Posted March 1996
Farm-level Information in Policy-Making and Planning for Sustainable Development
extracted from "Use of farm-level information in policy making and planning for SARD", a paper prepared for FAO by Brian Hardaker, FAO Farming Systems Consultant
Sustainable development is an evolving concept, and it is therefore not surprising that there is confusion about how it is to be measured. It is worth emphasising the point made by Lynam and Hardt (1989) that attainment of sustainable development at a global or national level does not require the sustainable development of all sub-systems. Nevertheless, most people would regard it as desirable that, as far as possible, farming activities everywhere should be conducted so as not to deplete the resource base or degrade the environment. The latter is a fundamental principle of Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development (SARD). Amongst the actions required is the need to better understand how farm households respond to policy signals and to use this knowledge in formulating policies. This in part means that improved methods are needed to feed relevant community and farm-household information into the policy- making process.
This paper aims to identify those factors that hinder farm-households from sustainably managing natural resource and to identify those government interventions which can help to reinforce good practices.
2. Main issues in policy and planning for SARD
In most countries, micro-level decision makers are key agents in determining the sustainable development of rural resource systems. They react to local resource availabilities and local market opportunities in their efforts to improve the welfare of their individual units - typically farm households. Micro-level decision makers will normally look after their resources carefully - for their own benefit and that of their children. In most places, farming, fishing and use of forest resources has persisted for hundreds, even thousands of years. So if things are going wrong today, as they so often are, we have to ask why. Some possible causes of problems are indicated below.
Firstly, if the prices or local terms of trade are sending the wrong signals to the decision makers, they may respond in ways that will not promote sustainability. An example might be where price policy settings encourage mono-cropping of soil-depleting export crops. Or the terms of trade may have been turned so much against rural producers that they are suffering a level of poverty that leaves them no choice but to run down their resources to meet short-term survival needs.
A second cause of non-sustainability might lie in the available stocks of resources and the access and control of those resources. In many places, population growth has placed increasing - perhaps unsustainable - stress on limited natural resources. This stress may be exacerbated by unequal access to the scarce stocks, as in situations where the distribution of land is very unequal. Alternatively some land tenure arrangements can give the wrong signals to land users about the need for sound land management, such as tenancy agreements that are of short duration so that there is no incentive for the tenant to invest in land improvement. These problems are exacerbated in the case of common property and open access resources.
Thirdly, farmers or other local resource users may lack information about what practices are sustainable and what are not. On the other hand, local resource managers may understand all too well the problems of resource over-utilization, but may not know what to do about it.
Finally, externalities may influence the attainment of sustainable development. An externality is a cost (or benefit) created by the actions of one person or group that is experienced by another person or group. Thus, for example, upstream water users may create problems for those downstream by using too much of the water, or by polluting it.
Rapid population growth is an example of a problem partly attributable to externalities. Individual couples may find it to their advantage to have lots of children to help with farm and household work and to be sure that there will be someone to look after them in their old age. But in the long run the aggregate effect of many couples in a community having large families may cause unsustainable stress on limited resources.
3. Policy and planning interventions
While there is no doubt that these problems can threaten the attainment of SARD, it does not follow that government should always step in to fix them. Against the risk of unsustainable actions must be set the costs of intervention and the possibility of a administrative failure. Any government intervention creates possibilities for individuals and groups, within and outside the public service, to use the government measures for their own profit, perhaps working within the rules, or perhaps outside them. In the extreme, such behaviour can totally undermine what would otherwise have been an effective policy.
Moreover, costs of some forms of intervention relating to the management of rural resources are high. By the very nature of rural production, a large team of staff may be needed to cover the wide areas of countryside. Their recruitment, training and supervision all costs money, and may divert scarce government funds from other more worthy uses. When the balance sheet does come out clearly in favour of some government action, it then becomes a matter of working out what to do for the best. Forms of intervention that may be used when something must be done are considered below.
Direct action by governments
It is being increasingly recognized that there is close congruence between increased rural productivity and improved sustainability. Thus, governments can contribute to the attainment of SARD by providing infrastructure in rural areas that raises the productivity of the local resources. Such infrastructure can include farm-to-market roads, public irrigation systems and the like. Less directly but no less importantly, better schools and health facilities that increase human capital will also help.
Interventions in markets
The existence of market failures of one sort or another means that market prices do not reflect the true value of particular items. When this happens, there may be a case for governments to step in and alter the prices for example by the imposition of a tax or by paying a subsidy. Water users may be asked to pay a charge for water taken from a river with the tax designed to reflect, as closely as possible, the social opportunity cost of the water no longer available to those downstream. Polluters may similarly be taxed according to the estimated harm their pollution causes. However, if some resource users who are creating problems for other are too poor to be taxed, they may be paid a subsidy to encourage them to reduce or eliminate the activity creating the problem. For example, farmers on steep slopes may be subsidized to adopt soil conservation measures to limit siltation problems for other resource users downstream.
Altering property rights
Some of the worst problems in resource degradation occur when common property or open access resources are over-exploited. There are a number of solutions to these problems. Economists sometimes suggest privatization of the resources, such as when common grazing land is enclosed with titles to particular blocks passing to individual owners. Another alternative is public ownership when a resource, such as a forest or a fishery, is taken over and managed by a government department or agency. In many cases, however, privatization or nationalization may be too drastic or unnecessary or may just not work. This happens because the confiscation of the community resource causes the dispossessed to feel they are no longer responsible for its conservation. It would therefore be wise to examine first whether some form of collaboration among the users can be organized that would solve the problems of over-exploitation.
Empowering micro-level decision makers
Most rural communities had, and many retain, a degree of cohesion that might underpin an effective system for the communal management of common property resources. Indeed, often such systems did exist in the past, but for various reasons may have become non-operational. Therefore reform may be a matter of reviving and revising the former method of management.
Developing more sustainable technologies
The process of developing and testing improved agricultural technologies is one area where the market fails, partly because of the scale problem and also because of the non-exclusivity of the benefits of many agrobiological innovations. Those who invest in R-&-D can seldom capture all the benefits of their findings, and so there is under-investment by the private sector in agricultural technology development. Most governments recognize the need for them to correct for this by funding national R-&-D work.
Improving information flows
Ways need to be found to improve the flow of information about macro-level issues and policies to local people. This is necessary to foster an informed debate about sustainability and to promote the participation of ordinary people in the macro-level decisions making. It is no accident that a concern for environmental issues tends to be more evident and strident in the higher income countries where people generally have better access to information about the environment. Similarly, available information about technology options or market possibilities that could enable micro-level resource managers to operate in a more sustainable way, also needs to be channelled in more effective ways to the potential users.
At the same time better ways need to be found to enable macro-level decision makers to learn more about the realities of rural areas. In that way, they will make fewer mistakes in policy setting.
Feeding farm level information into policy making and planning to obtain SARD involves three important steps. Firstly, the main types of farm level data that may be used in policy analysis must be identified. Secondly, the methods for collecting this data must be identified. Thirdly, specific actions to strengthen the role of farm level in the policy making and planning process must be undertaken. These steps are discussed in turn in the following section.
4. Feeding micro-level information into policy and planning for SARD
The main types of information that might be used in policy analysis are classified by Dixon, Hall, Hardaker and Vyas (1994) as follows:
Of course, resources for the collection of data are always constrained, and choices will have to be made about how much data of various kinds can be gathered, using what methods. As Dixon et al. (1994) explain, and as noted above, modern trends have been away from large-scale and expensive surveys and towards more informal methods, supplemented with selective gather of some "hard" data collected by a few sell-designed and sharply focused surveys. Methods of data collection include:
- availability and quality of farm resources;
- access to common property resources;
- household and community goals and strategies;
- farm-gate input and product prices;
- input use, productivity and market surplus;
- structure and function of local institutions;
- use of infrastructure and services; and
- historical responses to programmes and policies.
All these methods are applicable to planning for SARD. They are well documented in a number of sources, such as Dillon and Hardaker (1993), and will not be elaborated here.
- censuses and mapping methods, including satellite imaging;
- sample surveys;
- farm-level recording and monitoring schemes, such as farm accounting schemes;
- informal methods such as rapid rural appraisals, participatory rural appraisals and development marketing research;
- "scientific" methods such as observations plots, experiments, trials (including both on-farm and on-station studies); and
- farm case studies, such as "leading" or "contact" farmers, farmer groups, etc.
There are several ways to promote the integration of micro (farm) level information into planning for SARD:
Improving data quality
The information "problem" can be reduced, but not overcome completely, by using more efficient methods of gathering, processing and storing data. It is also important that the quality of the data is high, since bad data may mean bad decisions. Data quality and quantity can both be improved by appropriate data handling. For example, as computers become more widespread, it is possible to have early electronic capture of data using "intelligent" data entry systems that embody various consistency checks. The closer to the point of origin of the information that these checks are done, the more likely that detected errors can be corrected. Early electronic capture may also greatly reduce the time lags in analysing primary data into useful forms.
Links between research, extension and policy making
A key link in the information chain leading from and back to rural resource managers can be formed by promoting more effective agricultural extension services. Extension agents have traditionally been seen as passing information to farmers about technologies, market opportunities or government programmes. That is an important function - one that will remain necessary to pass on ideas about SARD practices. However, the potential role of extension personnel as vehicles to convey information from farmers to agricultural scientists and to planners and policy makers has too often been overlooked or played down. Also weak has been the link between agricultural research and policy making. Too often, policy makers have looked for a "technological fix" to problems created by bad policies. It may be "too hard" to make the often politically unpopular policy changes needed to solve some problems, so politicians and their public service advisers, wishing to appear to be doing something, may pass the problem on to the research workers. When it is found that the constraining factors holding back the attainment of SARD are policy-related, there need to be the opportunities for this information to be passed back to those with the power to take action.
The importance of local organizations
Rural people need to be empowered to ensure acceptable future not only for themselves and their children, but also for the growing populations of the developing countries. The first step in that empowering will often be the establishment and effective operation of relevant local organizations. These can then demand and receive help from relevant arms of government, such as agricultural research institutes. They can reach out for relevant information, and can feed information back to the policy makers. Local organizations are not the whole of the answer, but they are a key component of it.
Institutional strengthening and building human resource capacities
Planning for SARD entails collecting and analysing more and better data; it requires inter-institutional cooperation, since it is unlikely that any one agency will have all the required skills and resources to tackle the issue in a comprehensive way. The first requirement in many developing countries will be to strengthen the institutions working on SARD. They may need better funding, better equipment and facilities, and better trained staff.
Dillon, J.L. and Hardaker, J.B., 1993. "Farm Management Research for Small Farmer Development", FAO Farm Systems Management Series No. 6, FAO.
Dixon, J.M., Hall, M., Hardaker, J.B. and Vyas, V.S. 1994. "Farm and Community Information Use for Agricultural Programmes and Policies", FAO Farm Systems Management Series No. 8, FAO.
Lynam, J.K. and Hardt, R.W., 1989. "Sense and sustainability: sustainability as objective in international agricultural research", in "Proceedings of the World Bank Annual Conference on Development Economics", World Bank.