Contextualizing rural development – Amir Hussain

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The writer is a social development and policy adviser, and a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.

Rural transformation can be anything – ranging from diversification of rural economies to a comprehensive change in governance, institutional structure and patterns of food consumption.

At times, it is driven by the urge to move from agriculture to industry as a means of livelihood and hence a process of urbanization. A great deal has been written on rural transformation from the perspective of comprehensive change associated with external factors mostly. External factors like processes of globalization, national policies of structural transformation and introduction of agro-based food supply chains etc, feature as major drivers of rural transformation in the mainstream literature.

The literature provides only a scant analysis about the role of human agency as well as the complex interplay of local institutions in affecting and internalizing the process of rural transformation. Human agency expressed through local participatory institutions has found little attention in the policy and practice of rural transformation programs in the developing countries.

Interestingly, literature on rural transformation policy reduces the idea of rural development to a means of attaining rural transformation with minimal role of local potential as desirable only insofar as it facilitates the externally driven change. From this perspective, rural transformation looks like a mechanical process, predetermined by external factors and it becomes an inevitable one-dimensional process of development. Though the literature discusses at length the varying outcomes of rural transformation programs in different contexts, it does not question the approach and strategy of such programmes while they failed to bring about rural development.

This conventional understanding of rural transformation has strong implications on poverty and underdevelopment in the Global South. It is, therefore, important to critically assess the mainstream development literature as well as its genesis and evolution in a specific political and economic context. The evidence from the last five decades suggests that conventional rural transformation programmes failed to bring about any significant improvement in the socioeconomic conditions of the rural poor. In fact, in most of the cases the reverse has happened as rural economies were intruded with exotic development frameworks which resulted in the rise of poverty and inequality.

In the 1960s, the postcolonial states of the global South adopted two different models of rural transformation. One was inspired by the Western model of growth economics, which focused on diversification of rural economies that catered to an emerging market to reduce reliance on agriculture as primary means of livelihood. It promoted private entrepreneurship and agro food supply chains as opposed to local farming for domestic consumption. A number of cash crops were introduced and agricultural practices were driven by market rather than the nutritional needs of the local population. Application of modern agricultural technology or mechanization of agriculture brought about a green revolution in many developing countries.

However, despite this green revolution, food insecurity and malnourishment in rural areas rose for two reasons. First, production was primarily determined by the market rather than the nutritional needs of the local population. Rural populations increasingly became dependent on non-farming means of livelihood to secure food. In a precarious and undeveloped industrial base, unemployment increased and food insecurity started to take its toll on the rural poor.

Paradoxically, the poor farmers who produced for the market had to purchase food items on higher rates than they could afford in a market-driven mechanism. Furthermore, overuse of pesticides and chemicals degraded the environment and exposed many farmers to serious ailments like cancer. For instance, some studies show that Indian Punjab, which is 1.5 percent of the country in terms of geography, consumes 20 percent of pesticides being used in India exposing people to cancers and renal failures.

In countries like Pakistan, the landless rural poor associated with the traditional agricultural sector as manual workers or sharecroppers were evicted in a productivity driven market based agriculture. In the 1960s, Pakistan was able to increase agricultural productivity manifold and became a leading economy of the region in terms of growth. But within a few years the adverse effects of overuse of land for market-led production started to appear. Dwarf crops introduced for higher yield were input-dependent, including chemical fertilizers, pesticides and seeds. In the course of time, the fertility of land decreased due to use of chemicals and hence agricultural productivity declined significantly.

Two, with trade liberalization the local industries lost their competitive edge and low skilled and manual labour associated with industries became irrelevant in the emerging service industry. The rural poor in Pakistan and many other developing countries were most adversely affected by rural transformation programmes. The idea of rural transformation through the green revolution failed not only in Pakistan, but most other developing countries in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa too. Though increased productivity addressed food shortages for some years, it damaged soil fertility, environment, health and nutrition before land productivity reached its lowest causing food insecurity even worse than the pre-green revolution era.

Strangely, there are studies which shift blame on developing countries for the failure of the green revolution. According to these studies, the failure was partly because of the inability of developing countries to modernize their irrigation system, regularize use of genetically modified crops and failure in improving the agricultural practices so on and so forth. But such studies fail to repudiate the reality of how the use of toxic material caused irreversible loss to soil and biodiversity.

It is, therefore, important to rethink the whole notion of linking green revolution with rural development for the poor of the Global South. It is also important to highlight the alternative models of rural transformation, which were evolved from the Global South and then became one of the most effective approaches to rural development worldwide.

Much has been written about the genesis and evolution of these alternative rural development initiatives, but there is no adequate research to demonstrate their relevance in relation to conventional rural transformation programs. For instance, the emergence of community driven development has its own history of evolution across the developing world but it has not caught the attention of policymakers as an alternative to traditional rural transformation programmes.

The top-down rural transformation programs were predicated upon the assumption that rural development could be triggered only by income diversification and introduction of market-led agro production. The idea failed terribly because it condoned the most important dimensions of rural development ie local organization, indigenous leadership, skills and capital formation.

Encapsulated in the concept of community driven development, these dimensions were identified and applied by Akhtar Hameed Khan and were taken to scale by Shoaib Sultan Khan. Akhtar Hameed Khan founded the Pakistan Academy for Rural Development in 1959 on the outskirts of Comilla town of former East Pakistan to launch his community driven project. His community driven project – which came to be known as the Comilla Model – entailed the transformative idea of the poor being at the center of development.

The Comilla Model was a watershed in the rural development history of the developing world which was implemented in letter and spirit by Shoaib Sultan Khan as the first general manager of the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) in 1982. The journey of rural transformation initiated from then on will be covered in some of the forthcoming articles.

Email: ahnihal@yahoo.com

Twitter: @AmirHussain76