"Bringing the poor together" - Email conference puts people in 67 countries in touch

An FAO Email conference on Small Farmer Group Associations has put more than 375 people from around the world in touch to discuss their work with farmers' groups in developing countries. The conference has attracted professionals from non-governmental organizations (NGOs), academic institutions, the World Bank, USAID and IFAD, as well as FAO, enabling them to pool years of grassroots experience in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe. Nearly a quarter of the participants were in the so-called "least developed countries" - the world's poorest nations - mostly from Asia and Africa.

Peasant farmers take part in a group discussion in Madagascar (FAO Photo 17498)

Small Farmer Group Associations (SFGAs) are formed when a number of small farmers' groups (SFGs) get together and join forces at the local level, either informally or formally, with the broad aim of pooling resources and funds to improve the lot of all their members.

FAO has been actively promoting SFGs for more than 20 years. Such groups promote cooperation between small farmers, based on collective, self-help activities. According to the main discussion paper prepared for the Email conference, "the number of active small farmer groups - now numbering tens of thousands - continues to grow."

In a contribution to the E-conference, Christine Kahanda, Executive Director of the People's Participation Service in Zambia, highlighted some of the motives behind the formation of group associations: "SFGAs in Western Province, Zambia, have been formed by group members mainly to mediate between group members on disputes which the group is unable to solve, such as misuse of group funds and personal conflicts ... that affect cooperation within the group. ... there are now instances where SFGAs have been formed to accelerate management of a credit facility, such as hammer-mills and rice polishers, and oxcarts or work oxen, which can be difficult to obtain as individual groups".

"I see an SFGA as 'a change agent' in itself," another conference participant wrote. "It helps the people to know prevailing realities and to take initiatives in order to find appropriate solutions to their own problems."

SFGAs are the second generation of coordination and collective action, requiring a certain level of group organization skills and experience. In many cases, the group associations emerge naturally where smaller groups have been operating successfully for a number of years.

One of the aims of the E-conference was to enable people to exchange ideas on what has worked and what has failed in these second-generation, broader based associations, and to begin to create a knowledge base for people working to support sustainable SFGAs. "One thing that has emerged very clearly," said Thorgeir Lawrence, the Moderator of the conference, "is the importance of the cultural background in which the groups operate. Where groups or associations fail, it is often because social patterns overwhelm them."

The E-conference was kicked off with a discussion paper and a 27-question theme paper to get the ball rolling. Discussions have been mostly in English, with French or Spanish, and with some participants contributing bilingually. "What is most stimulating is the variety of experiences being put across," one participant said, "...and the structuring of the deliberations around some key questions makes it possible for everybody to come in at his/her 'ideal' time".

E-conferences are a highly cost-effective alternative to traditional face-to-face conferences. According to the moderator, "they also allow for more considered comment, because people have time to think about what they are saying, and to refer back to earlier contributions on the same subject". FAO held its first E-conference in April 1995. The latest to open is on Globalization and Fish Trade.

29 October 1998

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