Updated November 1999
24 September-11 November 1998
Small farmer group associations: Bringing the poor together
FAO experience: Coping with the local institutional environment
The success of a particular SFGA development strategy will depend a lot on the local institutional environment within which it is used, and these environments may vary widely from one community, region or country to another. There are cultural as well as political, administrative and legal factors that may influence that outcome.
Question 1. How do local socio-cultural norms and conditions influence collective self-help action and affect the formation of new groups, such as SFGAs?
Some countries have laws which strictly control the number of formal farmer's organizations a community or region may have. Usually the limit is one per administrative area, whatever that may be. But this should not necessarily represent a problem, since SFGAs are informal organizations and therefore exist in a grey area somewhat outside the law.
The SFDP and PPP programme approaches both stressed the importance of a undertaking a thorough socio-economic analysis of the local project environment during what was called "the inception stage" of the project, i.e., prior to launching field activities, including the collection of "baseline data;" yet outside pressures to "show concrete results" often took precedence. Consequently, much of the socio-cultural adaptation of approaches to fit local environments that did occur in these projects tended to be more reactive than pro-active, i.e., when the local application of a particular element of the approach didn't work, then an attempt was made to find out why that was so. This post facto strategy did indeed lead to a number of innovations and successful adaptations, but it was time-consuming and frequently costly.
Question 2. How can SFGAs be incorporated into existing institutional environments? Why form SFGAs at all?
So why not try to reform other existing (traditional or externally-introduced) local organizations? The answer is that reforming them is usually more difficult that it would seem, since they are often controlled directly or indirectly through financial or political ties by well-entrenched and more powerful stakeholders who may resist this change. Small farmers are usually well aware of this tendency, especially where there is a long history of these organizations being used largely as "instruments of local power and government policy," i.e., top-down mechanisms for political mobilization or channels for delivering government messages, preferential services, credits or grants.
In these situations, we have found the promotion of new informal small farmer groups and their cooperation networks, initially outside of these more formal organizations, to be more effective in promoting small farmer collective self-help and participation and often such promotion helps in stimulating increased small farmer participation in development decision making at village and higher levels.
Keeping the group organization approaches informal and presenting them to local authorities as complementary to other existing formal organizations also is usually a safer, more practical strategy, since informal organizations essentially do not violate any law, since formally they do not exist!
Another option, of course, would be to expand the membership of existing SFGs. Wouldn't that be simpler? While such an approach would indeed be simpler, we are not sure it would be more effective. In fact, our experience seems to confirm the appropriateness of maintaining the small group as the basic membership unit, even at SFGA level. This is largely because small farmers, who have limited mobility, education and organizational experience find the small group - where there is constant face-to-face contact that facilitates their active participation in decision-making and collective learning - the most appropriate unit through which they can participate in the SFGA.
Question 3. Who should initiate and promote SFGAs and why? "Outsiders" - group promoters, government, aid agencies, NGOs, political parties, local leaders, etc. - or "Insiders" - small farmer groups themselves?
Most SFGAs that FAO has been involved with have been promoted by "Outsiders," i.e., UN Agencies, donor agencies, government agricultural extension agencies (e.g., Sri Lanka, Thailand, Zambia), agricultural development banks (e.g., Indonesia, Nepal), parastatals (e.g., Pakistan, Tanzania) or NGOs (e.g., Ghana, Kenya) and the label can even be applied to group promoters, when those promoters are recruited from outside the local community.
"Insiders", i.e., small farmers themselves (and SFGA promoters when they come from the ranks of small farmer groups themselves form them to obtain greater economies-of-scale in gaining access to services and markets, to mediate disputes between groups, or to start or continue inter-group collective action; for example, we have found that once the process of SFGA development gains momentum and small farmer groups begin seeing positive results, they often see the advantages of inter-group cooperation and themselves begin spontaneous SFGA formation.
Question 4. How does one promote SFGAs in conditions where traditional power holders may discourage the establishment of competitive (alternative) decision-making/collective action forums?
If the small farmer organization serves as a channel for delivering externally-provided subsidized services or inputs that local elites regard as useful they may seek to "capture" some of the benefits of these organizations for their own use. Also, if local elites view the organization as politically "dangerous," they may seek to actively sabotage group development efforts.
To avoid both of these problems, FAO small farmer group formation approaches have de-emphasized the provision of subsidized inputs and services, with the exception of training through groups and organizing groups around income-generation issues (because rural elites tend to see "income generation" issues as less threatening than more politicized equity or religious issues, such as land ownership and women's participation.
Since SFGAs are associations of small farmer groups, their political significance is greater, as is the danger of their instrumentalization by local elites. Sometimes if the SFGA adopts an adversarial stance, such a position may even contribute to promoting SFGA solidarity and survival, but that frequently is not the case.
Ultimately, the key to an SFGA's survival will hinge on the extent to which the economic and non-economic (social, cultural and political) benefits of SFGA development to all stakeholders - Insiders and Outsiders - outweigh the economic and non-economic costs.