leverage the power of public development banks because they can have a critical role in spanning investments and supporting women and children, as they are often excluded from financial systems,” Lario recommended.

Assistant Secretary-General  of the SUN Movement, Gerda Versburg emphasized that donors need to invest in the nourishment of people, planet, and prosperity through sustainable agriculture practices that create food production jobs and strengthen food value chains. Carla Montesi, Director of International Partnerships at European Commission, agreed that increased investments in food systems, along with increased investments in R&D to promote climate-sensitive agriculture, are pivotal in making food value chains economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable.

The need to put sustainability at the heart of the food systems transformation was echoed by ACIR CEO Andrew Campbell. “We need an unprecedented level of innovation in our food systems as a whole and not just agriculture . . . to produce more and healthier food, and equitably shared with a smaller carbon footprint,” Campbell stated.

A second theme that emerged among the panelists was the need for collaborative systemic change rather than piecemeal approaches. Transforming food systems to benefit both people and planet will require a change in mindset among value chain actors, including donors and government agencies. Such a change will be a gradual process and will need to encompass both policy implementation and institutional development. Versburg emphasized that this mindset shift needs to include prioritizing the “what” of broad country-level priorities first and the “how” of funding and program design second. “Stop thinking in programs and projects; think in terms of changing the life and situation of communities and families so that they can drive their own futures. That is the systemic change we need,” she said.

Placing countries’ specific needs and priorities first will also increase country-level ownership of food system transformation, which the panelists agreed was key in driving lasting change. Governments and in-country actors need to be empowered to identify priorities and challenges; then donors can align behind them to provide necessary funding, human capital resources, and education and training. “It’s critical that we go back to the basics to ensure that we are following the leadership of country partners. If we’re not doing that, then we can create as many multilateral approaches as we want, but they aren’t going to have the desired effect,” noted Jim Barnhart, Assistant to the Administrator at USAID’s Bureau of Resilience and Food Security.

Finally, systemic transformation of global food systems will also require strong political will at the country level. “As a donor, when we’re looking at partner countries, we want to make sure our host country is serious about systemic change,” Barnhart stated. When countries are willing to take the lead, donors can then support their goals through financial or human capital support. The combination of political will and country-level goal setting is crucial in identifying and enacting policies, that need to be addressed, such as equitable land tenure.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has threatened health and economic wellbeing across the planet, it has also increased recognition of the need for widespread changes in things like food systems. This could provide a window of opportunity for donors and governments to begin more systemic transformation. Campbell pointed out, “[There is] a lot of scope for innovation, for rethinking the way in which the system is organized. It’s not about incremental change, it’s reconceiving systems. COVID has given us an opportunity to do just that.”

Transforming food systems to be more sustainable, equitable, and healthy for people and planet will take significant effort and cooperation. However, while daunting, such a transformation is not out of reach if donors, governments, and value chain actors can come together.

“[Climate change, global inequity and exclusion, and COVID] are the challenges of our generation,” Campbell concluded. “When we look at the Food Systems Summit [and other multilateral efforts], that is a big opportunity to bring us together. There is far more that brings us together than that separates us.”

Swati Malhotra is a communications specialist with IFPRI’s Markets, Trade, and Institutions Division. Sara Gustafson is a freelance writer.


[1] The Ceres2030 report reveals that an additional investment of US$14 billion per year from donors governments could leverage investment from low- and middle-income countries and the private sector, which could help end hunger and double the incomes of 545 million small-scale farmers.