Social capital Institutions

Posted December 1996

Partners for food security

Trade unions, rural workers' organizations, agricultural producers' and farmers' associations, cooperatives, and development/advocacy organizations

from "The role of trade unions, rural workers' organizations, agricultural producers' and farmers' associations, cooperatives, and development/advocacy organizations in contributing to the World Food Summit and its follow-up", Editor: Marilee Karl (FAO, 1996)

TRADE UNIONS, rural workers' organizations, agricultural producers' and farmers' associations, and cooperatives represent hundreds of millions of rural people worldwide. Their overall goals are to improve the lives and working conditions of rural people. In addition, hundreds of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) play advocacy and support roles in assisting rural people to organize themselves and improve their living and working conditions. These organizations have a major stake and role to play in achieving food security and in cooperating with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, governments and other civil society organizations.

Although these various types of organizations have distinguishing features, there is also a certain amount of overlap among them. Many of the concepts presented here are still under discussion. The definitions presented below are, therefore, not meant to be rigid and immutable, but are rather working definitions.

Civil Society

Civil society has been described as "the space of uncoerced human association and also the set of relational networks - formed for the sake of family, faith, interest, and ideology - that fill this space." Understood in these terms, "civil society organization" can be used for all types of formal and informal associations, organizations and coalitions which are established on the direct initiative of individual members or groups of society, and which do not belong to the official governmental, political and administrative systems at any level. While civil society is complementary to the State, it can include associations of people to take political or development action. As a generic term, civil society includes trade unions, rural workers' organizations, agricultural producers' and farmers' associations, cooperatives and development/advocacy NGOs alike.

People's Organizations and Development/Advocacy Organizations

"People's organizations" and "development/advocacy organizations" are also generic terms referring to two distinct sectors of civil society, both of which are represented in this paper. The FAO Plan of Action on People's Participation in Rural Development defines people's organizations as:
"voluntary, autonomous and democratically controlled institutions including traditional community councils, informal groups, cooperatives, rural workers' organizations and peasant unions, women's associations, etc. Some local people's organizations may establish higher-level federations at provincial, national or international level in order to increase their self-help capacities and bargaining power, and to promote participatory development at local level."
Trade unions, rural workers organizations', agricultural producers' and farmers' associations and cooperatives are, thus, all people's organizations because they are all representative organizations, autonomous, and democratically controlled by and accountable to their membership, who freely associate themselves with the organization.

Development and advocacy organizations, on the other hand, are generally not representative organizations of people, but rather voluntary non-governmental organizations, also known as development or promotional NGOs. These organizations provide support and services to both organized and unorganized people, but are not directly controlled by or accountable to them. Their roles are thus different from those of people's organizations. In many cases, development/advocacy NGOs engage in capacity building to enable rural people to organize themselves and form their own representative organizations.

Particularly when they are composed of people from the countries and localities in which they work, development and advocacy organizations can be an effective vehicle for support to rural people in cooperation with development agencies, United Nations agencies, governments and civil society organizations, including as trade unions, rural workers' organizations, agricultural producers' and farmers' associations, and cooperatives.

Trade Unions and Rural Workers' Organizations

Millions of agricultural labourers and workers in the agro-processing industries are organized into trade unions at the local, national, regional and international levels.

A trade union is "a continuing, permanent and democratic organization created and run by the workers to:

Trade Unions are based on three important principles. These three pillars of trade unionism are:
  1. Unity, or solidarity among workers: depending on its basis of organization (trade, sector, general, common employer, etc.) a union should be open to and strive to include and unite all workers in its membership, irrespective of race, religion, creed, sex, skill, etc.

  2. Independence: a union should be controlled by the members themselves. It should not allow itself to be dominated or controlled by external interests, be it government, employers, political parties, religious, communal or fraternal organizations, or individuals persons.

  3. Democracy: a union should use democratic methods in its decision-making processes and in the election of its leadership and governing bodies. All members should be fairly and fully represented.
Rural Workers' Organizations are a special category of trade union. A rural worker, as defined by the ILO Rural Workers' Organizations Convention is: "any person engaged in agriculture, handicrafts or a related occupation in a rural area, whether as a wage earner a tenant, sharecropper or small owner-occupier...who work the land themselves with the help only of their family or with the help of occasional outside labour and who do not permanently employ workers; or employ a substantial number of seasonal workers; or have any land cultivated by sharecroppers or tenants." (Rural Workers' Organizations Convention, 1975, No. 141).

In this definition, organizations of waged agricultural workers and organizations of self-employed farmers are both considered rural workers' organizations. While many rural workers' organizations are affiliated with trade unions, others - particularly those of self-employed farmers - refer to themselves as farmers' associations or agricultural producers' associations. The membership of these organizations varies: from those mainly composed of plantation workers or agricultural labourers, to those of small family farmers or a mixture. Throughout this paper, the terms "rural workers", "farmers" and "agricultural producers" are used according to how the organizations represented in this paper define themselves and their membership.

According to the ILO, waged rural workers and self-employed farmers: "make up the largest single occupation group of workers in the world. In many countries they are estimated to account for well over half the total working population....In many countries (they) are also among the poorest and the most deprived, and generally they are less well-organized than their fellow workers in other occupations. But just as industrial workers have been able to improve their conditions by forming workers' organizations to protect and further their interests, there are many examples of how rural workers have been able to organize by forming their own workers' organizations whether they be wage earners' trade unions or small farmers' organizations or cooperative-type associations."

Among the poorest of the poor, women compose half of this rural workforce, and in many areas the percentage of women is much higher. In Africa, for instance, women produce 60 to 80 percent of the food. Their work is essential to the rural economy and household food security, yet it is often undervalued or unrecognized, particularly because it is very often unpaid family labour. Moreover, women farmers are under represented in the membership of most unions, farmers' organizations and cooperatives, and compose only a small percentage of the leadership. Almost all of these organizations are now aware of this situation and are taking measures to remedy it, but efforts will have to continue if women are to be represented in the membership and leadership of these organizations in proportion to their numbers in the agricultural work force.

FAO supports the ILO conventions to protect the rights of rural workers to organize and has urged its member governments to ratify these conventions. Moreover, FAO has throughout its history promoted the participation of rural workers, small farmers and women in rural people's organizations. Among its landmark documents reflecting its policies and activities are: The Peasants' Charter: The Declaration of Principles and Programme of Action of the World Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development; People's Participation in Rural Development: The FAO Plan of Action; and The FAO Plan of Action for Women in Development 1996 to 2001.

Agricultural Producers' and Farmers' Associations

The terms "agricultural producers' associations" and "farmers' associations" are often used interchangeably. Agricultural producers and farmers include small, medium and large farmers, family farmers, landless peasants, subsistence farmers, tenant farmers, sharecroppers and indigenous and other people who work the land. The term "agricultural producers" is often used in the broad sense to include fishers and foresters.

The International Federation of Agricultural Producers (IFAP) describes its member associations as "organizations owned and governed by farmers which work for farmers' interests. They are organizations by farmers for farmers. These include farmers' unions, agricultural cooperatives and chambers of agriculture. Regular election of officers is critical to the credibility and authenticity of representative farmers' organizations."


Cooperatives comprise a wide range of organizations, which may include agricultural producers' and farmers' associations, agricultural marketing and supply, consumer, transport and rural workers' cooperatives which contribute to ensuring food security worldwide.

Cooperatives can range from very large entrepreneurial and marketing cooperatives that rank along with big private corporations as some of the most profitable agricultural businesses, to small grassroots village associations that assist small farmers to obtain credit and inputs, market their goods and develop small village-based agricultural processing industries.

"A cooperative is an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise", according to the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) in its Statement on the Co-operative Identity. The statement further identifies cooperative values as those of "self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity." The principles upon which cooperatives are based are:

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