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In COVID-19 Era, Donors Face Challenges Ahead

With COVID-19 disrupting supply chains, industries, and markets across the globe, we’re checking in with GAFSP Private Sector Window clients to see how the health and economic crisis is affecting their businesses and the smallholders in their supply chains. In the next installment of our “COVID Conversations” series, we talk with Iris Krebber, Head of Agriculture and Land at the Directorate General for Economic Development and International at the UK Department for International Development (DFID).  Krebber, who is also chair of the GAFSP Private Sector Window Donor Committee, spoke to us about the challenges now facing the donor community, what keeps her up at night, and how she found professional fulfillment—but only after leaving a career in the private sector behind. 

Question: What are some of the food security challenges donors are confronting because of COVID?
COVID-19 doesn’t fit in to any of our established paradigms and so the donor community is living with a great deal of uncertainty. At the same time, we need to come to a consensus quickly about what should—and should not— be done. In early April, we kicked-off a donor debate with 17 donor representatives so that we could explore potential areas of cooperation. It was a great first step and though we saw a lot of convergence, there’s hasn’t been a decision to act together or to align our work. The task ahead is enormous and so the challenge for donors is to make sure that the system doesn’t divide us. Money is scarce and we need to make sure that with the COVID-induced drop in gross national income (GNI), our funds are put to best use and go further. 

Question: How has DFID, and your department more specifically, responded to COVID?
DFID has already spent almost £800 million on the immediate health response, including vaccine development, and we have repurposed key programs, particularly in agriculture, food security and social protection. We are also thinking strategically about our path forward and commissioned a rapid evidence analysis to help guide our response. The study found that donors tend to jump at the immediate health challenges— vaccines and the provision of personal protective equipment (PPE), for example— and then to humanitarian relief, but in the process, tend to leapfrog agricultural investments and very critical livelihoods programming. We need to avoid repeating that mistake so that we are safeguarding incomes, jobs and food security, as well as boosting agriculture SMEs, for example, alongside our humanitarian and health response. This is much cheaper than having to save lives with relief assistance once livelihoods have been lost.  One of the important recommendations that emerged was to not start something new and instead direct assistance at scale through established networks on the ground. That’s why GAFSP has such an important role moving forward: It is not another entity, but rather an initiative to make the whole system deliver better together. 

Question: How does GAFSP fit into the food security architecture, particularly in light of COVID-19?
GAFSP was created to respond to crises like these. I think that GAFSP is well positioned because it is already working in the poorest countries with preexisting shocks and challenges, including high hunger baselines, climate vulnerability, extreme poverty, and fragility. Many SMEs in these countries are suffering because of interruptions to their supply chains, higher transport costs, and an inability to access markets. They are running into financial trouble and so GAFSP Private Sector Window can play an important role. These companies need more flexible financing conditions, particularly since commercial credit is now even more out of reach and interest rates are rising very quickly. If agricultural SMEs fold, the food supply chain will collapse, with immediate food security impacts for producers and many consumers, in addition to the loss of incomes and jobs.

Question: What most concerns you when it comes to COVID-related challenges facing smallholders? Is there something that keeps you up at night? 
I’m troubled by generalizations I hear from non-experts who claim that smallholders will be relatively unaffected by the COVID crisis. How can they make these claims when all we know for sure is that COVID is a unique crisis with an unprecedented mix of challenges that present differently depending on the context? People assume that smallholders and subsistence farmers will be fine because they have food, even if supermarket shelves are empty. And while there may be a grain of truth in that, such unsubstantiated generalizations undermine any meaningful debate and overlook the fact that smallholders in many areas are already facing disruptions: Consumer prices for many commodities are going up, but the prices farmers are receiving are often going down. Many smallholders also rely on family members who send incomes from the city and those incomes are collapsing, as are remittances from family members overseas, which means they may not be able to buy inputs for the next season.  We are also hearing about a lot of land grabbing and unlawful evictions that are happening under the guise of a COVID response. We need to make sure that people aren’t losing their livelihoods or there will be a massive wave of distressed land sales, which would be disastrous for many smallholder families.  This would further add to the humanitarian caseload and many of those farmers may later end up in an urban slum, with little opportunity to return to their communities.  These are very serious risks that need to be addressed.


Question: How did you get into development work? And how did you get into agriculture and food security specifically?
After completing my masters’ degree, I worked in the private sector for seven years. I made very good money, but I found myself wondering if it was really what I wanted to do with my life.  At the time, I worked for the German automobile industry and was assigned to a project where I connected with various chambers of commerce and government representatives from India and South Africa, which had recently become independent. We were working on shaping industrial policy, including a constructive role for trade unions. The project focused on how to get as many people out of poverty the quickest through sustainable and well-paid employment, while also contributing to national growth and prosperity. I felt like I was doing something with a purpose – something that was meaningful – and it felt fantastic. So, I went back to school and got another degree, this time in the management of humanitarian affairs and development. I went to work in the Horn of Africa for two years and that quickly turned into ten. I became the Regional Director for Welthungerhilfe, the largest German NGO working on agriculture and development, and one morning, a group from DFID came to visit one of our programs for the Masai. At the end of the day, someone asked if I would be interested in working for DFID. A day later, I had the paperwork in my inbox.


Question: To wrap up, what would you say most motivates you?
I want to be moving our action and debate to the next level so that we’re not just continuing in the same direction—but actually elevating our work and doing it better.  I want to drive a paradigm change: instead of asking the ‘what’ questions, we need to be asking ‘how’ we can bring change at scale.  When I look at my life, I’ve always been most interested in people who think outside the box and who join forces to achieve innovation and progress.  That’s what we need to better understand the big picture and see how all the pieces fit together.

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