Seed System Assessments in USAID Programs: Challenges and Opportunities for Enhancing Uptake
This post is written by Abby Love, senior specialist, Mercy Corps; Nadia Pinter, economic development intern, Mercy Corps; and Wilfred Ouko, Integrated Seed Sector Development program advisor, Mercy Corps.
Shocks and stresses such as pest infestations, droughts, and conflict impact food and seed security for vulnerable populations around the world. In response, humanitarian actors often focus response activities on seed-related interventions to support agricultural livelihoods. However, these interventions are frequently implemented without the use of seed system assessments, which are critical to inform appropriate seed interventions.
Seed system security assessments (SSSAs or SSAs) are one type of assessment often requested and/or expected by donors such as USAID; however, uptake and usage varies greatly. In March 2021, the USAID Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance (BHA)-funded Strengthening Capacity in Agriculture Livelihoods and Environment (SCALE) Award hosted two implementing partner consultations that included both headquarter-based technical advisors and program implementers to better understand why this is the case and what can be done to improve SSSA adoption moving forward. Following these consultations, SCALE led a debrief meeting with BHA staff, who contributed further reflections on the ways they have seen applications, assessments and implementation fall short of meeting minimum standards when it comes to the use of seed systems assessments, and the steps that could be taken to strengthen these activities.
A summary of the consultations, debrief calls and key takeaways is available on the Food Security and Nutrition (FSN) Network.
Following discussions with BHA staff, a number of gaps and shortfalls emerged related to SSSA use at the BHA application phase. These include points such as:
- Applications fail to include an SSSA or some equivalent assessment of seed systems necessary to inform and justify their proposed seed intervention activities, despite such an expectation (pg. 16-17) for implementing partners in BHA interventions who are implementing in the same location for the same population for more than three consecutive years.
- Applications mention SSSAs but show an inaccurate understanding of their purpose. Understanding of SSSAs as a multistakeholder capacity-building effort — rather than a needs assessment — to characterize and identify systemic issues is often lacking. SSSAs are not frequently used to decide or design seed sector interventions.
- Although completed country SSSAs are available online, they are not widely accessed by implementers submitting applications. Inadequate access results in partners starting from scratch instead of building on existing assessment data and analyses.
Reflections from implementing partners highlighted some of the reasons behind the above gaps. A few highlights from both consultations include the following:
- Challenges with achieving the multiagency coordination BHA recommends in its SSSA guidance. Programs hesitate to include SSSAs in applications as it can be difficult during application development phases to identify agencies with a shared interest in conducting an SSSA, particularly those willing to invest time and financial resources in carrying one out.
- Limited expertise or capacity of staff in understanding the purpose of the tools or methods for an SSSA. This often reduces the ability of programs to know when and how to effectively conduct SSSAs or properly articulate the elements of SSSAs in applications.
- Potential strain on resources. Programs are often wary of taking on SSSAs as they are perceived as extensive and time-consuming, requiring primary data collection and significant financial and staff resources beyond their available budgets, especially for short-term emergency programs.
- Difficulties assessing informal seed market systems and program bias toward promoting formal market activities. This leads many programs to focus on the formal seed sector, thus overlooking the significant informal sector.
- Limited awareness and/or availability of tools, resources and research related to the analysis of data.
Photo Credit: Ezra Millstein, Mercy Corps Myanmar.
Based on the insights shared by BHA and the feedback gathered from the implementing partners, a few key areas emerged when it comes to addressing barriers to SSSA uptake.
- Clarify the BHA guidelines and expectations for assessments in ongoing programs by clarifying the three- consecutive-year expectation in BHA’s emergency application guidelines, defining how or whether programs might use parts of the SSSA or limit its scope if time and resources are tight during the application development phase, integrating SSSAs into the program cycle in anticipation of the upcoming application stage and making SSSAs part of ongoing program’ workplans.
- Support more socialization on information and resources through, for example, co-creation of additional trainings or lighter touch and support to help partners access, navigate, and use the tools, past reports, and e-training available on SSSA and SSAs.
- Consider a more centralized approach to conducting SSSAs and SSAs to ensure that SSSAs are undertaken at regular intervals with more consistent coverage and scope to understand and analyze seed systems. This could include supporting the development of pluralistic, multistakeholder platforms (consumers of seed, producers of seed, international nongovernmental organizations, government, etc.) at a country level to examine seed systems and generate recommendations for different crops or seed systems that are relevant to the different stakeholders or funding subject matter experts who have an in-depth understanding of seed systems to support implementing partners' SSSAs in high-priority countries.
For the full analysis and recommendations, please visit the FSN Network.
How can you get involved?
SCALE thanks all implementing partners and BHA staff who contributed to these consultations and discussions. SCALE will continue exploring ways to support implementing partners to better navigate and utilize SSSA tools and guidance. If you would like to stay engaged on seed-related topics, email firstname.lastname@example.org and sign up for the FSN newsletter to stay informed of future seed-related events and resources.