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Food Security, Agriculture, and Livelihoods


Three-quarters of people living in poverty reside in rural areas and depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. Oxfam believes that empowering small-scale farmers is essential to fighting poverty, hunger, and food insecurity.

Hunger is not inevitable. It is a question of justice. The world produces more food than at any time in history. Yet one in eight people go to bed hungry every night. In developing countries, the hungry are often farmers. Small-scale farmers often lack basic necessities, such as access to fertile land, water, credit, knowledge, and extension services. Women, who grow much of the world’s food, face some of the biggest hurdles of all. Malnutrition, disease, chronic rural poverty, and stunted economic development result when small farmers cannot earn decent livelihoods. Climate change and increasingly erratic weather patterns are compounding these problems, disrupting agriculture and food supplies, and making small-scale farming in many regions harder and more precarious.

Oxfam works with partners to tackle the injustice of food insecurity and hunger by unlocking the potential of small-scale farmers—particularly women. Helping small-scale farmers to be more productive can lift their families out of poverty and end the cycle of food insecurity that threatens communities and whole nations. It can generate income that families can invest in their children, and it can sow the seeds of economic development. Secure land tenure, appropriate technology, strong and democratic institutions, and policies that are fair to smallholders can make all the difference.

We believe that governments need to:

  • Invest in research and development, basic infrastructure, and extension services tailored for the climate, soil, geography, markets, and challenges small-scale producers in their countries face.
  • Create and strengthen institutions and regulations that enable small-scale farmers to claim their rights and protect their resources, including access to land and water.
  • Eliminate gender discrimination to ensure that women farmers have the same opportunities as their male counterparts.
  • Assist small-scale farmers so that they can adopt sustainable practices and adapt to climate change.


Our agriculture and food security programs and advocacy promote locally sustainable solutions that meet the needs of small-scale producers, particularly women. Through focused and targeted advocacy, we also tackle the underlying policies and power imbalances that keep people in poverty.

Policy, advocacy, and campaigning

Oxfam America works with civil society organizations (CSOs) and communities to empower small-scale producers. We encourage governments and companies to enact policies and make investments that benefit smallholders, especially women food producers. We analyze decisions and investments that affect the livelihoods of small-scale producers and help hold governments, international institutions, and companies accountable. We believe that helping farmers voice their concerns and participate in agriculture decision-making can play a vital role in boosting production and creating a world free from hunger.

In recent years, volatile food prices and the specter of food insecurity has heightened global awareness of the importance of smallholder agriculture. Oxfam America has seized this opportunity to press for US government assistance to be more responsive and targeted to small-scale food producers. Through in-country research and advocacy, Oxfam America is deepening its understanding of what is working and what can be improved in US bilateral food security programs. This evidence is helping to build a compelling case for why Congress should continue funding agricultural development programs. Our findings are also influencing how the US government implements these programs around the world. In addition, our research enables us to advocate for broader changes needed in agriculture, trade, and energy policies that affect global food security.

Oxfam America recognizes that the private sector and new public-private partnerships can have a major impact on prospects for development and poverty reduction. So we work at the intersection of public policy and private sector investment to keep the rights and interests of small-scale producers at the center of development dialogue. We promote strong standards to focus companies’ attention on social and environmental impacts, and we hold companies accountable. And we analyze national policies to understand whether they will tip the balance of benefits toward companies at the expense of small-scale producers.

In an increasingly multipolar world, multilateral forums such as the Committee on World Food Security and the G8 and G20 help shape the agricultural development agenda. Oxfam America works with allies and partners to influence the US government as it participates in these spaces and to demand global solutions to hunger that recognize and prioritize small producers.


Oxfam America designs its own programs in developing countries to address the root causes of food insecurity, including low agricultural productivity, marginalization of women smallholder farmers, and unequal access to natural resources and financial services. We support women in coming together to build savings, we strengthen farmer associations and cooperatives, and we train farmers in improved and appropriate agricultural techniques.

Our programs systematically analyze gender dynamics within the household to ensure the interventions promote gender equality at all levels. An in-depth understanding of local conditions along with a range of participatory tools informs our program design.

Our agriculture programs are designed taking into account farmers’ assets and endowments. We focus on sustainable agricultural practices to overcome environmental, climate, and technical hurdles while increasing outputs. For example, in Haiti, Vietnam, and Cambodia, Oxfam America supports the System of Rice Intensification (SRI)—a low external input system that can save farmers seed, reduce water use, and lower greenhouse gas emissions while improving yields.

In Ethiopia, Oxfam America works with the government and other partners to improve agriculture extension services so that these services can better respond to the needs of farmers—particularly women and youth—in different regions using improved agronomical practices.

In Cambodia, Mali, Senegal, El Salvador, and Guatemala, the Saving for Change program encourages groups of rural women to save regularly, borrow from their group’s fund, and repay loans from the group with interest. These women use the money to build small businesses or homes and to buy food, educational materials, or medicine. Read more about Saving for Change.

Goals & priorities

Influencing the US Feed the Future Initiative

Through the Feed the Future (FTF) initiative, the US has committed to helping developing countries improve food security. In selected countries, FTF supports inclusive agriculture sector growth, prioritizes women food producers, builds resilience to climate change, improves maternal and child nutrition, and delivers assistance based on principles that make aid more effective. Oxfam America’s research in several countries has taken an in-depth look at FTF-funded programs, examining their strategies for reaching and empowering small-scale producers, promoting sustainable farming practices and adaptation to climate change, and strengthening the capacity of local institutions. Our research has identified opportunities to improve this initiative and is enabling us to continue building the case that FTF can deliver results and deserves Congressional support.

Reforming US food aid programs

The US offers substantial food aid in response to both natural disasters and those caused by human intervention. But the US government’s approach to providing this humanitarian assistance in crisis situations is badly broken. Buying and shipping food from the US to destinations around the world is often not the most efficient or effective means of getting aid to those in need. Based on our experience working in emergency settings around the world, Oxfam America is pushing for a more flexible US food aid system. We will continue to advocate for innovative approaches like local and regional procurement, which can more promptly meet urgent needs while supporting agricultural development that will eliminate the need for aid in the future.

Challenging public-private partnerships to deliver improved food security

At the 2012 G8 summit, countries launched a New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, a framework for public-private partnerships created to deliver improved food security now in 10 African countries. Since the inception of the alliance, Oxfam America has been a strong critic of the framework, demanding greater transparency and more open participation—in particular by those most affected by hunger and poverty. We are challenging the policy reforms and investment activities included in the initiative, at both the country and global levels, calling on governments and companies to make public-private partnerships work for small-scale food producers.

Advocating better global food security governance

The Committee on World Food Security (CFS) has taken center stage as an inclusive space for the development of policies and principles to guide national, regional, and global action to tackle hunger. Oxfam America is working to influence the US role in the CFS and US engagement in the process of developing responsible agricultural investment (RAI) principles. We are calling for a strong set of principles to guide both public and private investments so they help ensure everyone has enough to eat always, thereby realizing the right to food.

Ending competition between food and fuel

In recent years, as much as 40 percent of the US corn crop has been used to create ethanol, a result of the mandates included in the Renewable Fuel Standard. Working with allies that range from anti-hunger organizations to fiscally conservative groups to food industry advocates, Oxfam is championing an end to energy policies that contribute to high and volatile food prices and make it more difficult for people living in poverty to buy the food they need to survive.

Strengthening land rights to address constraints faced by small-scale farmers

Land is a fundamental asset for agricultural production. Often, women face severe cultural and legal barriers in accessing it. The accelerated scale and pace of large-scale land acquisitions in recent years has all too often led to forced evictions or otherwise undermined the rights of small-scale farmers to access and control land. Oxfam America engages in research on large-scale land investments and their effects on small-scale farmers in developing countries, and we advocate at the global and national levels to protect smallholder rights by exposing land grabbing and undue concentration of land ownership. Our advocacy has also supported the global adoption and national-level implementation of the new UN standard on how land is governed known as the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security. Its aim is to ensure that the right frameworks are in place at the national level to protect and promote secure tenure rights and equitable access to land.

Influencing public policymakers in developing countries to uphold the rights of small-scale food producers

Oxfam America works with civil society partners to influence local governments and policymakers to protect the rights of small-scale producers, especially women, and to put in place policies and programs to meet their needs. In El Salvador, for example, Oxfam is working with an alliance of rural women that includes six national organizations representing 8,000 women across the country, as well as a coalition of more than 200 groups of farmers, cooperatives, environmentalists, and others organizing to achieve the right to food. On World Food Day in 2013, more than 7,000 civil society activists gathered in front of the Legislative Assembly to present their own draft of a new food security law that is now under debate. Oxfam continues to support their efforts to get the legislature to pass a strong food security bill and to ratify a constitutional amendment for the right to food.

Pioneering innovative strategies to provide small-scale farmers, pastoralists, and fisherfolk with access to water, land, financial and extension services, and markets to increase their productivity and incomes

In Ethiopia, for example, Oxfam America works to improve smallholders’ access to water. Our program is strengthening water users associations, making them more democratic and representative. The goal is to ensure that water is allocated fairly and equitably and that government policy supports small-scale irrigation. We are also working to improve the Ethiopian government’s agricultural extension program. We train agricultural extension workers to be more responsive to farmers. And we have designed a new monitoring system that allows the government to see how well its extension system is working. This Performance Management System provides effective monitoring and evaluation mechanisms and feedback tools for farmers and frontline extension workers so that the system is based on farmers’ needs. As a result of our efforts, the government is able to help farmers in regions that were not being reached or receiving adequate services before.

Achievements so far

As part of the Farm Bill reauthorization, members of Congress took an important step to reform US food aid programs to make them more flexible, efficient, and effective. Oxfam America and its grassroots supporters mobilized in support of these changes, holding more than 200 meetings with members of Congress, and generating more than 13,000 letters calling for reform. When the House of Representatives began debating the legislation, two members of Congress offered a bipartisan amendment on the House floor that would have enacted a sweeping overhaul of food aid programs. It failed by just nine votes. While there is room for improvement, the Farm Bill sends an important signal that food aid programs can be made more efficient and effective. Toward this goal, it authorizes up to $80 million to buy food locally and in the region where it is needed, an important and much-needed flexibility.

Oxfam is conducting case study research on the implementation of Feed the Future programs in Senegal, Tanzania, Haiti, and Ethiopia. We have learned from field experiences, have analyzed best practices, and have identified areas for improvement; now we are sharing research findings with the US Agency for International Development (USAID), local communities, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in those countries. Oxfam America’s research has enhanced the credibility for our advocacy in Congress, helping to bolster support for this critical program. As part of our Effective Aid campaign, Oxfam America placed paid ads seen by more than five million people and hosted farmers and other “local aid” heroes to make the case that US foreign aid is working. Our advocacy helped keep funding for Feed the Future steady at a time when some in Congress were trying to drastically cut government spending.

Oxfam America has pressed the US government to end rules and subsidies that drive up food prices by diverting food crops into fuel. Oxfam worked with partners to persuade lawmakers to end the largest corn ethanol subsidy—the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit, or VEETC—by letting it expire at the end of 2011. In 2012, two states—Arkansas and North Carolina—requested a waiver from the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) based on the economic impact the RFS mandates had on agriculture and food industries in those states. Oxfam America mobilized its constituents in support of this waiver request, generating more than 21,000 comments to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Obama administration calling for approval of the waiver. Although the EPA denied the states’ requests, the strong demonstration of support for this request has provided impetus for more fundamental reform of the RFS. Members of both the House and Senate have introduced legislation toward the goal of eliminating the corn ethanol mandate. The EPA recently proposed lowering volume mandates for the 2014 RFS nationwide. Under this proposal, the target for the volume of biofuels in the fuel supply would drop by three billion gallons, and the corn ethanol target would be trimmed by just under one billion. Oxfam is supporting the EPA proposal as a first step, while working with Congress toward the goal of eliminating the corn ethanol mandate.

Oxfam America released a report in September 2013 about irregular land acquisitions fueling further concentration of land ownership in Colombia’s Altillanura region. This report—Divide and Purchase: How Land Ownership Is Being Concentrated in Colombia—revealed how Cargill acquired land intended for small farmers with limited resources, violating at least the spirit of Colombian law. The publicity the report received helped to create space for public debate in Colombia on the issue of undue concentration of land ownership. As a result, civil society advocacy in Colombia helped to stop the government from moving forward with legislative reforms that would have legalized and promoted further concentration of land ownership through acquisitions similar to Cargill’s. Oxfam has also made progress in focusing the World Bank’s attention on the need to protect the land rights of poor and vulnerable people.

In 2013 the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank) issued a statement cautioning that “speculators and unscrupulous investors” too often exploit “smallholder farmers, herders, and others who lack the power to stand up for their rights.” Bank President Jim Yong Kim is calling for “modern, efficient, and transparent policies on land rights.” The bank has committed itself to a new UN standard on how land is governed and has agreed to make land rights a key focus in the review under way of the rules governing the bank’s activities.

A three-year study exploring the impacts of savings groups in 500 rural villages in Mali shows that households in villages with savings groups saved 31 percent more on average and experienced an 8 percent increase in food security. Oxfam’s Saving for Change program has helped women create 7,019 savings groups in 2,625 villages in Mali. There are now 250,000 people involved in Saving for Change groups in 6,000 villages in Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso, El Salvador, and Cambodia. Collectively, these groups have saved more than $4 million, and the average participant earns 20 percent annually on their deposits. One reason why Saving for Change is taking off so quickly is because women can form groups with fellow villagers in which they save and invest their own money. The groups need not have any relationship with a microfinance institution like a bank. This factor helps the program reach the poorest women who would not otherwise be able to borrow money because most banks consider them to be too big a risk.

The GROW campaign, Oxfam supporters and allies have made significant progress in reforming a broken food system through a variety of actions and campaigning tactics, including evidence-based reports, direct lobbying of governments, mobilizing for marches, sponsoring petitions, using social media, and building coalitions. We’ve achieved commitments on agriculture-related policies from governments, corporations, and global institutions, and we’ve increased the participation of rural women in policy processes. Most recently, GROW has secured commitments by the biggest food companies in the world—Nestlé, Coca-Cola, and others—to change their policies affecting their supply chain operations.


Supporters have played an active role in the campaign to achieve changes in a broken food system—533,000 people signed a “Stop the African Hunger Games” petition on the Sahel food crisis in 2012; nearly 400,000 people have taken action targeting food companies, and 30,000 have tried the GROW Method to see how they can cook and feed their families in a way that contributes to a fairer, more sustainable planet. Another 107,000 people successfully petitioned the government of Guatemala to return land to people previously forcibly evicted from their homes. And with the help of Coldplay and 50,000 supporters, GROW secured the commitment of the World Bank to improve its policies on investments in land in developing countries, setting an important example to all investors that could help put a stop to land-related human rights abuses and prevent greater poverty, hunger, and hardship.

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