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Posted September 1999

Perspectives on informal rural finance

by Jochem Zoetelief
Graduate student, Department of Social Sciences
Wageningen Agricultural University, Netherlands
Adapted from "Finance from below: Savings arrangements and credit mechanisms in Dodoma Rural District, Tanzania", MSc. thesis prepared as part of a joint FAO-Wageningen Agricultural University research programme on group-based rural savings. For further information, e-mail The opinions expressed in this article and the full study are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FAO.

RURAL regions in developing countries are simultaneously faced with urgent problems such as poverty, overexploitation of natural resources and failing development interventionism. The urban bias of governments and development agents has led to a relative and absolute deterioration of rural conditions. Rural regions have often financed urban industries, but were not positively linked to the economic urban development. Within the rural regions, unequal development policies have contributed to a growing gap between the rich and poor. In the current era of liberalisation, this gap is unlikely to decrease, because the rural poor are at an immediate disadvantage in liberalised markets (FAO/WAU, 1997).

For all these reasons, it is of vital importance to study the kind of strategies or coping mechanisms the rural poor employ to deal with their situation, particularly in areas with marginal natural and economic resource bases ("disadvantaged areas"). Rather than labelling the rural poor as passive victims, we should take as the starting point for analysis their livelihood strategies. Only with such detailed information are sustainable and equitable development interventions possible, since they should not substitute but rather complement existing (or "indigenous") coping mechanisms. Strategies with regard to saving, borrowing and insurance deserve special attention, because these mechanisms are crucial elements of survival and the key to economic growth, through investment. As Schmidt and Kropp (1987) put it: successful rural finance stimulates all rural development. Rural finance, then, is broadly defined as "the complex of decisions of individuals and groups regarding savings, financing and insurance; institutionalisation of financial services; and changing conditions that affect the decisions and institutional arrangements of people related to savings, financing and insurance" (Hospes, 1996).

The discovery of informal finance

For decades, views on rural finance have been biased in favour of formal financial institutions, i.e. institutions operating according to the principles of the legal framework of a country (Krahnen and Schmidt, 1994). Formal financial institutions include: commercial and nationalised banks, specialised agricultural development agencies and village and regional co-operatives (Bouman, 1990). Assisted by extensive donor funds for development co-operation, many attempts have been made to introduce and expand formal finance in developing countries. These attempts were fuelled by stereotypes of informal finance as being evil and a barrier to fair and sustainable development. Horror stories about informal moneylenders legitimised efforts to eliminate informal finance by replacing it with formal financial institutions.

Moneylenders were perceived to be "monopolists", "usurers" and "exploiters", charging poor peasants exorbitant interest rates and consequently keeping them poor. However, formal financial institutions proved not to be the "key to development". Formal finance with its complicated bureaucratic procedures did not seem suitable for the rural poor in developing countries. When the failures of formal finance became apparent, informal finance appeared on the agendas of researchers and policy makers. They had to admit that informal finance was flourishing where formal finance was suffering. This resulted in "taking a fresh look at informal finance" (Adams, 1992): an interest in learning from informal finance instead of abolishing it on the basis of stereotypes. New studies on informal finance showed its heterogeneity: there was much more to it than "the moneylender". Adams (1992) identified ten types of informal finance:

  1. Sophisticated but legally unregulated institutions such as credit unions, indigenous banks, pawnshops, finance companies and services of nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) which are regulated only slightly by governments.

  2. More or less specialised moneylenders operating in localised markets. They have highly personalised relationships with their customers. Their interest rates are high, but they extend their loans quickly.

  3. Merchants who provide loans (usually with no explicit interest charge) linked to the sale or purchase of commodities.

  4. Pawnbrokers who require borrowers to exchange collateral physically for loans. Therefore, they do not need much information about their clients.

  5. Loan brokers who facilitate contacts between lenders and borrowers by trading on inside information about potential clients. Loans are relatively large compared to other types of informal finance.

  6. Landlords who provide their tenants with loans.

  7. Friends and relatives. These are the most common source of informal finance. Loans from friends and relatives usually do not involve interest or collateral, can be of different sizes and repayment arrangements can be open ended. Often borrowers are expected to provide a loan to the lender in the future (reciprocity).

  8. Money guards are responsible persons who agree to safeguard cash for individuals, usually without interest although favours and gifts may be given.

  9. Savings groups consist of individuals who regularly or irregularly deposit funds with a group leader. The accumulated money can be distributed to members after a certain time or can be used as an emergency fund.

  10. Rotating savings and credit associations (ROSCAs) explicitly pool savings and tie loans to deposits. Members are usually familiar with each other, contribute a certain sum every day, week or month, after which the fund is distributed to one of the members (Adams, 1992).

In general, informal finance involved small loans and deposits and short-term transactions, operated without physical collateral, and took place close to the residence of its clients (ibid.). Therefore, informal finance was considered more suitable to the needs of the rural poor who participated in a "penny economy", characterised by small-scale transactions and risk. While formal finance was superior when it came to large-scale development, informal finance was much better linked to the mini-character of rural economies (Bouman, 1990). Certain financial services were provided much more efficiently by informal systems than by formal intermediaries. Informal finance proved to be flexible in adapting to changes, convenient, characterised by high loan recovery rates, and client-oriented (Adams and Ghate, 1992).

In Tanzania, researchers concluded that informal finance made a "positive contribution to both production and consumption activities of rural people" (Kashuliza, 1993) and was "linked with the attempt to alleviate poverty in several ways including: ability to cultivate larger farms, getting higher crop yields and a better food security status than before" (Kashuliza et al., 1998). Such positive findings had implications for development policy and led to a redefinition of policy strategies for dealing with informal finance. New policy options were: leaving informal finance alone ("benign neglect"), linking formal and informal finance, converting informal finance to formal finance, and learning from informal finance without intervening in it (Adams and Ghate, 1992) [1].

However, some elements are lacking in the debates that followed the discovery of informal finance. Easy generalisations about its merits ignore diversity and change. Moreover, few studies explore rural finance (whether it can be labelled "formal" or "informal") from the point of view from the most determining actors: the rural savers and borrowers. Their decisions with regards to savings, credit and insurance should be more systematically explored by looking at financing options, savings practices and hierarchies of creditors (Hospes, 1997a). Therefore, in this study the decisions of Tanzanian villagers will be taken as central.

From cheap credit via savings mobilisation to balances of liquidity and illiquidity

The discovery of informal finance was preceded by an increasing sceptical attitude towards formal finance. The emphasis had been on credit provision. Credit was viewed as a major tool in rural development, it was supposed to be the most important instrument for achieve an economic spin-off for the rural poor. Because the informal financial sector was believed to exploit the rural poor, formal financial institutions were seen as the new credit agents. Rural banks, co-operatives and specialised farm credit institutions created many programmes to deliver low-priced small credit to the poor, often to targeted groups, such as "small farmers"(Bouman and Hospes, 1994).

Governments and donors subsidised credit programmes in order to keep interest rates low, which explains the term "soft loans" and "cheap credit". It was believed that commercial interest rates would be too high for the rural poor to repay. Hence, cheap credit would result in better repayment rates. Cheap credit also became a strategic tool of many governments to satisfy the rural population and create loyal "clients". However, it became clear that loan recovery was very poor, because farmers perceived credit as a free gift, and loans of the wrong size were provided at the wrong moment to the wrong customers. Hence cheap credit undermined development rather than enhancing it (Seibel, 1994). Credit indebted the rural poor and, as Adams and Von Pischke (1994) pointed out, "debt is not an effective tool for helping most poor people enhance their economic condition". In short, "the experience with credit for small farmers, handled by formal financial institutions, proved to be in direct contradiction to the economistsí argument that financial intermediation by banks ensures a better (re)allocation of resources in the economy" (Bouman, 1990).

The failure of credit-led approaches shifted attention towards the other half of rural finance: savings. The assumption that rural people in developing countries were too poor even to think of saving was challenged. The rural poor turned out to be "eager and regular savers" (ibid.) and therefore needed safe deposit facilities. Motives for saving were not hard to find: even the rural poor insured themselves against future difficulties (e.g. diseases, income losses) and tried to safeguard themselves against fluctuating incomes (often due to seasonal variation). Consequently, the task for development agents became the mobilisation of savings of rural households.

Savings became a precondition for obtaining credit. A crucial assumption underlying the savings-led approaches was that "clients" preferred "safe, liquid, easily accessible, profitable and trustworthy savings facilities" (Hannig, 1998). Savers were thus believed to have a preference for liquidity, with easy accessibility of cash. The easy accessibility of cash was seen as an advantage when investment opportunities presented themselves. Consequently, monetary savings were supposed to be a crucial determinant for development. Although authors such as Schmidt and Kropp (1987) recognised the rationality of saving in assets (because of high inflation or a low degree of monetisation), they still viewed this as an unfavourable situation, because assets are not liquid and exchanging them for cash is "time-consuming and difficult" (Schmidt and Kropp, 1987). In short, the "imperfect" financial system forced people to save in kind and not in cash, so the system should be changed.

However, precisely the assumption of a liquidity preference has been subject to criticism. Studies by Shipton and others showed the importance of savings in kind, rather than in cash. This finding led to a redefinition of savings as "any conservation of movable property by an individual or group for future use or disposal" (Shipton, 1992). Such a definition of savings is leading us away from narrow, money-oriented approaches and economic reasoning that does not take into account the social structuring of financial decisions. People do not always want cash easily accessible. Savings strategies are often mainly concerned with "removing wealth from the form of readily accessible cash, without appearing antisocial" (Shipton, 1995). People try not only to remove cash from the hands of needy relatives but also from their own hands by - for example - entrusting it to a money-keeper or burying it in a box under the ground. Moreover, savings are diversified in order to reduce risk and keeping wealth less conspicuous. In short, neither a liquidity, nor an illiquidity preference should be assumed, but rather a "balance between savings in cash and kind, between liquidity and illiquidity..." (ibid.).

Groups in rural finance

Groups and co-operatives were viewed as popular alternatives in rural financing when it became apparent that formal financial institutions were biased towards wealthier and more influential farmers and failed to reach the rural poor. Co-operatives engaged in rural finance can be both specialised financial co-operatives and agricultural co-operatives; lending groups are "less rigorously organised than co-operatives and usually created to receive a loan from an outside source" (Huppi and Feder, 1990). Both were believed to have a potential to reach the rural poor, who did not have access to formal financial services, and to lower the transaction costs of the lender, since loans could be distributed to groups or co-operatives instead of to many individual small farmers.

Huppi and Feder (1990) identified four advantages of lending groups and credit co-operatives: economies of scale (group loans save the lender transaction costs and borrowing members of co-operatives save the costs of travelling to banks), enhanced information about borrowers (because of social and economic links between members, they can give adequate information to the lender), risk pooling through joint liability ("peer pressure" is put on potential defaulters because membersí own interests are at stake) and improved bargaining (members improve their access to credit).

At the same time, some weaknesses of lending groups and co-operatives were noted: moral hazard (group members have little incentive to repay if many others default) and concentration of the loan portfolio (there is little diversification if group members have similar occupations). Hence, Huppi and Feder concluded that both lending groups and co-operatives "have the potential to provide credit to small farmers while allowing financial intermediaries to function as viable institutions" (Huppi and Feder, 1990). Outside lenders can benefit from the "peer pressure" exercised by the "homogenous borrowing groups", although often some form of training is necessary. Denying access to future loans to all members in case of default by any member leads to high repayment rates (as shown by the famous Grameen Bank in Bangladesh) (ibid.). Lending groups and co-operatives are mainly created by outsiders or at least as a response to outside incentives (e.g. to qualify for outside credit).

The approach of Huppi and Feder (1990) is somewhat interventionistic: advocating group-based finance rather than first identifying already existing forms of group-based savings and credit mechanisms. They overlook the importance of indigenous self-help groups that are initiated and regulated by the rural poor themselves. These (financial) self-help groups are a common phenomenon in low-income countries and from their functioning lessons could be drawn for development agents who want to set up group-based savings or credit programmes. Bouman (1994) described three main functions of (financial) self-help groups:

  1. Security or insurance: covering rites de passage, life cycle events, spiritual and religious ceremonies, education and insurance for members and their close kin against the consequences of illness, accidents, and deaths.

  2. Economic functions: providing safekeeping facilities, loans, collective investments and community development works.

  3. Socialising: meeting, discussing, eating, drinking, sports, singing, dancing, politics etc.

Two basic forms of financial self-help groups are Rotating Savings and Credit Associations (ROSCAs) and Accumulating Savings and Credit Associations (ASCRAs), which have different local names. In a ROSCA, savings are distributed among members immediately after they have been pooled. The ROSCA comes to an end when every member has had his or her turn, but some ROSCAs have an emergency fund as well. In an ASCRA, "the pooled savings are kept in custody and accumulated for a specified time, at the end of which the savings are redistributed" (Bouman, 1994). ROSCAs and ASCRAs have some characteristics in common: they are autonomous organisations with voluntary participation and high degrees of self-sufficiency, self-regulation and self-control.

Consequently, they have an "amazing ability (....) to adapt to a changing environment". Hence, the evolution of financial self-help groups reflects changes in a broader social, economic and political context. Bouman concluded that "the indigenous self-help model works, and with good results" (Bouman, 1994). Although authors Krahnen and Schmidt (1994) warned against problems of professionalisation and efficiency within financial self-help groups, and Seibel (1985) and Nagarajan et al. (1994) proposed linking them to banks or NGOs, positive views about self-help groups have been widely adopted. Development organisations have tried to build upon the successes of self-help groups.

As a result of the positive views on the role of groups in development, many studies on rural finance focused exclusively on self-help groups. An example is the study of Kappers (1986) who described five types of self-help groups with financial functions in Swaziland. However, such an approach is not without problems, because self-help groups are not compared to other savings and credit strategies. Their relative importance is not known and their functioning is not contextualised. Groups are not only models, but are perceived and used differently by their members: they construct and reconstruct their own form of the group (Hospes, 1995). Members are too easily assumed to be homogenous; their many different strategies are overlooked. In order to avoid such biases, we should consider different group-based and individual savings and credit arrangements, and take as the entry point the viewpoint of the individual savers and borrowers. This approach gives room for exploring the different meanings that groups have for their members and the way these groups are perceived by non-members.

Towards an integrated approach to rural finance: the importance of livelihoods in multiple contexts

The division between "formal" and "informal" finance is problematic. The suggestion that informal finance might be unregulated or unorganised is only one of the problems of such a distinction. Another problematic division is that between "group" and "individual", because these categories are not mutually exclusive (e.g. group saving may only be one of the savings strategies of an individual). Both distinctions are dualistic concepts that ignore linkages and diverse processes of change. Moreover, financial decisions do not take place in isolation: they are influenced by various socio-cultural, economic and ecological factors. Therefore, we need more comprehensive perspectives in order to come to grips with the complexities of rural finance. Such perspectives should not be based on narrow disciplinary concepts, but rather be of an integrated nature (Hospes, 1994).

A first concept that can help to overcome problematic divisions and easy generalisations is that of the financial landscape (Bouman and Hospes, 1994). This metaphor leads us to expect diversity: lowlands, mountains, broad rivers and little streams, fertile regions, deserts and muddy swamps. Furthermore, it opens our minds to change in "financial ecosystems" that does not go in one particular direction, and brings us to explore systematically the different backgrounds of finance. Financial services take place in different (socio-cultural, economic, legal, agro-ecological, political) contexts, which have too often been ignored or assumed to be constant. Location-specific circumstances and views should be the starting point for both research and policies with regard to financial landscapes.

A second useful approach is an actor perspective which emphasises the central role of savers, borrowers and lenders in shaping the financial landscape. Strategies of actors themselves may be of great importance in explaining the variations in financial landscapes, and point us to the different ways that people save, lend and borrow; an actor-oriented approach goes beyond generalisations about peoples' motives (e.g. with regard to liquidity or illiquidity preferences) and responses (e.g. to interest rates) and thus avoids the easy generalisations that see the rural poor as an homogenous group. Structural models of development are abandoned as they fail to explain different responses to the same structural circumstances (Long, 1984). Rather than viewing people as passive victims of linear pre-determined processes leading to increasing embeddedness in frames (markets, institutions etc.) that people cannot influence, people are viewed as "social actors". Social actors are "active participants who process information and strategies in their dealings with various local actors as well as with outside institutions and personnel" (Long and Van der Ploeg, 1994). Consequently "the different patterns of social organisation that emerge result from the interactions, negotiations and social struggles that take place between the several kind of actors" (ibid.). Actors "devise ways of solving problematic situations they face, but are constrained by scarcity of resources, social commitments, differential power relations and cultural values and standards" (Long, 1988). This capacity for coming to grips with the surrounding world can be called "human agency".

Human agency manifests itself through projects of actors. For example, different savings forms represent a number of differently constructed actors' projects. These projects are realised in certain arenas. Actors actively interlock (form coalitions) or distance their own projects from those of others (actors are social actors) - processes in which power relations become critical. Through interlocking, "particular projects become effective and multiple social forms are produced, reproduced and transformed" (Long and Van der Ploeg, 1994). An example of interlocking projects would be a situation in which members of a financial self-help group form a coalition with a bank or a development organisation: they align their particular projects with those propagated by these agencies and probably internalise some of their views. Consequently "they engage in a chain of decisions which draws them into specific sets of social relations" (ibid.).

A third concept which is related to an actor perspective is that of livelihood. Livelihood expresses the idea of actors "striving to make a living, attempting to meet their various consumption and economic necessities, coping with uncertainties, responding to new opportunities, and choosing between different value positions" (Long, 1997a). Livelihood strategies are built upon material resources, labour and capital, but also on time, information and identity. Livelihood therefore encompasses not only "making a living" but also "ways and styles of life/living" (ibid.) which imply different relationships with others.

A fourth perspective is that of resource dynamics developed by the research school CERES [2]. Resources are elements of the environment in which actors operate. A resource dynamics perspective provides a more elaborate definition of resources on which livelihoods can be built. Resources are defined as encompassing six "capital values":

  1. Ecological capital - mineral resources and values connected with soil, water, atmosphere; values connected with bio-genetic resources (agricultural and medicinal, etc.).

  2. Economic capital - combining financial/investment capital, money, organisational capital, for example production and distribution networks, and human capital, for example all kind of skills, level of education and health, composition of the population.

  3. Social capital - support networks; repertoires of norms and values; institutions; forms of regulation, gender relations, etc.

  4. Cultural/symbolic capital - identity/ethnicity; value orientations, etc.

  5. Political capital - power structures; institutionalisation of public authority; the formation of interest coalitions and "issue bargaining" etc.

  6. Technological capital - knowledge and knowledge networks, technical artefacts and social intervention practices; technological development and transfer etc. (CERES, 1998).

In livelihood strategies, the six "capital values" of resources are combined, mutually influence each other and can be converted into each other. For example, savings can be economic or ecological capital (depending on the savings form), but savings are strongly influenced by, for example, social networks and cultural values concerning the accumulation of wealth. On the other hand, savings in cash can be converted into "ecological capital" (or vice versa).

A resource dynamics perspective prevents us from narrow individualistic approaches, because attention is paid to a broad range of contextual elements. Resources constitute a kind of structural environment. Livelihoods are realised within multiple and changing contexts: resources and combinations of resources are far from fixed or static, and are interpreted and used differently by various actors. Actors live in various contexts: they have multiple roles and positions (e.g. they are saver in one and borrower in another setting), which are combined in actual livelihoods. Therefore, the livelihoods of rural people are an excellent entry point for studying their savings and credit arrangements.


1. One has the strong impression, however, that examples of putting these policy options into practice are very rare.

2. CERES is the Dutch inter-university research school on resources and development.


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