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Where next for rural poverty and food security?

Time (GMT +01) 00:00 23:59


Simon Maxwell, ODI.


Michael Scott, Department for International Development.

John Farrington, ODI.

Simon Maxwell, ODI.

1. This was the last meeting in the series. Its purpose was to review the findings of previous meetings, and see what conclusions could be drawn. Simon Maxwell introduced the discussion by summarising an argument in 4 steps (names in brackets are references to earlier meetings in the series):

  1. i. By the late 1990s, rural development had become becalmed. A 'Washington Consensus' on agriculture had developed, emphasising agricultural growth and focusing on liberalisation. However, it had not proved very attractive to policy-makers, and had not succeeded in reversing the decline in flows to the rural sector. It could even harm the poor. A process of rethinking was underway, in governments and international agencies.

ii. Three kinds of challenge could be identified to the conventional wisdom: (a) the changing reality of rural areas, for example the greater concentration of rural poverty in low potential areas; (b) new thinking on development, of the kind summarised in the World Bank's World Development Report for 2000/1, 'Attacking Poverty'; and (c) a set of new or emerging issues, for example diversification, sustainability, and the industrialisation of the food system.

iii. From these issues, a checklist could be constructed of the features that would characterise a good rural development strategy - the ODI 'postcard'.

iv. And, finally, current efforts by governments and donor agencies could be judged by the standards of the checklist. These were early days, but it seemed that many developing country governments had work to do in their rural development strategies, in addressing emerging issues. As far as international agencies were concerned, progress was being made, but there were few comprehensive statements available. Rural development still lacked a convincing 'narrative': how, actually, could rural poverty be reduced?

2. John Farrington began by picking up the point about rural change. It was true that the urban economy would grow relative to the rural economy, and that shares within the rural economy would change, for example as rural industry or tourism grew. However, it was equally important to be aware of the relationship between different activities, particularly the large urban and rural blocks: much could be done to build linkages, for example making it easier for rural people to commute to towns for work.

3. His other main point was to emphasise the diversity of rural situations, and express reservations about agency rural development strategies at a high level of aggregation. He identified six key aspects of diversity, viz (a) the overall size of the rural population, (b) the change over time in rural: urban population ratios, (c) the date at which rural populations would peak, (d) the degree of market integration, (e) the degree of donor dependency, and (f) the degree of chronic political instability. Country cases were presented in a table. Obviously, different strategies were needed in different situations: for example, subsidised agricultural extension could be afforded when the agricultural population was small relative to the total (e.g. in Chile), but not otherwise (e.g. in India).

4. Finally, John Farrington made a plea for more regional level planning and action in support of agriculture. In this connection, he thought that agriculture in developing countries should be protected by tariff barriers.

5. Michael Scott presented a paper and also a PowerPoint presentation focusing on the challenges facing DFID and other agencies in the field of rural development. Although agencies had adopted the international development targets and were concentrating on poverty reduction, and although most rural people were poor, it was not enough to assume that rural poverty would therefore receive priority. A more proactive strategy was required, recognising the need to improve performance. Radical thinking was needed.

6. The rural livelihoods approach offered a route to new thinking. It was holistic, participatory, and locally adapted, dealing with the totality of the rural economy as well as the political and institutional environment. There were, however, six challenges to be faced:

  1. i. Convincing programme managers that a new approach could provide reliable poverty reduction in rural areas;

ii. Being broad enough in the vision to make the necessary connections to the poverty debate, and to debates about the global economy (including the rules of the game with regard to trade and finance);

iii. Being specific about agriculture, particularly the idea that agriculture (in the widest sense) could be an effective driver of growth and of poverty reduction;

iv. Understanding the multi-disciplinary nature of poverty, particularly the importance of vulnerability, and the need to ensure access to social services;

v. Sorting out the practicalities of working at country level, especially contributing to Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers, and finding ways to turn agricultural SWAPs (sector-wide approaches) into livelihoods programmes for agriculture-dependent communities (the Uganda Programme for Modernising Agriculture was a model here); and

vi. Building performance-based assessment through better knowledge management and training.

7. A number of themes were developed in the discussion:

  1. i. The emphasis on poverty reduction was welcomed. It was clear that the priority in rural areas was employment, and that policy should be directed to this end. National poverty reduction could not be achieved solely by focusing on urban development - rural development had to be a priority.

ii. The heterogeneity of rural areas was recognised. In addition to the national-level differences, there were intra-country differences, for example the problem of drylands and remote areas.

iii. This being said, the scope for rural-urban linkages was obviously great in many places, especially with better roads - the importance and development potential of small towns was noted.

iv. In agriculture, the main source of growth would be technical change, building on what farmers themselves knew and could achieve, as well as (and often in preference to) outside intervention - the rates of return to agricultural research were high (though the reliability of the statistics was also questioned).

v. The importance of protecting the natural environment was stressed.

vi. Finally, the need was seen to move quickly from general prescription to specific recommendations for specific places. This was the next job.

8. Concluding the meeting, Simon Maxwell agreed with the last point made, and said that an opportunity would arise at the Annual Conference of the Development Studies Association, to be held in Manchester in September. The Rural Development Study Group of the DSA would be organising sessions to collect and discuss case studies of successful contemporary rural development.


This event reviewed and summarised the previous meetings in the series regarding rural development.