Traditional aid and sustainable development

World Humanitarian day is held annually on the 19th August to pay tribute to humanitarian workers across the globe and to increase public understanding of humanitarian assistance activities. Traditionally (and correctly) the words ‘humanitarian assistance’ evoke images of aid workers delivering immediate and necessary life-saving support to beneficiaries in conflict zones or natural disaster areas. However, humanitarian assistance encompasses a far greater sphere; it can cover any manner of intervention efforts that are intended to save lives, alleviate suffering or maintain human dignity. Humanitarian crises can extend beyond situations that require immediate relief interventions; any loss of livelihood should be viewed as a humanitarian disaster for it impinges upon and hinders a persons ability to live a life of value or operate as a dignified agent in the outcome of their own life. In this, humanitarian assistance and development aid are two sides of the same coin.

As we navigate our way through an increasingly complex world, we will deal with a greater number of non-traditional threats resulting from inter alia urbanisation, climate change and population growth. In looking to the future, we need to move beyond our traditional understandings of humanitarian work to ensure that our responses where applicable increase resilience in the short term and enhance sustainable development for the medium-long term.

Leveraging change opportunities in the Agri-sector

COVID-19 has caused economic destruction globally, destroying livelihoods and exacerbating Africa’s food crisis. The World Bank predicts that COVID-19 will push between 71 and 100 million people into extreme poverty[1]. Poverties are multi-dimensional; however, extreme poverty can quite plainly be described as having no access to the basic human needs of clean water, shelter, and food. Built on the back of pre-existing inequalities and high rates of poverty in the Sub-Saharan region COVID-19 has not only increased food insecurity but also reliance on food aid. Had we had more resilient food systems, the consequences of COVID-19 would still have been felt, but they would have been less severe; for resilience does not deny the experience of disruption, rather it allows for rapid bounce back. A more robust and resilient food system is not some arbitrary unachievable ideal. However, it does require a total and radical re-imaging of our entire food system including our relationships with the way we produce and consume food and dispose of food waste. Whilst transformation of the sector could cover any manner of change for production, consumption and disposal, I propose that COVID-19 has provided an opportune time to accelerate the use of digital technology for the sector and to draw youth to the sector, specifically in the Sub-Saharan region.

Africa has the largest population of persons under the age of 25 [2] and one of the greatest challenges to the continent is youth (classified as being 15-24 years of age [3]) unemployment including under-employment and poor working conditions. Development organisations have long recognised the fundamental role and opportunity of the agricultural sector to not only secure basic food but also to enhance economic development. However, there exist a multitude of challenges and barriers to growth experienced by the sector as a whole and specific to small holder farmers, for example, limited or no access to capital and land, poor market information, lack of infrastructure, poor policy and regulatory environments, and climate change. Additionally, challenges extend to cultural and social dimensions such as the negative perceptions around farming considered by African youth who deem farming to be “backward”, labour intensive and yielding low returns. This perception has contributed to the migration of youth to urban areas in search of work and alternative ways of constructing livelihoods.

In a recent statement, South Africa’s Minister of Trade, Industry and Competition, Mr Ebrahim Patel stated that greater attention must be given to building Africa’s production capacity in the agricultural sector for both staple foods as well as higher value agro-processed foods [4]. Such developments would not only have positive implications for the SDG 2 of Zero Hunger, but increased participation and activity along key value chains would also contribute to other development agendas. As it stands, many African countries are net importers of food and it is estimated that this is equivalent to 30 million jobs not realised in the continent. This is despite the Sub-Saharan region having 24% of the world’s land with rain fed crop potential[5] . In addition, more than 60% of the population in the region construct livelihoods from farming, but on average the sector accounts for 15- 25% [6] of GDP [7] . This is indicative of failures and missed opportunities for a sector that can ill afford not to realise its potential.

Re-imagining agriculture 

Digital technology has been recognised for its potential to help address challenges facing the sector and already digital innovations have resulted in fundamental changes. For example, smart phone apps and text message services linking small holder farmers to agricultural information such as climate-smart agricultural practices, market information and access to finance. For large-scale farming, the use of drones has increased efficiency in areas such as crop monitoring and irrigation. Yet despite these advances, youth unemployment and food insecurity still ravage the region. The possibilities of digital solutions for the region are yet to be realised.

Typically, systems resist change and it takes radical disruption to rebuild. COVID-19 has forced disruption and in this is an opportunity to re-imagine the sector. Most of the world’s population has recently experienced some type of change in the way they engage with food systems; in this is a natural and incredibly unique momentum of change. If harnessed correctly there is a chance for radical transformation and an opportunity to accelerate the use of agri-tech, and to use the innovations to attract youth. Capturing the energy and potential of a young generation through digital innovations can unlock potential along value chains that in turn can improve business diversification and improve competitiveness (business diversification and competitiveness being fundamental components of a more resilient food system).


As we move through and beyond this pandemic, we will see topical funding being diverted into strengthening health systems. Donors and development organisations need to engage with the role of good nutrition for preventative health; it would be incredibly short-sighted to miss the integral link between the two. In this, funding and investments ought to be targeted at digital innovations and the use of agri-tech by youth. Moving forward, we can either harness the energy of the world’s largest youth population or suffer an immense demographic burden (which will exacerbate future humanitarian needs).

About Caroline

Caroline Kensett is a Development Consultant at Imani Development. She holds an MPhil in Development Studies from the University of Cape Town and has experience working for both for-profit and non-profit developmental organisations. She has a keen interest in the intercept between business, academia, civil society and non-governmental organisations for social impact in developing countries.




[1] The World Bank, (2020). Projected Impact of COVID-19. [online]. URL: [Accessed 30 July 2020].

[2] World Economic Forum, (2016). The world’s 10 youngest populations are all in Africa, World Economic Forum. [online]. URL: [Accessed 29 July].

[3] United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, (2015). Youth Population trends and sustainable development. [online]. URL: [Accessed 30 July 2020].

[4] The Department of Trade, Industry and Competition, Republic of South Africa, (2020). Building African Economic Resilience is Key for Continental Prosperity, Says Minister Patel in Briefing African Union Ministers. [online]. URL: [Accessed 28 July 2020]

[5] United Nations Department of Public Information, (2014). Africa Renewal. [online]. URL: [Accessed 30 July 2020]

[6] This percentage is an average for the region and the percentage varies from country to country.

[7] Goedde,L., Ooko-Ombaka, A., and Paid, G, (2019). Winning in Africa’s Agricultural Market. McKinsey. [online]. URL: [Accessed 27 July 2020]