Why Rural Development has failed

Why traditional approaches to rural development have failed to improve the living conditions of many in rural areas

 Definition of rural development

Rural development has traditionally been seen as a correction to underdevelopment.  Underdevelopment is seen as a lack of things – knowledge, skill, investment and services for example.  Development is then understood as a requirement for more education, training, funding and material goods.  To measure underdevelopment, indicators such as GNP (Gross National Product) and GDP (Gross Domestic Product) are used and compared to declare countries and areas as developed, developing, less developed and least developed.

 This does not fully explain the reasons why countries remain under developed.  It suggests that under development is a passive state out of which people and nations, given enough resources can climb steadily upwards and out of poverty.  However, in many countries, people are actively experiencing underdevelopment where they are made poorer by exploitation by wealthier and more powerful  individuals or organisations. When workers find inflation is higher than their annual wages increase however many hours they do, or growers who find that the prices they get for their cash crops never cover the cost of growing them, there is a process of impoverishment.  This can be caused by a deliberate exploitation of the poor by the rich and the weak are made increasingly dependent on the strong and powerful.  Therefore, it can be argued that underdevelopment is an active process of dependency rather than a straight forward lack of resources.

 If underdevelopment is seen as a simple “lack of things”, then the temptation is to provide relief – such as clothes, food hand outs etc or attempt to “modernise” a practice that is perceived as outdated.  Viewed as a process where some people are made poor on a continuing, active basis, then the need would be to reorganize society and change structure so that power and resources are redistributed in a fairer way.

 Why has rural development failed?

Conventional approaches to rural development by agencies such as FAO, UN and the FADMA project in Nigeria have been to increase food output.  This had been assisted through agricultural research stations and also an attempt at institutional change such as land reform and resettlement schemes. 

Previous research and development has tended to focus on areas that have high potential – fertile areas, products for export, industry or for urban markets which benefit the larger, wealthier and more powerful farmers with the resources to buy the technology and inputs required.

Much of the research carried out has not been available or suitable for the majority ordinary small farmer.

The focus of research on single commodities is not beneficial to a wholistic farming approach.  Single crops have been emphasised in isolation without taking into account production aims, risk spreading and access to external inputs such as fertiliser, water and seed.

Agricultural programs have historically disregarded environmental effects such as deforestation to create land for growing and flooding areas for irrigation schemes.  Soil conservation is now more widely considered.

Local resources and  traditional methods of growing have been viewed as outdated and research has neglected rain fed crops such as sorghum, millet and cassava as well as small animals like goats and sheep.

Most development processes have had a gender bias towards men who were thought to grow the crops whilst women raise the children.  This is not typical of most villages in Africa  – the women grow the food crops and take the children with them.  In strict Islamic countries, increased commercialisation alienates women who are excluded from the markets and from driving tractors.

The emphasis on research carried out in institutions and research stations does not always accurately reproduce field conditions.  Traditional methods and local crop varieties have been ignored or overlooked with an emphasis on Western style agriculture and economics.

A top-down approach to project planning which disregards the needs and desires of the local populations often lead to project failure.  There is a need for locals to “buy-in” to a scheme and feel involved.

 Personally, I have seen schemes that have failed through corruption and greed – the sight of 50 tractors in a field because they were supplied without essential working parts to reduce the cost is a criminal waste.

Development has been described as just another opportunity to break a new market and create a need for consumerism. To an extent, that is true – a farm project starting in Nigeria requires workers who then buy mobile phones for example and a new market is created.  The trick is to ensure you don’t create any inflation of food or fuel prices that could cause suffering to the local population. 

Rural development should be encouraged with an emphasis on training and empowerment of locals so they can pass on the skills and take control of their futures.

For other articles on rural development and tropical agriculture click here

Written by Fiona Johnson

March 2012