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US Global Food Security Strategy Gets A Digital Development Upgrade!

By Josh Woodard on December 15, 2021

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The new U.S. Government Global Food Security Strategy (GFSS), from 2022-2026, has recently launched with some notable changes when it comes to digital development. This is significant because the GFSS guides the United States’ whole-of-government Feed the Future initiative to end hunger, poverty and malnutrition.

While a quick Ctrl+F would tell you that the number of times “digital” was mentioned has increased from 16 to 45 instances between the two strategies, let’s take a deeper look into some of the changes you won’t want to miss.

More Inclusive Technology

New to this version of the GFSS is the inclusion of a section on the inclusive development imperative, which emphasizes the U.S. government’s (USG) commitment to the concept that “every person, regardless of their identity, is instrumental in the transformation of their own societies.”

This is critical in the context of digital, because more than one in three people in rural areas in Least Developed Countries either lack access to mobile networks entirely or only have access to 2G coverage.

Women often face even more barriers to accessing technology, which might otherwise increase their access to finance and expand employment opportunities. On average, women are 14 percent less likely to own mobile phones than their male counterparts, 20 percent less likely to own a smartphone, and 43 percent less likely to engage online. Of course, these access gaps are not unique to women. They also impact persons with disabilities; Indigenous People; ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities; low-income populations, persons with limited literacy or education; and others. Thus the GFSS places digital access at the heart of inclusive development.

More Responsible Technology

The new GFSS goes further than the last version when it comes to emphasizing the importance of making sure that digital technologies are used responsibly in the context of our work. This is consistent with USAID’s Digital Strategy 2020-2024, which has the responsible use of digital technology as one of its two objectives.

One example of this from the new GFSS is in relation to the section on open data. While this section also existed in the previous GFSS, this version includes the following additional text (p. 79):

“The USG also recognizes the potential risks associated with widely available and open data. Examples include the risk of identification or reidentification of individuals when data include precise geolocation coordinates, mobile identifiers, or indirect personal information, such as age, birthdate, race, etc., which when combined with other data, may lead to revealing an individual’s identity. We follow responsible data practices and policies to ensure that data risks are minimized, data quality is maximized, and data transparency and accountability are optimized to balance both the benefits and the risks of open data.“

More Emerging Technology

Both strategies have sections related to digital under the Science, Technology, and Innovation part of the strategy. What sets the revised GFSS apart from its predecessor is its explicit emphasis on emerging technologies (pp. 76-77), “such as advanced sensing, artificial intelligence, autonomous systems and robotics, biotechnologies, Earth-observing satellites, and communication and networking technologies.”

This is in recognition of the fact that these technologies, which are increasingly being deployed in larger scale, industrialized farming, also warrant exploration in the context of Feed the Future’s work.

At the same time, the GFSS recognizes that there are a number of reasons why emerging technologies may not be contextually appropriate, whether due to infrastructure gaps, cost, capacity, regulatory barriers, or other reasons. Where emerging technologies are not appropriate for whatever reason, the strategy highlights consideration of more established technologies, such as mobile phones and radio.

This is important because it explicitly emphasizes the need to first seek to understand the local ecosystem and, implicitly, to design with the user, which some readers will recognize as being two of the nine Principles for Digital Development.

New Cross-Cutting Intermediary Results

This is perhaps the change that I am most excited about. The new version of the strategy has expanded its Cross-Cutting Intermediary Results (CC IRs) from six to ten, with one of the newest members being an “Enhanced integration of digital technologies” (CC IR 10, outlined on pp. 60-62).

During my many years working with USAID implementing partners on projects that provided technical support on digital, one thing that was clear is that greater emphasis tends to be paid to aspects covered in the results framework. If digital isn’t being measured towards results, then there tends to be less focus on it. This is obviously not a hard and fast rule, just a general observation, so it’s great to see digital called out with its own CC IR.

The new CC IR elevates digital to an integral part of how practitioners should be thinking about digital technology within agri-food systems. To quote it directly, “[d]igital technology must play an integral role in the USG’s work in food systems, rather than being treated as an add-on or an afterthought.”

Of course, all of these changes are just words on paper unless practitioners take them to heart and their USG counterparts hold them to account. Thankfully, in the past five years since the last GFSS was released, we’ve already seen a lot of progress when it comes to how digital technologies are integrated within the agriculture sector–as well as increased interest in figuring out what works.

Recent evidence mapping by Cornell University, for instance, found that half of the research studies about digital agriculture in the past 20 years were conducted from 2018-2020. To some extent, the changes to the strategy when it comes to digital reflect broader changes that are already taking place within the development sector.

I am hopeful that over the next five years, we’ll see continued and increased emphasis on the responsible, inclusive, and contextually appropriate integration of financially viable digital technologies in ways that positively contribute to ending global hunger, poverty, and malnutrition.

The changes to digital aren’t the only big differences in this GFSS. This strategy includes five new or elevated priority areas of emphasis and action:

  • Equity and Inclusion;
  • An Ambitious Approach to Climate Change;
  • Proactively Countering the COVID-19 Pandemic’s Long-Term Effects;
  • Working Across the Entire Food System; and
  • Integration of Conflict Mitigation, Peacebuilding, and Social Cohesion

Check out the full U.S. Government Global Food Security Strategy to explore all that’s new for yourself. As for the latest in digital and agriculture, the next ICTforAg conference is coming up on March 9-10, 2022, funded by USAID and GIZ. This year’s themes will include locally-led and inclusive development, climate, and digital sovereignty. Stay tuned for more information in the coming weeks.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the author and not necessarily the views and opinions of his employer, which at the time of writing is the United States Agency for International Development.

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Written by
Josh Woodard is the co-founder of Civi, a civictech platform connecting people across the aisle, as well as a senior digital advisor at USAID. You can find more of his writings on his personal site and occasionally via his LinkedIn feed
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