Relief or agricultural development? Emergency seed projects, farmer seed systems and the dissemination of modern varieties in Mali and Niger uri icon


  • Emergency seed projects tend to be implemented in response to natural disasters such as drought, flooding, cyclones, hurricanes, and civil conflict, particularly those involving population displacement or return. The assumption on which these projects are based presumes that farmers lose or eat their seed so that seed is no longer locally available or accessible. Recent research, however, haschallenged this assumption (Longley and Sperling 2002). Studies undertaken in southern Sudan (Jones et al. 2002), Somalia (Longley et al. 2001), southern Africa (Friis-Hansen and Rohrbach 1993), Rwanda (Sperling 1996), and Sierra Leone (Longley 1997) have shown that not all farmers lose their seed, and - even if they do - seed is often locally available through grain markets or from farmers in neighboring areas. Implicit in such findings is the need to reconsider the aims and modalities of conventional emergency seed projects. If it is assumed that farmers affected by disaster have no seed, then the aim of an emergency seed project is ostensibly to provide farmers with something to plant in the forthcoming season. However, as we shall see in section 5, there are, in practice, various other underlying objectives - often unarticulated - for which seed is given in emergencies. One of these underlying aims is the promotion of modern varieties. Some of the existing guidelines on emergency seed provisioning recommend the use of local varieties which tend to be more appropriate than modern or improved varieties (Chemonics 1996); others present a more nuanced view, advising that the choice of varieties will depend on the farming community's pre-disaster situation (ODI 1996). If the objective of an emergency seed intervention is 'to return the local farming system to a situation as close to its predisaster status as possible' (ODI 1996: 16), then modern varieties should only be given if farmers depended on modern varieties prior to the emergency. This paper challenges this position, suggesting that - in some recurrent or long-lasting crisis situations, and provided that adequate varietal trials have been undertaken - carefully chosen modern varieties may usefully increase varietal diversity. Rather than returning to the pre-disaster situation, such an approach aims to enhance the capacity of farmers' seed and agricultural systems. But an intervention that sets out to promote varietal diversity and strengthen local agricultural systems must be implemented very differently to an intervention that aims to provide emergency seed aid. As such, it might best be considered as part of a longer-term rehabilitation strategy as opposed to a short-term relief activity; in other words, seed system support rather than emergency seed provisioning1 (ODI 1996)

publication date

  • 2004