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Barriers to and Necessary Conditions for Creating Enabling Policy Frameworks

This section looks at the kinds of condition that need to be in place to encourage the evolution of pro-poor rural development frameworks, and, more specifically, it examines a set of policies that could encourage the active and meaningful participation of smallholders in markets. Before doing so, it provides a brief historical overview of the reasons that the rural poor and smallholder interests have tended to be ignored.

The post-Second World War model of political economy in developing countries, which drew on dependency theory and theories influenced by the independence movement in post-colonial countries to inform its policy orientation, encouraged a strong state presence in regulating and creating markets and protecting domestic industries from international competition so that these could grow and develop. In countries in which exports had traditionally been strongly focused on agricultural commodities, agriculture was particularly dominated by vested interests and the allocation of rents to the sector, which in Latin America, for example, reflected the long-standing unequal distribution of land and income throughout many of the countries in the region and, therefore, the power of large landholders in the polity to capture state resources.5

The movement towards neo-liberal economic paradigms of the 1980s and 1990s, in tandem with a policy shift at the international level which was transmitted to developing countries (e.g. through the World Bank supported Structural Adjustment Programmes), saw the reduction of the state’s role in the economy and also encouraged the reduction of state participation in agriculture, although reduction of the state in this sector lagged behind other reforms such as those liberalizing trade and financial systems. Again to take the example of Latin America, between 1980

and 2000, following the general trend towards more balanced budgets and lower state participation in the economy, the average level of public investment in agriculture fell from 8% to 2% of gross domestic product (GDP), consistent with the decreasing weight of agriculture in national economies.6

The long-standing failure of policy frameworks to adequately consider the interests of the rural poor/smallholders over various phases of economic development is explicable by looking at the political power of various actors within an economy. The classic finding in the political economy of rural development explains that an urban bias persists in most government policy-making, particularly in the developing world.7 While urban interests are easy to organize for reasons of proximity, and can act as a real threat to governments/leaders located in urban areas, rural interests are more geographically dispersed, which makes them harder to organize and diffuses their threat. As a result, urban interests, especially capital-holding interests, are more likely to dominate national policy-making frameworks, resulting in a disproportionate allocation of funding to urban needs.8 Historically, when rural interests were prioritized, they were the interests of powerful elites with concentrated economic assets, such as land, who represented a significant source of income and power in the given political economy. Later writing on the same topic, such as the World Development Report of 2008 titled Agriculture for Development, also emphasized the difficult political trade-offs in creating policy frameworks in which the priority was mobilizing agriculture for development.9

In fact, neither the statist development models of the post-war era nor the liberalized regimes of the 1980s and 1990s adequately or fully addressed the needs of the rural poor in facilitating conditions for smallholders to access markets to sell their products. Despite some recent changes to policy frameworks to make them more pro-poor (e.g. in Latin America where there has been a renewed interest in family farming as opposed to large scale agro-industry for reasons related to food security and poverty reduction),10 or in some African countries where smallholder farming is seen as a key driver of economic growth and poverty reduc- tion,11 smallholders continue to face a series of disadvantages in pursuing their interests. As is clear from the literature briefly mentioned above, rural interests tend to represent a more diffused threat, and they also comprise a minority of the electorate. In addition, smallholders also face significant problems of coordination. According to classic theories of collective action, the protection of a group’s interests requires the group to be small, to have concentrated interests, and to face high costs from changes in policy. The larger the group and the more diffuse the costs and benefits of policy frameworks, the less likely its members are to organize and advocate for their interests.12 The logic of collective action, when applied to rural smallholders makes for even more discouraging predictions: smallholders are numerous and face diffused costs/benefits from policies, in addition to the geographical/political problems already cited.

Thus, it is unsurprising that the interests of the rural poor have not traditionally been considered in policy making, whether in democratic systems or otherwise.13 As highlighted in the introduction, the argument advanced here is that two features need to be in place to overcome the significant problems that smallholders face in ensuring that urban politicians respond to their needs and in organizing to express these needs. The first of these conditions is that the government needs to have an incentive to pay attention to the needs of the rural poor and—particularly—smallhold- ers. Given the traditional urban biases described above, what is required is that the government see these actors as key constituents (voters in democratic systems, or core elements of support in any system) in supporting its political power or posing a potential threat to it.

Potential forms of government interested in such electorates would be governments dominated by parties drawn from groups that have historically been organized around rural/agricultural revolutions; governments in which leftist politics have come to encompass rural as well as urban workers, through prior organization of rural interests (landless movements, ethnic groups etc.); governments of the right that are seeking to eliminate the threat posed by violence in rural areas (see Booth’s review of literature on cases in Africa)14; and governments seeking to incorporate rural interests to expand their reliable rural voting bases for other reasons, for example ones related to multi-party democracy and the rising importance of rural majorities. The purpose of these classifications is not to create an exhaustive list, but rather to suggest that policies in favour of family farming and market access for smallholders are more likely to occur when the government has an intrinsic political motivation for promoting the interests of smallholders; these examples serve as archetypes of which rural interests are likely to be considered important.

There are reasons outside of the democratic process too that might encourage governments to consider smallholders are core constituents. The first would be based on economic necessity—as is the case with the development and growth plans of some African economies at present, small island economies isolated from tourism—when the economies fastest growing sector is agriculture and GDP remains dominated by the sector. An additional reason, though one which theories of political economy would suggest are less likely to be durable and successful,15 may be international pressure. If aid budgets are determined by the extent to which the rural agricultural poor are beneficiaries of and represented within policy frameworks, governments in aid dependent countries in particular will have an (additional) external reason to prioritize the inclusion of smallholders. Thus, the array of types of government that might be willing to adopt constructive policy conditions for smallholders is broadened to those that see smallholder farmers as key to their electoral or economic success.

The second required condition, and one that is core to the interest of this book, is that farmers themselves must organize in order to better facilitate their chance of participating in politics and public policy at the sub-national and national level, and advancing their needs and interests in the policy framework. The way in which this organization takes places— whether through self-motivation for economic reasons, through international support or some mix of both—is likely to have some impact on the success and longevity of such groups, and this organization of course increases the likelihood that FOs/RPOs become relevant elements of electoral coalitions or sources of support for democratic regimes, so there is an iterative effect.

These two conditions are necessary to ensure that public policy frameworks become more accommodating to the needs of smallholder farmers, and the organizations that they belong to. The 2 x 2 matrix shown in Table 5.1 represents the possible mixes of variables that can emerge. In the most favourable scenario, represented in the upper-left corner, governments have an incentive to focus on rural interests, and smallholders are sufficiently organized into relevant CSOs to advocate for the set of enabling policies required to turn these policy objectives into develop - ment outcomes. In contrast, the lower-right corner—in which governments do not count the rural poor among their core constituencies, and smallholders are not sufficiently organized to agitate for their interests—is characterized by the traditional status quo in which government frameworks are not oriented towards smallholder/rural interests.

The other two corners represent more mixed outcomes. In the lower- left corner, the situation is one in which the government is interested in rural constituencies, and may even begin providing significant levels of

Table 5.1 Accounting for the emergence of favourable policy frameworks for smallholders

Sources of political support for government

Includes rural poor

Excludes rural poor

Level of organization of smallholders


Policy frameworks oriented towards smallholder farmers and farmers organizations shape the policy objectives and implementation (BEST OUTCOME)

Policy frameworks not oriented towards smallholder farmers Pressure from FOs to shape policy objectives and implementation (HIGH POTENTIAL FOR CHANGE)


Policy frameworks oriented towards smallholder farmers. Pressure from smallholders absent as organizations are absent


Policy frameworks not oriented towards smallholder farmers Pressure from smallholders absent as organizations are absent (TRADITIONAL STATUS QUO)

public investment, but smallholder farmers are weakly organized. In this case, the result may be a lack of translation of policy objectives into outcomes because recipients do not provide sufficient input to ensure policies respond to needs on the ground. The upper-right corner, in contrast, is a less common situation in which the government is not interested in rural constituencies, but these constituencies are organized. This is a situation in which the potential for transformation is high—the underlying organization of rural interests is likely to lead to an increase in their political power and, therefore, a change to the policy orientation over the medium term, depending on the underlying political institutions and regime type.16

The matrix clearly ignores a number of highly salient variables. For example, the schematic completely ignores the availability of assets such as land and other inputs, which clearly matters for transforming a positive policy environment into outcomes. In addition, it ignores the conditions and structure of the private sector.

The political reality is also much more complex, and a number of intervening factors not captured in the schematic are worth elaborating on. First, the interests and role of large landholders/agricultural industry may be in direct conflict with the organized interests of smallholders, making the achievement of change more difficult. Secondly, agricultural policies and government strategy for agricultural growth may focus on larger than average smallholders who are perceived to be more likely to be effective market players. Third, while national governments might have an interest in promoting the interests of smallholders and their organizations, local/ provincial governments may work counter to these goals either purposefully or due to weak capacity to implement and interpret national policies (alternatively, the positive interest and attention of subnational governments may run against national government policy and barriers). The government’s interest may also appear to be strong, but not be backed up by the financing of public goods (a mismatch between intention and action), or the public goods destined for smallholders and their organizations may be misallocated/lost to corruption. It is also possible that rather than relying on public policy frameworks oriented towards smallholders, organized farmers may be able to have what are normally considered to be public goods (infrastructure, education) provided privately or by other types of non-governmental actors (either NGOs or agribusinesses), therefore overcoming the government’s lack of interest in their needs. Nonetheless, the framework illustrated in Table 5.1 helps to explain core political conditions related to the emergence of public policies and their accompanying frameworks oriented towards ensuring policy frameworks work in the favour of RPOs and positive development outcomes.

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