Preconditions for success
Successful Small Farmer Group Associations do not just "happen." Their formation and development is influenced by many factors: the maturity of small farmer groups that wish to form the SFGA, various local and external conditions, and the skill of inter-group promoters (IGPs).
The most important pre-condition is "group maturity" - i.e. small farmer groups that want to join together in an SFGA must be ready, willing and able to do so. If they are not mature, attempts to create an SFGA will probably fail.
Groups that wish to form an SFGA should have:
Groups that display all of these indicators of group maturity - and may have already started some form of collaboration with other groups - are excellent candidates for SFGA development.
TOWARD GROUP MATURITY
Groups have a common bond and purpose. Forming an SFGA goes more smoothly when groups share similar interests, problems and needs. Groups that share common views and opinions are more willing to work together towards common goals. They are less likely to waste time in arguments and conflicts.
Even when groups have different backgrounds, they may be able to develop a bond. All they may need is a common goal that is beyond the reach of a single group acting alone - to buy seed and fertilizer in bulk, to repair a bridge into the village, or to build a community health clinic.
Groups that share a common problem - and need many hands to solve it - have a good reason for cooperating, because each group expects to benefit from the result. Likewise, if groups do not expect to get benefits from inter-group cooperation, they are not likely to support it. For instance, tenant farmers, landless labourers and independent small farmers often have different attitudes to investment and risk. It may be difficult to combine them in one SFGA.
COMMON BOND AND PURPOSE
Groups are near to each other. Groups that are located near to each other are more likely to form an SFGA. One practical reason for this is the need to hold meetings at regular intervals and with good attendance - walking 10 km requires more effort and a greater sacrifice of time than walking 1 km!
Women participate. Women can and should play an important part in SFGA development. However, the form of their participation may depend on local customs and traditions. Generally speaking, rural women are more tied to the household, less mobile and less active in decision-making outside the household. In some societies, mixed groups (of males and females) outside the family are discouraged. Therefore, many development agencies encourage separate groups for women and men, rather than mixed groups.
Likewise, the development of all-male SFGAs and all-female SFGAs is sometimes a good idea. For example, male groups might join together for wheat, maize or rice production, while their wives might establish another SFGA to run a local grain mill or other processing activity.
It may also be difficult for male inter-group promoters to work directly with female groups. In those cases, it might be better to use female promoters to help them develop their SFGA.
WOMEN'S VOICES SHOULD BE HEARD, TOO
Total membership is no more than 150. Successful small farmer groups typically have a small number of members - from 5 to 15 individuals. Usually, successful SFGAs also begin with a small number of affiliated groups. The optimal number of groups per SFGA is between 5 and 10 (i.e. total membership of 25 to 150 people). Small SFGAs are easier to manage and facilitate the learning of new skills. As the SFGA gains more experience, and learns to manage more complex operations, it can consider expanding.
In forming an SFGA, it makes sense to bring together groups that are equal in size and are at a similar stage of development. This helps ensure that all groups start out on a more or less equal footing, that they all contribute equally to the SFGA, and that no single group dominates the others.
At least some group members are literate. SFGAs need to keep written records of decisions made, contributions paid, income generated and services performed. These records help avoid disagreements and misunderstandings among SFGA members.
However, literacy rates among small farmers, especially women, are often low. Therefore, it is important that at least some SFGA members - and particularly the SFGA's elected leaders - have good levels of literacy and skill with numbers. If the leaders are illiterate, other literate members or schoolchildren can help them keep proper records. It is a good idea to set up an SFGA education or training committee to improve the literacy of all SFGA members.
Groups have good relations with local authorities. Local community leaders may think the formation of an SFGA will upset the established order in some way. To gain their support, the interested groups and their group promoters reassure them that an SFGA would help everybody - the community, its leaders, and the groups. Once community leaders are informed and see the positive benefits of the SFGA, they will be much more supportive.
Later, when the SFGA's activities begin to extend outside the local area, it may need to establish good relations with outside authorities. Again, this can be done by assuring these authorities that they will benefit. The SFGA should show that it is willing to collaborate with other agencies and stakeholders, rather than compete with them.
Informal groups are encouraged or, at least, tolerated. In some countries, laws governing the number, size or geographical representation of rural organizations can create problems for groups that wish to form an SFGA. In these cases, it may be easier to keep the SFGA informal. Even in highly regulated societies, local authorities encourage, or at least tolerate, some informal associations (for religious, cultural, social, sport or business purposes). Look around - if one or two informal associations exist in the local area, then it is probably OK to start another one.
Groups are not dependent on subsidies.Governments, donors and NGOs often provide grants, loans or subsidized inputs to help small groups to form and develop their SFGA. However, these "gifts" are rarely free. The giver normally wants something in return - loyalty, obedience or a share of profits. So the groups need to examine such offers very carefully.
Subsidies can help an SFGA in the beginning. But they do not necessarily lead to sustainable organizations. In fact, experience shows that the reverse often happens. Relying too much on subsidies creates dependency. This, in turn, discourages SFGA autonomy and financial self-reliance, both of which are essential for achieving long-term development.
WITHOUT DEBTS, AN SFGA MOVES FASTER
On the other hand, occasional use of subsidies - if carefully planned, temporary, and decreasing over time - can help introduce new technologies and ideas. The key point is that subsidies should be used with the ultimate aim of strengthening the SFGA's capacity to run its own affairs and finance its own operations.
Groups cooperate with development agencies. Groups can benefit from working with government, donor and NGOs agencies that support small farmer development in their area. The objectives of each agency may differ - for example, to deliver rural health services or provide training for micro-business. As long as these objectives are complementary, and support the goal of sustainable SFGAs, there is no problem. (See also p.102, Reaching out and cooperating with outsiders.)
However, an agency's objectives may conflict with this goal. For instance, an agency may be promoting rural enterprises using subsidized credit, while a group promoter is trying to encourage voluntary savings, realistic interest rates on loans, and prompt repayment. In this case, the well-meaning agency can undermine efforts to develop financial self-reliance. The best approach here may be to discuss the issue with the agency and try to achieve better coordination and harmonization of objectives.
The role of an inter-group promoter (IGP) is similar, in many ways, to that of a group promoter (GP)*. Like a GP, an IGP is genuinely interested in assisting small farmers, and is well trained in facilitating small group development. The IGP acts not as a leader, but as an advisor or facilitator to assist members and leaders in developing their own skills to analyse and solve problems. However, there are also some important differences between promoting small groups and promoting SFGAs.
* For more information on the role of a group promoter, see Participation in practice (FAO, Rome 1990) and The Group promoter's resource book (FAO, Rome 1994)
First of all, most decisions in an SFGA are made by the elected representatives of its affiliated groups, not by the group members. Therefore, the SFGA promoter needs to know a lot about group decision-making and how to facilitate that process at the inter-group level. (For more details on some of the problems related to inter-group decision-making, see Part B.2)
Second, because individual group members are not directly involved in decision-making, new procedures are usually needed to make sure that the SFGA truly represents its base membership. The IGP can help install "checks and balances" to ensure, for instance, that funds mobilized and profits earned are used as intended and accounted for in a transparent way. The IGP's experience and field training can help SFGA members avoid making costly mistakes.
The ultimate success of an IGP can be measured by the extent of self-reliance and sustainability of the SFGAs he or she has promoted. Therefore, the main task of the IGP is to strengthen those self-reliance capacities, i.e. to show SFGA members how to solve their own problems with their own resources and help themselves. Once that initial work is done, the IGP should move on to help other groups move forward.