OVERCOMING RURAL POVERTY is not simply a matter of more investment, more aid or more technology. Poverty will persist until development reaches and benefits the world's 800 million underprivileged, undernourished and under-educated rural people. The rural poor must be given the opportunity to participate in development.
People's participation means the involvement of people in the institutions and systems that govern their lives. The problem today is that most of the decision making is done in the urban centres, not in rural areas. Low-income rural people are not connected to the political system nor to the general economy. They are often isolated, with limited access to newspapers and other forms of communication.
But it's not just a question of logistics - it's also a question of scale. As individuals, they have difficulty linking up with government delivery systems, the banking system, with the agricultural extension system. They have poor access to markets and input suppliers, and seldom see an agricultural extension agent. Likewise, government finds it too costly to provide services and resources to large numbers of scattered, isolated households.
So how can rural people - isolated, under-educated, with few resources - ever join the economic and political mainstream? How can they gain access to the services they need to increase their production and incomes? Over the past 13 years, FAO's Peoples Participation Programme - or PPP - has implemented small-scale projects in rural communities around the world: in Sierra Leone, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Swaziland and Lesotho, and in Thailand, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Through these projects, FAO has refined a development strategy that mobilizes rural people to increase agricultural production, build up capital assets and manage their natural resources.
Says Christine Kahanda, coordinator of the PPP project in Zambia: "We operate through what we call group promoters. They are trained for two weeks in the small group approach, then assigned to an extension area. The group promoter in each area will carry out a survey to find out what services are available, the resources and activities that are going on, and identify the people to be our beneficiaries.
"When we introduce our approach to the farmers, we sit and talk with them, and it is finally the people who agree on whether they make a group or not. These groups have to be small, manageable and the group members should be of such a level - both social and economical - that they can understand each other. In these groups they are taught to work together, leadership skills, how to keep records and how to carry out income-generating activities.
"Thereafter, if the members are willing to undertake any other new ventures, then the group promoters will act as link between the groups and any other organization that will give the service of knowledge to the groups."
Groups in Sri Lanka often begin by saving in kind. Members each bring to their weekly meetings a small bag of rice, which is collected and later sold. The earnings go into their group fund. When a group has enough cash, its group promoter takes them to meet the local bank manager and open a savings account, used to meet emergency expenditures, cover group running costs and provide capital for group enterprises.
Regular saving has another important advantage. It prepares the groups for the responsibility of handling credit - bank loans, which they invest in starting up and expanding group enterprises. Delivering credit to groups makes sense both for banks and the poor. Few banks have the time or staff to process and supervise very small loans for individual farmers. But these tasks are simplified when the farmers join together and take out a medium-sized group loan. Transactions costs are also lower for the group members - they need to prepare only one loan application and make a single trip to their local bank.
"Before the project started, agricultural extension information was not reaching the villages," says Sudath de Abrew, coordinator of the Sri Lanka PPP project. "Individually, the small farmers are weak and they unable to go and meet the local agricultural instructor, because of the social distance. But once organized, a representative of them goes and meets the instructor and informs him that a group is involved. This gives him confidence and at the same time, this persuades the instructor to respond to their needs.
"The purchase of improved seed and the application of fertilizers have definitely increased and the agricultural services have gone to the extent of providing some of their demonstrations - which they otherwise would have provided to big farmers - to the groups, because here they see a lot of people getting interested in what they also want to get done."
In participatory development projects around the world, small groups are intensifying production of food and cash crops, developing small animal husbandry, doing agro-processing and building small scale irrigation systems. They cooperate in bulk purchase of inputs and consumer goods, and group transport and marketing of produce. Many groups carry out community improvement - building schoolhouses, sponsoring vaccination clinics and helping government services organize village health rallies.
Group promoters in Sri Lanka advise their groups to undertake, initially, activities that require little or no external assistance. One of the most popular activities is pooling labour. Members help each other to prepare land, plant and harvest, thus increasing their cultivated acreage and reducing their labour costs. As the farmers' confidence grows, they take up more ambitious enterprises. Many of them now cultivate chillies on large group plots, process chickpea for sale, and manufacture and market pots and fuel-efficient stoves.
After extension training, one group took up cultivation of onions, a very profitable cash crop usually grown by large-scale commercial farmers. Onion production spread rapidly among neighbouring groups and soon became their main income-earner.
In Zambia, too, the farmers' groups are encouraged to "start small". "Usually we encourage the people to start with the work they are already doing, no matter how small the activity is," says Christine Kahanda. "For example, if we find that someone in a group is able to make crafts, or maybe do some fishing or carpentry, we will try to promote those very skills and bring them to a level where it can produce income."
A Zambian women's group began cultivating groundnuts and hiring out their labour to other farmers. Soon they had earned enough to buy seed and fertilizer and start a two-hectare group maize plot. Now they are harvesting nearly four tonnes of maize each season. Some groups have gone into vegetable farming, which provides extra income and helps improve family nutrition. After carrying out their own feasibility studies, one group planted an orange grove that now produces five tonnes of fruit per season. Many groups are taking out bank loans to start up maize hammer-mills. A typical group mill serves 50 farmers and processes a tonne of maize a day during the harvest season.
Inter-group associations organize the bulk purchase of inputs, the marketing of farm produce and the preparation of requests for bank loans. They may also play a political, by acting as a spokesperson for groups in discussions with local government administrators and development services.
In Sri Lanka, farmers' groups have established an extensive network of inter-group associations called village boards, each representing an average of 10 groups. The village boards, in turn, have created two district-level federations. Total membership is some 2,000 farmers.
"They try to make use of economies of scale," says project coordinator Sudath de Abrew. "For example, instead of groups buying fertilizer, the inter-village board now collects money to purchase in bulk and provide it at a lower cost. They are getting involved in bulk purchase of seed, and organizing training programmes through extension, livestock and other line agencies. We promoted this very much because we wanted the small farmers to take over management of the activities after termination of the project. In fact, quite a number of village boards are taking over the group promoters functions. In one district, where there were 24 group organizers, we now need only one."
Sri Lanka's village boards have recently taken on a political role as well. In many of the project area's administrative divisions, they have won the right to meet regularly with government officers to discuss their members' needs and press for a bigger share of development resources.
Says Sudath de Abrew: "I think the small group approach has great potential because at present, although there are rural development programmes that incorporate participatory activities, it is a haphazard exercise. Usually there is a top-down approach where the problems are identified by people higher up and solutions are provided by them. But this has not worked. It is now very important that we promote this participatory approach in all our rural development efforts, because only then will we be tackling their problems, their real needs."