Reduce Rural Poverty

Promoting territorial development

Published: 15/05/2018

An interview with Paolo Groppo, Senior Land Tenure Officer, in the Regional office for Asia and the Pacific, and Vito Cistulli, Senior Policy Officer, in the FAO Social Policies and rural Institutions Division, explains the territorial approach to development and its impact on their work.

The territorial approach to development is often seen as a paradigm shift in policy making that can change the way actors engage with institutions in a defined territory. There are different entry points and no such things as one-size-fits-all. Paolo Groppo, Senior Land Tenure Officer, and Vito Cistulli, Senior Policy Officer, have both been instrumental in developing the concept of territorial approach to development in collaboration with country stakeholders. We spoke to them to learn about their perspectives and see how territorial development has impacted the way they work.

How do you implement territorial development approaches in practice? What’s the first step?

Paolo Groppo: The first step is to accept that one cannot know the outcome of the process. We live and work in uncertain times, and this is a fact we need to accept. Territorial development is about accepting uncertainty, while creating a strong web of relationships through frequent interactions and open communication. If we do so, we still cannot determine the outcome, but at least we have worked together to give it our best shot. Increasing the social legitimacy of FAO and other actors in this process is essential. I am more interested in the process and the people rather than only the outcome. This is why, since the very beginning, I decided to focus my work on rural poverty reduction. The difference between this process and others is that territorial development puts people first. Often we focus too much on targets and indicators, and we tend to lose sight that what counts in the end is to have an impact on people’s lives.

So territorial development is basically working with uncertainties in a collective manner?

Paolo Groppo: Yes, it is basically replicating what we do in our everyday lives in our technical work. For example, when I bought my house in a small village northwest of Rome, I wanted to be accepted by my neighbours. I started to engage with them, explaining who I am and where I come from, and made the effort to get to know them well. In territorial development, the process is the same. There are a variety of factors, several of which are hidden, with a number of actors competing for the same resources (human and natural), which are often scarce and hard to achieve. All actors consider themselves as legitimate claimers and have different and often opposing views. Imposing our ideas may not work, so we need to be open for discussion. We have no guarantees that the outcome will be positive. To build trust, we need to be accepted by the actors at the country level and see if we can create a space for dialogue. This can increase our credibility, build trust and help countries access our expertise. We also have a role to play in making sure that the decisions made by the different stakeholders at country level are in line with more global issues.

Looking back at your career, is there anything you would do differently to reduce poverty?

Paolo Groppo: No. I come from the school of systems approach in France, which is where I learned to look at things in a more holistic way. But when I started working in the field, I realized that this was not enough, because it reproduced the top-down paradigm, with us being the ones delivering the message and teaching people how to solve their problems. By talking to people in different contexts, I realized that they fully understand their challenges and while the potential solutions they come up with are often better than what we had envisaged, they don’t have the power to implement these solutions. Talking to farmers allows us to better understand their reality. This is how territorial development was born. That’s why listening to people in the field is important.

Vito, over to you. Same first question: How do you implement territorial development approaches in practical terms? What’s the first step?

Vito Cistulli: Over the last two decades many developing countries have engaged in decentralization reforms, which can be seen as a very first step towards a more inclusive governance system that addresses both social inequalities and territorial disparities within countries. Decentralization can take different forms: delegation of responsibilities from the central to the decentralized level, devolution of power – including fiscal collection responsibility – to decentralized administrations, or transfer of responsibilities from state to non-state actors, including civil society and the private sector. Decentralization processes can help to get closer to the needs of poor and vulnerable people, understanding the response capacities of different geographic areas to the national policies, and reflect these needs in national food security policies and strategies.

You talked about delegating and devolving power to local communities. How does this take place in concrete terms?

Vito Cistulli: Being able to adapt easily is the very first skill to have when carrying out a territorial approach. Blue-print and pre-packaged solutions don’t work. Effective territorial approaches should build on the capacity of stakeholders and their institutions to absorb new approaches, as well as on the promotion of  a dialogue between stakeholders. This means to be able to share and transfer knowledge and expertise, but also to understand and build on what stakeholders and their institutions have to offer.  From this perspective, a territorial approach can be understood as a learning process whereby desired changes and innovations are internalized by all stakeholders and institutions concerned. This was the experience of decentralization in Morocco, where a years-long consultation process resulted in a large consensus when the parliament finally voted on the reform. As a result, decentralized governments and stakeholders now play a stronger role in the formulation of national food security and territorial diversity.

If you could do it all over again, what would you do differently to reduce poverty?

Vito Cistulli: I would look more at institutions. The quality of institutions and development are strongly correlated. Institutions are the engine of development because they put people back at the centre of development. I would specifically focus more on informal institutions. As a matter of fact informal institutions influence the incentives and constraints that underlie individual and organizational behaviours and ultimately the quality and sustainability of formal institutions. The interplay between formal and informal institutions is still poorly understood, yet it is important in order to develop effective and inclusive institutions. Overlooking this interaction may result in unbalanced territorial governance systems.

Key conditions for the adaptation of formal and informal institutions is a meaningful participation of local communities and rural local institutions in policy decision making. This could happen by implementing governance mechanisms that promote the social legitimacy of formal institutions, address power asymmetries among stakeholders and recognize the territorial diversity, which influences the capacity of different socio-economic contexts to respond to national policies.

FAO can play a key role in bridging informal and formal institutions in rural areas. We have the technical expertise, proven experience, and last but not least, we are considered and accepted as a neutral counterpart, which helps to address complex issues such as conflict resolution and trust. This is what is happening in Morocco, where FAO is seen as a key partner to promote trust and increase the social legitimacy of the decentralization reform.

Read more on FAO's work on Rural institutions