Agriculture and rural development reconsidered

Debates over the future of smallholders remain central across the developing world, writes Steve Wiggins 

Finding policies for farmers marginalised either by their lack of land, water and other assets 
or by their remote locations, remains a pressing need writes Steve Wiggins in his newest paper.©IFAD/Guy Stubbs

In 2001, Development Policy Review published a special edition edited by Caroline Ashley and Simon Maxwell, that reviewed the state of agricultural and rural development at the turn of the new century.

The synthesis of the papers, Ashley & Maxwell 2001, was much cited in the ensuing years. It argued, above all, that rural areas were increasingly less agricultural and economically more diverse. Some interpreted it to mean that agriculture could be more or less ignored.

Times have changed since 2001. So this essay looks at what has changed in the intervening decade-and-a-half and what the policy implication may be. The primary focus is Africa, based on a collection of dozen papers commissioned to review experience in that continent; but has been widened and complemented by reviews of Asia and Latin America — thanks to IFAD’s support.

The result is this paper, "Agricultural and rural development reconsidered: A guide to issues and debates." It’s a think piece, both selective and wide-ranging, covering many issues. Rather than try and condense 40 pages into four paragraphs, here are points, some surprising, that stand out.

1. Surprise: since 2000 in Africa broader appreciations of rural development, prevalent at the turn of the century, have been largely supplanted by a narrower focus on agricultural development. 

Moreover, the spotlight falls on higher productivity, by closing yield gaps, and by promoting more commercial farming. Former interests in livelihoods, poverty and equity, have taken a back seat.

2. Views over the future of Africa’s smallholders diverge. 

Some argue that the continent needs to foster larger-scale farming since that will raise output, productivity most effectively and efficiently, thanks in large part to large farm access to capital and know-how. Others, including most development partners, argue that smallholders can invest, innovate and produce efficiently — if given the opportunity. But to realise this promise, failings in rural markets for inputs and finance must be overcome. That may be through direct state action; although collective and private institutional innovations may be cheaper and more sustainable.

Finding ways to overcome rural market failures will determine, as much as any other single factor, the future of rural Africa. Will agriculture be dominated by large farms with the majority of the population subsisting on micro-holdings — as so often seen in Latin America?

Or will the land be operated in productive, intensive small family farms — as applies in much of Asia?

3. Those who focus on low-income countries in Africa risk getting a limited view of rural change across the developing world. 

Asia and Latin America present very different perspectives. Much of Southeast and East Asia now has falling rural populations, a fact that contributes to rising rural wages. Despite the transformation of economies in both Asia and Latin America from agrarian to urban, the peasantry is remarkably persistent — and especially surprisingly so in the fast-growing economies of Southeast Asia: farm households are simply not leaving the land to the extent that might be expected given urbanisation.

4. The success of conditional cash transfers in Latin America has been a welcome development in a region where poverty and inequality have for so long seemed intractable problems. 

They account in no small degree for the surprising, but very welcome falls in income inequality seen since the 1990s.

To conclude, three issues stand out:

One, debates over the future of smallholders remain central across the developing world, although with differing emphases. In Africa, the critical point is to relieve the failings of markets for inputs and financial services. Across all regions, differences between smallholders are considerable, if not always fully recognised. Finding policies for farmers marginalised either by their lack of land, water and other assets or by their remote locations, remains a pressing need.

Two, rural areas are becoming more economically more diverse, while ever more linked to urban economies. Can, and should, governments shape these changes, beyond making sure they supply rural public goods and addressing the failures of rural financial services?

Just because circumstances are diverse and processes are multiple and complicated, does not — whatever most consultant reports may argue — mean that policy has to be equally diverse and complicated.

Even if some challenges of agricultural and rural development are complicated and complex, much has been achieved by relatively straightforward and standardised measures such as roads, power, education, primary health care, water and cash transfers.

Such ‘blunt instruments’ can do much good, including in making progress on more complex matters such as gender equity. We need these straightforward investments and programmes, just as much as we need adaptive learning about complex problems (‘Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation’).

Three, what of the political economy of agricultural and rural development? In the past, analyses have been gloomy: policy has been biased against farmers and rural areas thanks to the naked self-interest of more powerful urban groups (Bates, Lipton).

Today, however, new ideas prevail, based on interpretations of the experience of development states of Southeast and East Asia. These stress the importance of building a development consensus among elites, fueled by ideas, rather than self-interest.

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Steve Wiggins is the Research Fellow, Agricultural Development and Policy, at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI). Wiggins has been studying and working on agricultural and rural development in Africa and Latin America since 1972.


"Agricultural and rural development reconsidered: A guide to issues and debates" is the first paper from a new IFAD research series that aims to spark debate around critical global issues that affect smallholder agriculture and rural development. Learn more here.