The GiveWell Blog

The Gates Foundation’s agriculture program: Experimenting or floundering?

Here’s what we know about the Gates Foundation’s agriculture program:

  • Gates believes it’s suggestive that “apart from a few states and small, oil-rich countries, no country has managed a rapid rise from poverty without increasing agricultural productivity. In the poorest countries, agriculture employs a majority of the people.”
  • This isn’t a new argument or an undisputed one. See Peter Timmer on Green Revolution “optimists” vs. “pessimists”.
  • Gates’s approach is “comprehensive,” targets “no single, simple solution”, and includes farmer training/support, irrigation initiatives, market access initiatives, and funding of agricultural research with a focus on gender empowerment.
  • This isn’t a new approach or a historically successful one. The World Bank has focused on essentially the same set of interventions recently, with unclear results, and the previous “holistic” approach of “Integrated Rural Development” is widely considered to have failed. Details at our overview of agriculture aid.

In other words, the Gates Foundation approach – as described – appears to be neither a continuation of things that have worked before nor a fundamentally new approach to the problem. So what might be different this time around?

Lots of things. Better technology could make all the difference; so could a greater degree of commitment. And one way in which the Gates Foundation could really distinguish itself from past efforts would be by doing a superior job learning about what works and what doesn’t – past initiatives have suffered from poor evaluation and very little accessible information about how things have really worked out.

The Gates Foundation’s progress reports so far are extremely preliminary, looking at “inputs” such as “number of farmers organized into groups”. We find these measures wholly appropriate given how early it is in the initiative; and yet, we’ve seen too many programs that still haven’t moved beyond these measures even after claiming “success” and asking individuals to donate and help them scale up.

If the Gates Foundation moves to more rigorous and outcome-focused evaluation over time, we might learn more about what works and what doesn’t, and the “impatient optimism” could turn out to be justified. If not, the Gates Foundation will be making a very expensive gamble with very little information about its odds.


  • Sam Gardner on October 29, 2009 at 4:53 pm said:

    The main question is why the Gates foundation abandons its normal approach to aid, namely to remove problems one by one, to a holistic approach that is more faith than evidence based.

  • Holden on November 2, 2009 at 5:47 pm said:

    Sam, I don’t see a conflict between holistic and evidence-based.

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