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Posted November 1997

Participation in practice / 4
Forming groups of the rural poor

Introduction | People's Participation Programme (PPP)| Project preparation | Forming groups | Group activities | Implementing agencies | Financial component | Group promoters | Participatory training | Monitoring and evaluation | Project sustainability | Costs and benefits | Replicating the PPP approach | Complete Special as a single 121K file

THE CENTRAL ELEMENT in PPP is the formation of self-help groups of the rural poor as the first step in a long-term institution building process. Groups are formed around activities designed to satisfy the priority needs of the intended participants. Group membership offers the poor a number of advantages:

Forming small, homogeneous groups

Receiving systems

Government and NGO delivery systems often have no matching receiving system through which development assistance can be channelled to the poor. As a result, development agencies find it easier to serve a minority of better-off farmers than large numbers of small scale producers. The group approach helps the poor to create their own receiving mechanisms. To undertake economic activities, groups seek support - in the form of training, credit, inputs and social services - from local delivery agencies. For the delivery system, groups offer significant economies of scale: tools and inputs can be delivered in bulk, training conducted in groups and credit dispersed as group loans. Thus, the poor win greater access to technical advice and production inputs, while the delivery agencies broaden the impact of their assistance.
The project should first make an inventory of all existing forms of people's groups organizations within the proposed action area. These groups and organizations may be traditional or more modern types, such as farmer associations, cooperatives and trade unions.

The question is whether or not these organizations genuinely represent the interests of the rural poor. Cooperatives are often too large and their structures too hierarchical to be effective vehicles for participatory development. Similarly, traditional tribal or community groupings are often managed in a top-down fashion and may provide limited opportunities for participatory learning and decision making.

If the inventory indicates that participatory groups are lacking, the project should promote their formation among project participants. In PPP's experience four essential guidelines should be followed:

The project should then organize informal meetings with prospective group members to discuss the purpose, methods of operation and benefits of groups, as well as possible enterprises and means of production. Group promoters should make a list of potential group members and leaders, possible group activities and required inputs.

Once the participants have identified viable income-raising activities, those interested in a particular activity should decide on criteria for group membership: for example, whether members should belong to a specific category (such as small-holders, tenants or landless) or whether the group should be male-only, female-only or mixed. They should also assess their productive resources, including capital, skills and experience.

By consensus or formal voting, the group members should then elect a chairperson, secretary and treasurer. Project staff should encourage rotation of leadership positions among group members in order to give all members leadership experience, thus minimizing the risk of domination by a few. Finally, the group should formulate its own constitution and procedures, setting out rules on such matters as the frequency of group meetings and the use of savings and loans.

Formation of viable and stable groups requires patience and, in most cases, a period of from two to six months. Both overly rapid formation and overly long delays, which may dampen the interest of potential group members, should be avoided.

Obstacles to group formation

"A natural division of interests"

Conflicts are more likely to arise in heterogeneous groups, when better-off members attempt to influence decisions or expropriate benefits. Problems of this kind arose in Sri Lanka, where small scale business people managed to join some PPP groups. "Over two or three seasons they undermined their groups with offers of credit and inputs at high interest rates," the project coordinator said. "The groups gradually broke up because of this natural division of interests." Confidence in the project was restored only after the non-poor were excluded. In some cases, however, group homogeneity may conflict with local social structures and traditions. In Thailand, the formation of groups of the poor was seen in some areas as a threat to social harmony. The project decided not to exclude better-off farmers, although group promoters did manage to form more or less homogeneous groups.
The process of group formation often faces formidable obstacles. Many arise from within the ranks of the rural poor themselves. Heavy work loads and generally poor health often leave the poor with little energy for "participation", while their low level of education and geographic isolation cuts them off from progressive ideas. Perhaps the most insidious obstacles to be overcome are the rural poor's own lack of unity and their psychological dependence on the rich. In most cases, the rural poor are economically dependent on landowners, traders and middlemen. Accustomed to leaving initiatives and decisions to their traditional "leaders", they may fear intimidation or expulsion from their land if they become involved in independent peasant organizations.

Other constraints are posed by local power-holders - and even slightly better-off farmers - who may see the groups as a threat to age-old, and often highly profitable, patron-client relationships.

At local level, project staff can help overcome this antagonism by winning the support of traditional, administrative and other leaders. They may need to call meetings to sensitize leaders to the objectives of the participatory project and, above all, to illustrate the benefits of its activities to the area as a whole. These benefits include improvements in community living standards, an increased flow of government services to the village and, consequently, greater prestige for the village and its leaders.

Inter-group federations

Once groups have established a sound economic base, PPP promotes their consolidation into local-level inter-group federations. It does this because small groups usually become stronger and more efficient when horizontally and vertically linked. Inter-group federations promote solidarity and economies of scale both in group activities and delivery of development services, and enable members to develop a broad base for action. In addition, development of local - and, eventually, regional and national - structures can stimulate the formation of more groups.

Forms of federation

There is no universal model for inter-group federations. In Ghana, for example, participants in one village cluster all belonged to an inter-group federation, while in another the federation was made up only of group representatives. In a neighbouring area, a federation consisted of two groups involved in cassava processing. In Sri Lanka, federations are made up of two delegates from groups in each cluster, while in Lesotho, they consist of elected group delegates plus a representative of the traditional local leader.
An inter-group federation represents its constituent groups and is not an executive body: it must be accountable to all group members. It should have a facilitating, coordinating and educational role and become a source of technical assistance, economies of scale and guidance. For instance, a federation can offer training to new groups and even help finance their activities from accumulated savings. Moreover, it can serve as a reference point for formation of new inter-group federations and eventually perform at least some of the functions of group promoters.

In most cases, federations should, initially, represent groups with a variety of economic activities, rather than a single activity. Multi-activity federations are usually better able to meet common needs of the groups, such as training and information exchange, and to exert pressure on the delivery system. Single-activity federations may emerge at a later stage.

Inter-group federations may be legalized as pre-cooperatives or federations in order to obtain more recognition, legal status, services and facilities. They may also link themselves to participatory, rural poor-oriented cooperatives or other people's organizations. It should be stressed, however, that the groups do not replace cooperatives and other village institutions. They remain autonomous interest groups that may operate within, and help to strengthen, existing traditional or informal organizations, thus broadening the network of institutions serving the rural poor.

Linking federations to existing organizations not only facilitates delivery of development services and facilities, but also the consolidation of group plans into multi-group or federation plans that can be matched with area and regional development plans through local coordination committees. Thus, a two-way planning process can be developed.

Through inter-group activities and federations of groups, the poor become increasingly self-confident and recognized by their wider community. They obtain organizational power and may eventually be represented in local government bodies.

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