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Updated November 1999

E-mail conference
24 September-11 November 1998
Small farmer group associations: Bringing the poor together



Proceedings Conference documents

1. The issue

After more than two decades of experience in promoting small group approaches to rural development, it is now clear that the use of these approaches leads to major cost savings for governments and NGOs in the delivery of development services to small farmers, allowing to significantly expand their service coverage. In an era of dwindling government and donor budgets, the economic rationale for applying similar techiiques to organize farmers at higher levels seems to be gaining increasing popularity.

FAO was one of the first among UN, NGO and other agencies - though certainly not the only one - to test and promote the approach under its Small Farmer Development Programme (SFDP), which began in Asia in the mid-1970s, and under its People's Participation Programme (PPP), which expanded the approach on a global basis.

The main elements of the SFDP/PPP programme approach were: a focus on the rural poor; the formation of small, homogeneous groups (8-15 persons); an emphasis on income-generation rather than other group activities; the use of resident group promoters (group organizers); the introduction of group-based approaches to savings and credit; and the formation of small farmer group associations (SFGAs) operating at a higher level.

During the past twenty years, tens of thousands of small farmer groups have been formed and thousands continue to function on a sustainable basis, but far fewer SFGAs exist.

Numerous studies have been conducted on various aspects of the small group development process, and a number of field manuals on group formation and group enterprise management have been developed, widely disseminated and are now being used.

While we know much about the problems of building sustainable small farmer groups and group-run businesses, we appear to know surprisingly little about how to effectively build sustainable small farmer group cooperation structures at the next-higher level, i.e., the group association.

In view of the added economic advantages that governments and small farmers could gain from establishing such higher-level cooperation mechanisms on a sustainable basis, we think the time is ripe for firmly promoting such group associations, but practical guidelines are needed.

2. What is the definition of a small farmer "group association"?

While SFGAs can be informal or formal, traditional or modern, involve small or large groups and pursue a variety of economic as well as non-economic ends, for the purpose of this conference we will define them as: an informal, voluntary and self-governing association of small farmer groups formed at local level for the purpose of economic cooperation for the benefit of all its affiliated individual members.

Typically, such SFGAs average 5 to 10 groups, serving 25 to 150 individual members. The geographic coverage of such an association may extend to a village or a cluster of neighbouring villages.

It should be stressed that the term "group association" as defined here refers to an informal association of farmer groups, and excludes other more formal associations, such as cooperative unions, agricultural labour unions or other group associations which have a recognised legal personality and are often subject to specific legislation.

3. Why are group associations important?

Group associations help lower the delivery costs of government, NGO and private-sector agencies supplying development services to small farmer groups, as well as help affiliated groups in reducing their individual cost of accessing those services and sharing input purchasing, production, processing and marketing costs.

A second advantage of SFGAs is that, once they become self-financing, they can serve as useful mechanisms for broadening the outreach of government and NGO development programmes at little or no additional cost.

A third benefit of SFGAs is that they help build rural social capital, as they strengthen collective self-help linkages at local level that encourage broad-based community participation, cooperation and collective action on many fronts: economic, social and political.

A final advantage, and one learned through FAO's own experience in promoting such organizations, is that once SFGAs are in place, actively functioning and largely self-supporting, they tend to attract additional outside development resources and services, since outside agencies are also interested in working in areas where rural people are well-organized, accustomed to working together and developmentally motivated.

4. The reason for this conference

The number of SFGAs continues to grow, in part stimulated by governments and NGOs and in part by small farmer groups themselves as they discover the benefits of broader cooperation. Yet the process has been a bumpy one in each country, largely based on trial and error, and frequently not benefiting from similar experiences in other regions.

There is also considerable confusion as to how to measure group association "success" and the sustainability of that success in the long run. Some SFGAs appear successful in providing useful services to their member groups and cover their running costs, but many of these continue to be heavily dependent on outside subsidies and support. Will they continue to perform well when such support is withdrawn?

Until recently, few studies had been conducted on problems related to group association development and - in contrast the variety of manuals and guidelines now available on small group formation and promotion - no practical manual is available on development of SFGAs.

In order to redress this lack of field guidelines for promting SFGAs , FAO in 1995 launched a series of country studies on existing small farmer cooperation networks in four countries (Indonesia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Zambia) in an attempt to identify the parameters influencing SFGA success and sustainability. Although the findings from this research have helped identify some key factors, the scope of the research has been largely limited to FAO-implemented or -monitored projects, and has not benefited from the rich experience gained by others - UN Agencies, governments, NGOs - involved in such initiatives.

5. Definition of the boundaries of discussion

In order to set some boundaries to the discussions at this conference and make it more manageable, we have chosen to limit debate to issues related to the economic role of such associations. While we agree that the other roles of group associations are important, as SFGAs may pursue a variety of economic, social, religious and political objectives, separately or simultaneously, and that these objectives may change as an association grows and matures, we also believe that the economic role is the most fundamental, and a necessary condition for achieving long-term sustainability.

Hence we have decided to focus discussions on five main areas:

  1. coping with the existing institutional environment;
  2. association formation;
  3. association activity management and development;
  4. service-related issues; and
  5. organizational growth and sustainability.

The main discussion paper will cover all these areas and, within each area, will pose a number of key questions. It is hoped that these questions and FAO's response to them will stimulate discussion and debate and encourage other participants to respond.

6. Organization of the conference

The Conference will use E-mail as the means of communication between those taking part. It will be open for interventions from 18 September to 31 October 1998. Those interested in participating should in the first instance contact the Conference Secretariat Upon acceptance and registration, the participant will receive the discussion paper, a detailed description of the main thematic areas, and brief details of the resource persons involved.

Discussions will be completely open, but we will try to focus them on the central themes. All interventions will be referred to the Moderator, who will screen them, prepare them in a standard format, assign an identifying label and then distribute them to all participants. Subsequently, the interventions will be collated into the equivalent of Proceedings of the Conference, giving the contributions and conclusions. The proceedings will be distributed in electronic form to all those registered as well as made available to the general public on this Sustainable Development Dimensions website.

7. Expected outputs

We hope that this conference will provide an interesting opportunity for all participants to engage in debate and discussion on the topic of SFGA development, to share their experiences and to learn from each other. More specifically, we hope for a practical outcome, i.e. the development of tools and methodologies for use at field level in the promotion and development of more sustainable SFGAs.

Assuming that a printed manual or guideline publication eventually results, then the techncial contributions of participants to that effort will be acknowledged and they will receive a complimentary copy.

8. Resource persons

We are happy to announce that a number of internationally recognised experts in the field of small farmer organization development have agreed to serve as resource persons for this conference. Their main role will be to provide, in their specific areas of specialization, constructive comments on the contributions made by other participants, to provide technical contributions of their own, and to keep discussions lively and interesting. To date, the following have volunteered to act as resource persons on an ad hoc basis:

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