Tag Archives: Gordon Conway

Sustainable livelihoods: taking agrarian political economy seriously

My book, Sustainable Livelihoods and Rural Development, has just been published by Practical Action Publishing and Fernwood. It appears in the ‘short books for big ideas’ agrarian and peasant studies series, and tries to offer a readable overview of the key debates, as well as suggesting important new directions. Being short, accessible and on a massive topic that I know quite a bit about, it was very difficult to write, and took quite a while to come to fruition. You can buy it here for a bit of discount at under £10.

It’s based on years of work, much of it in Zimbabwe. Over the past few decades, livelihoods perspectives have become increasingly central to discussions of rural development. They have offered a way of integrating sectoral concerns and rooting development in the specifics of different settings, being centred on understandings of what people do to make a living in diverse circumstances and differentiated social contexts. This has been at the centre of work on livelihoods after land reform in Zimbabwe, as well as my long-term work that preceded this. As I mention in the acknowledgements, the book would not have happened without that experience, and the conversations and interactions with many in Zimbabwe over the past 30 years.

From classic studies of seasonality, livelihood change and vulnerability in the 1980s and 90s, to the presentation of more synthetic frameworks in the 1990s, first from. Robert Chambers and Gordon Conway’s classic IDS discussion paper of 1992 that was followed by my 1998 paper that proposed a Sustainable Livelihoods Framework, based on work on-going at the time with colleagues in Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Mali, and led by Jeremy Swift.

These perspectives contributed to a major change in aid programming and funding approaches, and many agencies adopted various forms of a ‘sustainable livelihoods approach’. There followed multiple responses: huge numbers of studies, consultancies, trainings and communications efforts, as the interest in livelihoods approaches took hold.

But what has happened since? Livelihoods is no longer the buzzword. The fickle faddism of development has been taken over by others since. But the underlying arguments of livelihoods analyses still have relevance, this short book argues. The message is clear: livelihoods approaches are an essential lens on questions of rural development, poverty and wellbeing, but these need to be situated in a better understanding of the political economy of agrarian change. As Henry Bernstein of SOAS, University of London comments, the book “makes a potent argument for reinstating an expansive perspective on livelihoods, informed by the political economy of agrarian change, at the centre of current concerns with overcoming rural inequality and poverty”.

In his review, Simon Batterbury of the University of Melbourne observes: “Nurturing sustainable livelihoods for the poor is not just about recognising their exceptional skill at making a living, which includes diversifying livelihoods, jumping scales, and nesting home places within productive networks, but also mitigating their vulnerability to land grabs, drought and floods, natural disasters, corporate greed and venal politics”. Drawing on critical agrarian and environmental studies, some new questions are posed that challenge and extend earlier livelihoods frameworks.

Four dimensions of a new politics of livelihoods are suggested: a politics of interests, individuals, knowledge and ecology. Together, these suggest new ways of conceptualizing rural and agrarian issues, with profound implications for thinking and action. As Tony Bebbington of Clark University in the US comments, the book “places livelihood thinking in context, explores its applications, explains its limits and – perhaps most important of all – persuades the reader that being political and being practical are absolutely not mutually exclusive options in development, whether writing about it or working within it”.

You can read more comments about the book, check out the table of contents and buy it for a discounted price for a limited time here. I hope it proves useful to researchers, practitioners and students, and helps to revive livelihoods thinking and approaches, in a new more politically oriented guise, for a new generation of research, policy and practice. Let me know what you think!

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland





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Sustainable intensification: a new buzzword to feed the world?

The term ‘sustainable intensification(SI) has entered academic and policy discourse in recent years, including in debates about what to do about agriculture in Zimbabwe. I have been intrigued for some while to find out what it actually means. Is this yet another contradictory hyphenation of two words for political ends, or does it have some substance? Who is driving this debate, and what does it mean for Africa?

A flurry of publications have been produced in the past year or two that use the term, and they provide a good route to finding out a bit more. A high profile article in Science from 2013 offered a definition of SI: “to increase food production from existing farmland in ways that place far less pressure on the environment and that do not undermine our capacity to continue producing food in the future”. The major Montpellier Panel report offer a similar one, defining SI as “producing more outputs with more efficient use of all inputs on a durable basis, while reducing environmental damage and building resilience, natural capital and the flow of environmental services”. Other similar formulations appear in a recent Royal Society collection of papers. No one could disagree with these it seems. Is SI then just what we used to call sustainable agriculture, or is there something more to it?

To answer this, we have to probe a bit further and ask what analytical frameworks underpin the concept and its definition, and what policy narratives flow from it? The Science article, and the Oxford Martin School report which preceded it, situate the challenge in terms of the familiar argument about resource scarcity – of land, water, and resources – in relation to a growing population of 9 billion needing to be fed. This justifies a ‘crisis narrative’ argument that pushes towards a productivist response: more food is needed on less land with less water, requiring new technologies to deliver it.

The challenge is often couched in the well-used metaphor of the ‘perfect storm’, memorably used by the former Chief Scientist in the UK to argue for a global response to impending food shortages, in the build up to the oft-cited 2011 UK Foresight report. In recent years a new version of this narrative, with a new word, has emerged. This is now portrayed as the challenge of ‘the nexus’, where multiple resource constraints come together requiring a particular style of (usually) technical, top-down response.

While no one would argue against improving resource use efficiency and boosting production in sustainable ways, it is the link between this technical challenge and the wider framing of the problem and solution where issues arise. These have been outlined in a recent paper on land issues that I co-authored, but the same arguments could be applied to other resources, and the challenges of agriculture in Africa more generally.

  •  First, we must be careful when proclaiming generic resource scarcity as the driving force for action. My scarcity may be someone else’s surplus: scarcities are always relative, and resource access and distribution is a crucial issue that is not addressed by this narrative.
  •  Second, because scarcities are constructed in policy arenas, there is a political dimension that must be acknowledged. So-called ‘global’ scarcities are very often the consequence of high unequal power relations, skewed consumption patterns and poor resource governance.
  •  Third, a solely technical response through increasing production or efficiency in ways that conserve the environment – often laden with yet more jargon such as ‘climate-smart agriculture’ or ‘conservation agriculture’ – ignores the social and political choices around technology and its direction. A crisis narrative that forces a particular trajectory may restrict debate about alternative choices, and debates about pros, cons, risks and rewards. A good case in point is the promotion of GM crops by certain large corporations in terms of ‘sustainable intensification’ (see last week’s blog).

The advocates of SI are quick to point out that their approach does not promote any particular technology over another. Various declarations reiterate this, and a recent Royal Society publication offers a huge array of different technological solutions under the SI banner. The Montpellier Panel, a group of well-known agriculture experts, are even more explicit. They point out the potential for capture of the term and its politicisation:

“the term “Sustainable Intensification” –– has come to take on a highly charged and politicised meaning, becoming synonymous with big, industrial agriculture. As we strive to feed a population expected to reach nine billion by 2050 sustainably, the risk is that we may lose sight of the term’s scientific value and its potential relevance to all types of agricultural systems, including for smallholder farmers in Africa”

Equally, the Oxford report argues for the need to “deepen and extend understanding of systems interactions”, to “consider and define what specific goals societies wish agricultural production to achieve” and to “develop metrics that will enable societies to measure progress in achieving them”. All good stuff, resonant with long running debates about sustainable agriculture, and discussions on the politics and direction of innovation outlined in the STEPS New Manifesto on innovation, sustainability and development.

Yet in all this warm-sounding rhetoric there is an absence of social and political analysis that undermines the approach. In the late 1980s I joined the recently formed ‘Sustainable Agriculture Group’ at the International Institute of Environment and Development, together with Gordon Conway and Jules Pretty. Our approach to agricultural sustainability was in many ways strikingly similar to the current debate about SI. But with one important difference: people and their livelihoods were central. Our work evolved in concert with debates about ‘sustainable livelihoods’ and participatory approaches to development, and had as a result a very different flavour.

Looking at the long lists of authors of papers and reports on SI there are, beyond a scattering of economists, vanishingly few social scientists involved. This is telling, and reflective of the sometimes naïve perspectives portrayed, about the political and social contexts of these debates. Frequently, a techno-economic determinism dominates, driven of course by a passion and commitment to addressing major challenges, but without the necessary social and policy analysis to make it happen, and avoid it being captured.

Take the diagrammatic representations of the approach by the Montpellier Panel. Here ‘farmers’ and ‘communities’ are put at the centre, but all the action happens around them, seemingly disconnected. Agrodealers represent the market, but the process of sustainable intensification seems to be driven by a technical process. It is all well and good arguing that societal goals are defined, as the Oxford report does, but how can this happen, through what political process? In the terms of the New Manifesto, how are innovation directions set, how are the diversity of options defined, and how are the costs and benefits distributed? These are issues that seem not to be on the table, or at least not in ways that are central.

If SI is to have any meaning beyond a seemingly uncontroversial, hyphenated buzzword, then these are the questions that must be put centre stage. For SI to be anything more than a rather odd collection of technical solutions, then questions of socio-technical choice and direction must be put at the forefront. This means having a political debate, and bringing in people more centrally, something that may jar with the rather bland techno-economic prescriptions offered to date.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland



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Small farms, big farms

There is a classic debate in agricultural economics and development policy about the relative efficiencies of small and big farms. It is centred on what is known as the ‘inverse relationships’ which posits that as farms become smaller they become more productive per unit area, as costs – such as the supervision of labour – get reduced (or at least passed on to cheaper family labour arrangements). The argument is that small farms are the ideal, efficient solution to agricultural production.

Of course there are qualifications – and these are important, perhaps increasingly so in a globalised world. Very small farms, fragmented in different ways, are clearly not ideal, and suffer from many inefficiencies. Yet, what is ‘small’ and ‘very small’ is often not clear in the literature. Equally, there may be economies of scale in certain production-marketing systems, making larger farms more efficient. For example, getting high value products into international markets may mean complying with quality standards which small farmers would find difficult to adhere to.

This discussion remains at the centre of the debate about agricultural development in Africa. The African Union’s Comprehensive Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) makes a strong case for smallholders being at the centre of agricultural growth, as does the Gates-funded  Alliance for  a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). In a new book, Gordon Conway, of Imperial College in the UK, argues that smallholders must be at the centre of strategies to feed 9 billion people.

For decades, then, smallholder agricultural production has barely been questioned as the central pillar for agricultural development in Africa. But now there are some dissenting voices; and influential ones too. In a provocative paper for an FAO meeting on African agriculture in 50 years, Paul Collier – author of the best-seller, ‘The Bottom Billion’, and professor at Oxford University – and Stefan Dercon – now Chief Economist at the UK’s Department for International Development, and a well-respected research economist who has worked extensively in Africa – make the case that the advocacy of smallholder farming was sometimes wildly overblown, often inappropriately romanticised. They argue that the inverse relationship debate was misleading, and did not provide the definitive evidence sometimes supposed for smallholder farming, and that large farms are increasingly the way forward, for some commodities and in some places.

The arguments presented certainly have merit and deserve scrutiny, but they are also potentially flawed in important ways. The arguments for large farms are that economies of scale in today’s globalised world are such that smallholder farming can never really be expected to generate sufficient growth to facilitate the necessary transition out of agriculture into industrial-led growth trajectories. In Africa in particular access to global markets, and so positioning of agriculture near road infrastructure and ports is seen as crucial, if comparative advantages in a highly competitive market setting are to be realised.

Yet the argument ignores some key facts. First, smallholders have been very successful at producing a range of key commodities. In a review for a World Bank study on competitive commercial agriculture in Africa, Colin Poulton and colleagues found that “Large-scale agriculture has proven more competitive in export horticulture, sugar and flue-cured tobacco, whilst smallholders dominate in cotton, cashew and food staples. For tea and burley tobacco there are mixed stories. Second, markets are not all global, governed by highly stringent standards. Niche selling into such markets may offer good returns, but the costs of entry are high. Perhaps better is to produce for growing domestic and regional markets, and here the flexible strategies of smallholders in feeding urban Africa have long been seen to be effective. Third, the negative effects of large scale farming on local economies, food security patterns, environmental conditions and labour and employment conditions are not factored into these arguments. Large scale commercial farming does not have a universally good track-record, frequently resulting in enclave economic operations, with poor labour conditions and high externalities, focusing on single export-oriented crops, leading to negative impacts on the local food economy.

What are the implications of this debate for Zimbabwe? Following land reform, Zimbabwe has a radically reconfigured agrarian structure. Gone is the dualism of the past – with tracts of very large scale farming, separated off from the small-scale farming areas in the communal lands and resettlement. The limited ‘Purchase Area’ land was anomalous, fitting neither model, but not integrated either. Today, we have a huge mix of farm sizes, as Sam Moyo has described. Large-scale farms and estates remain, but the majority is now a mix of small and medium scale farms.

Crucially these are much more integrated, both spatially in terms of their proximity and economically in terms of their connections, of labour, marketing, skill and knowledge transfer and so on. The economic apartheid of the past, divided by racialised social and economic barriers, has given way to a more complex, integrated patchwork. While smallholder farming dominates, it is not the only farm type. It is the mix that is important, which is different in different parts of the country, depending on agroecology, market access, infrastructure and, of course, politics.

Getting to grips with this new farm size configuration, and the implications for economic development is an important challenge. Yet it is one that policymakers have yet to get their heads around. So fixated are people on the small vs large dichotomy, often with an implicit assumption that small is backward and big is better, that the potentials of the new agrarian structure are not being grasped. The small farm populists argue for peasant efficiencies, while the big farm advocates claim business and growth opportunities.

In my view neither is correct. But where the gains are to be had is in the mix: in the economic multiplier linkages between farm sizes, in the capturing of the comparative advantages of different farm configurations, in the growth of district level economies, in the sharing between groups of equipment, skills and knowledge, and in the flexible movement of labour in a certain area. None of these opportunities could be realised in the old dualistic agrarian structure, but today there are many potentials.

But it requires a different mindset: rather than thinking about the ‘ideal type’ farm (small or large), and fixed and outdated notions of what is ‘viable’, we should shift to thinking about processes of economic development based on agriculture in an area. A territorial approach to local economic development, as we argued in our book, is the way forward, and will help us shed the often unproductive and diversionary obsession with farm size.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland


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