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Policy influence as a pathway to impact

Nearly a year ago, I published this reflection on the importance of public policy in shaping outcomes for coffee supply chain actors.  Policies at origin and in the marketplace are a primary determinant of who participates in the coffee trade and how.  And yet, efforts to influence policy are often beyond the scope of projects designed to improve the lives of vulnerable smallholder farmers and farmworkers.

More than four months ago, in announcing the launch of our Coffeelands Program here, I suggested that we would expand the scope of our coffee programming to more intentionally support public policies that foster inclusion, empowerment, investment and transparency as a strategy for expanding the impact of our work in the field.

Today, I am delighted to publish this policy brief describing how our efforts to inform and influence public policy in Colombia have contributed to a more inclusive policy-making process and positioned smallholders for increased competitiveness, particularly in the growing market for specialty coffee.

The publication and the outcomes it describes are the result of our collaboration since 2012 with researchers from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Cali and local partners in Nariño on our Borderlands Coffee Project.

The process described in this policy brief is worthy of careful consideration among research institutes and development agencies, and may show a way forward for collaboration to achieve influence at scale and contribute to more inclusive public sector policies and spending priorities.  The key messages are summarized below.  Download a PDF version of the full policy brief here.


A new approach to policy-making: Platforms for cross-sector engagement
Participatory processes, facilitated dialogue and effective multi-stakeholder engagement can improve policy and support the efficient use of scarce public resources for poverty reduction by introducing results-based evidence into the decision-making process. Platforms for cross-sector engagement, whether temporary or permanent, can be effective in achieving alignment between the public sector, private sector and civil society on sector-level plans.  New types of institutional organization and governance structures may be needed to develop strategies for adequately managing the risks and threats related to climatic variability and climate change.

Intent to influence: Scientific and technical information for decision-support
Partnership between research institutes and development agencies rooted in an “intent to influence” holds the potential to help both be more effective: by contributing to public policies based on technical and scientific evidence, research institutes can leverage the public goods they create through their research for broad impact; by contributing to more inclusive public policies, development agencies whose projects may have limited numbers of direct participants can achieve “lower-intensity” impact at a much larger scale. The project’s success in exerting influence over public policy and spending priorities for Nariño’s coffee sector amplified the project’s reach from the 1,600 smallholder farming families who participate in the project directly to affect the entire population of coffee growers in Nariño, who number around 40,000. At a time of dwindling investment in development programming, pairing field-based operations with “research-for-influence” partnerships could position development agencies to contribute to broad-based impact even at a time of declining investment in the sector.

Harmonious interplay: Public-private consultation
For the Borderlands project, CRS also created a private-sector Advisory Council comprised of six U.S.-based specialty coffee companies that deliver best-in-class market-based advisory services to project staff, partners and participants while supporting its commercial objectives through the purchase of coffee from project participants. The activities of the Borderlands Advisory Council may also be considered part of the project’s influence over public policy and spending, as the project brought members of the Advisory Council into direct contact with policymakers as part of their annual visits to origin, during which they were able to offer perspectives and issue recommendations on ways to more effectively foster the creation of a competitive and inclusive coffee sector. CIAT and CRS will analyze the Borderlands Advisory Council construct more thoroughly in a separate and forthcoming policy brief, including sections on lessons learned and recommendations.

A-B-C-D-E-F: Able, credible, disinterested and evidence-based facilitation
The success of the process described here was driven by the fact that its facilitation was perceived by key stakeholders as being: able: possessing the skills necessary to effectively facilitate constructive cross-sector engagement; credible: perceived as having expertise and substantive understanding of the content on which the process focused; disinterested: lacking any financial or vested institutional interest in any particular outcome besides a clear commitment to inclusion; and evidence-based: driven by technical and scientific findings generated through rigorous and participatory processes.

Farmer typologies: Customized approaches for different kinds of farmers
The Borderlands project team identified three discrete farmer typologies through the project’s baseline survey and analysis—specialized coffee farmers, diversified farmers who grow coffee and rural-dwellers who rely primarily on off-farm activities for income generation but also grow coffee. Each of these groups allocates resources—principally labor, time and resources—differently across a range of activities, with different levels of efficiency in each of those activities, including coffee farming. Public policies aiming at poverty reduction in the coffee sector should reflect the differences between farmer types in their efforts to maximize net income of farmers in the coffee sector. Effective interventions will be adapted to the conditions of each farmer group.

Climate change adaptation: Suitability and sustainability
The Borderlands project team identified “winner” and “loser” crops—agricultural products that gain and lose suitability over time under likely climate change scenarios. These impacts were geographically differentiated across communities based on environmental variables, production system and livelihood strategies; effective policies will be customized for different segments of the population and will take these crop-specific projections into account.  In all scenarios involving changes in land-use patterns, careful consideration must be given to ecological impacts, especially in the case of transition away from shade-grown coffee to annual or short-cycle crops grown in full exposure to the sun, and in the case of any crops planted on steep hillsides.

Smarter agronomic extension: Agroecological suitability for quality-based differentiation
Environmental or agroecological variables were shown to be critical determinants of the suitability of a particular farm for coffee production. They are also important determinants of a farm’s ability to produce coffee with the specific sensory or organoleptic attributes sought in high-value segments of the coffee market. The identification of distinct agroecological or environmental niches with different levels of suitability for quality-based differentiation and would position public-sector service providers for more “intelligent” approaches to agronomic extension and programming in the coffee sector.

Michael Sheridan

1 Comment

  • Hey Michael! Having followed your blog and related articles in industry magazines this past year, I’ve been really impressed with the professionalism your organization brings to aiding the coffee supply chain. Thank you for all the work you do.

    Those of us who work on the retail side of this business really appreciate that there are advocates like you working at origin. It has been disheartening to see extraordinary growth within the industry create a lot of wealth for entrepreneurs and quality differentiated retailers without much thought for international producers beyond taking origin trips. There are obviously exceptions, but your work stands apart as A through F.

    Thank you also for making content available online and raising awareness for thoughtful development; I’m looking forward to seeing the real impact your work has in the lives of producers over the years as this industry continues to change. Grace and peace.

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