This document has been made available in electronic format by the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) 

Bridging government initiative and people’s participation in rural development (1998)

Oct., 1998
(Source: Co-op Dialogue, Vol. 8, No. 2, July-Sept, 1998, pp.6-12)

Bridging government initiative and people's participation in rural development
Prof. J.M. Gunadasa, Professor, Department of Geography, University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka

1.  Government Initiative

Under the  capitalist economic system introduced by the colonial rulers, tradition bound rural people were made to be ambitious and individualistic in attitude and outlook.

Opportunities for social and economic advancement as individuals were made available by changing the social and economic systems. Result is competition for self advancement notwithstanding the welfare considerations of others.

Justification for promoting this system is the assumption that, increased competition would eventually lead to increase of efficiency as well as promotion of the common good, as otherwise the competitors would not be able to remain in competitive wealth accumulating enterprises. Let alone the poor developing countries  this assumption however, has not materialised despite state intervention even in the capitalist economies themselves.

It is too late for any developing country to turn back to their traditional economic and social systems. Capitalist structures have spread all over the world, and social and economic systems of developing countries have got entrenched in them. This position has been and is being reinforced by the development of transport and communication and international trade. Within  such an overpowering international social and economic system, what should be the solution to the problems of exploitation and impoverishment of the large majority of helpless masses living in the rural areas of developing countries?

Although there could be other possibilities, as it has been hitherto identified, there is  no escape from the fact that, the most fundamental elements of rural development designed to improve the living conditions of the poor have to be brought about through state intervention (Rondinelli & Ruddle, 1978,82)

The basic difference in the new approach to state intervention however, should be the place given to it in national development. Rural development in developing countries should form part and parcel of the national development process receiving no less emphasis than any other national development objective (Roudinelli & Ruddle, 1978,2).

What is required is to perceive rural development not as a sectoral exercise of poverty alleviation among the rural poor, but as a comprehensive exercise designed to transform rural economies so that they would be equipped with the means to generate incomes, employment and facilities needed by the rural people to lead the lifestyles of their choice. However. looking at the things done in the name of rural development in the past, it is imperative that a major state intervention of this nature needs to be based on a clear conception of rural development and its implications.

2. Rural Development
‘Rural Development’ is a very commonly used term in the development literature as well as in policy making and implementation by both governments and non-governmental bodies. It has been defined in many ways, ad hence indiscriminately too. As a result what it should  actually mean has become blurred.

Some say that a precise definition of it cannot be given as it has been widely and liberally used. Even among scholars and technocrats who speak eloquently about rural development there is vagueness as to what it precisely means. Needless to say that it has become still more nebulous a term that baffles the imagination of the rural people.

Rural Development is used as  so abstract and variable a concept that, neither rural people nor the outsiders who attempt to promote their welfare are able to comprehend and visualise in concrete terms either the complicated process of change or the end state of change implied by it.

Moreover, the series of changes that have to be made to various components of rural life are so numerous and complex, it is not so easy to imagine that the final outcome is going to be. Often the end-result as well as the time horizon of achieving it appears to be indeterminate. This is particularly so in rural environments where outcomes are highly unpredictable owing both physical and institutional conditions. Policy made and implemented without a clear focus tends to be diffused, diluted and ineffective. It is not surprising therefore, that traditional interventionist approaches to rural development have fallen short of expectations though many explanations are given.

Although the notion of the development in the sense of desirable change is a generally acceptable one, all the changes that take place when an interventionist process is started may not be generally acceptable or equally desirable.

Development as an interventionist process sets in motion many expected as well as unexpected changes which are perceived and valued in different environments, or by the same groups of people living in different environments at different stages of the development process. When more food is produced in a locality where people do not have enough food to eat the change brought about in increasing the food supply is a generally acceptable one.

But other changes, such as the use of agro-chemicals or the destruction of natural vegetable to bring more land under cultivation, may neither be generally acceptable nor equally desirable. Therefore, it is not possible to have any specifically fixed notion of development, if it is meant to be a process and end state desirable and acceptable to the people who have to go through such change and face its consequences.

In reality it is not possible to have only desirable changes; and more particularly so to have them all the time. Though change is an objective concept. desirability is not ;  it is subjective and conditioned by the valuation system of those who perceive and assess it. Often in interventionist approaches to rural development , both perception and assessment of change, are neither comprehensive nor reflective of the valuation system of the people for whom development is designed.

People who identify the end result as well as the process of change that should be created to achieve it, normally happen to be outsiders who know that they do not have to go through the proposed change or its consequences; in addition they have a totally different valuation system too. In them, while the compulsion to be comprehensive in the perception and assessment of the implications proposed change is greatly reduced, the enthusiasm to impose decisions based on their own valuation system,  which is often unrepresentative of the rural people’s aspirations, tends to be greatly enhanced. An interventionist process fraught with these attributes can hardly be regarded as a humane or democratic rural development process.

Success in achieving whatever transformation implied by the term rural development depends on the continued pursuit of an appropriate policy spanning over a period of at least two to three decades.

Appropriateness of policy and the way in which it should be implemented, however, cannot be identified unless both the policy makers and the  implementors have a definitive notion of the kind of change that is intended to be brought about in the name of rural development. Therefore despite the difficulty involved, what ought to be meant by rural development has to be defined at least for the benefit of two groups of people: the practitioners and the rural people who are subjected to the process.

To start with rural development may be defined as an interventionist process leading to a sustainable improvement in the standard of living and welfare of the people living in rural areas.

According to such a definition  rural development is firstly, a process involving a cumulative and continuing change of a number of interactive components. A change that brings about an improvement in only a single component such as health or education cannot be taken as development; it is only a change in one of the many components that must be activated to create a development process.

Similarly, a process of change that brings about a short lived improvement in the standard of living of the rural people cannot be regarded as development.

Various programmes of governmental and foreign assistance produce such changes, but they cease to be operative with the withdrawal or stoppage of assistance. For a process of change initiated to be developmental it should be self-sustaining.

Rural development in so far as the developing countries are concerned therefore, has to be regarded as a process of continued change initiated and stimulated through government intervention for the explicit purpose of improving the depressed living conditions of the rural people on sustainable basis in a manner consistent with their aspirations and value system so that they cease to become dependent in the determination of their level and direction of advancement.

3. Objective and Approach
While the objectives and goals of rural development can vary depending on cultural valuations and political perspectives they should in general comprise three areas of achievement (1) improvement of living standards of the rural poor, (2) availability of access to resources, facilities and means of production that bring about the improvement of their living standards, and (3) the existence of opportunity for the rural poor to play a participatory role in determining the course and the end result  of development and also for the management of this process.

Appropriateness of the approach to implement rural development, as a major component of national development, depends primarily on its ability to address the problems of rural areas through a major interventionist approach. Such an approach, should also incorporate within it measures designed to win back the confidence and cooperation of the rural people who have been subjected to many years of disenchanting experimentation. In this regard the provision of opportunity for the rural people to take part in the identification and choice of both the process of change and its end result seems to be of crucial importance.

Implicit in an approach, where a significant role is assigned to people’s participation in charting out the course of change in the rural areas, is the assumption that rural people are a homogeneous group. This is normally over-stretched to gloss over certain  divisive and conflicting forces that remain dormant until an interventionist process is initiated .

Though there is some homogeneity among rural people in a given area in terms of their standard of living, there are also remarkable distinctions among sub-groups within rural society on the basis of caste, class, ethnicity, religion, land ownership and political allegiance. Any interventionist process tends to activate these sub-group distinctions giving rise to divisive forces and conflict situations. The resulting disruption, if not avoided and managed properly, can bring about results that are just the opposite of what is expected of the development process.

In view of the sub-group distinctions, rural development, cannot be treated as a simple target  group-oriented interventionist approach. It must be a process that cuts across the entire spectrum of rural life. Rural people in general should be able to participate in that process along with outsiders who are acceptable to them. To motivate them from an encompassing process of change in their life, someone has to identify and conceptualise the kind of life style the rural people in a give locality wish to lead in the short, medium and long terms.

Mentality of rural people is such that they are normally, averse to sudden and too much change within short periods. Past interventionist approaches appear to have been to ambitious. Changes planned in them, apart from being alien to their way of thinking and collective action, are more compatible with the aspirations and mental attitudes of the elitist outsiders.

In a traditional rural society, where group consciousness is greater and society is structured on rigid institutional arrangements such as caste, ambition to be more affluent than others has no place. By acquiring wealth alone one belonging to a lower social group would not be able to acquire a higher social status.

Within s group the accepted social norm is the collective welfare and cooperative effort for the protection of the entire group: an individual apart from the group has neither protection nor status (Galli, 1981). In traditional rural societies therefore, exploitation does not exist. If impoverishment takes place as a result of population growth it would be equitably distributed and shared. However, impoverishment due to population increase in them does not  become a serious problem as the increased number of people are compelled by the social conventions to become active members of the production team.

What this arrangement amounts to is that, in traditional rural societies almost always there appears to have been a balance between growth and equity in the interest of the individuals as well as of the group as a whole. This is a principle that has to be incorporated in modern rural development strategies; because the rural societies of almost all the developing countries today are in various stages of transition from their traditional state to modernity.

Apart from the continuity of the remnants of tradition in some form or other, the rural people are also conscious of their right  to enjoy at least a reasonable part of the fruits of development in the short term itself.

An approach to rural development the principles and requirements discussed above can be identified in terms of four main components: (1) Organisation of space economy (2) promotion of investment activity (3) enlistment of people’s participation, and (4) creation of institutional mechanisms.

3.1 Organisation of Space Economy
The term space economy here is used to mean the particular pattern of location of economic activities and population distribution and the form of interaction among them in a country’s geographical space. Development taken as a process brings about the specialization and thereby  the increasing need for interaction among locations and different groups of people.

The greater the development the greater is the need for such specialization and interaction. This process results in the spatial manifestation of centres of activity which together produce a network of economic and social relations having a hierarchical pattern covering the entire space.

In developing countries the space economy in the above sense is not fully developed. There are areas and centres which are not connected to any part of the overall network. The task of development is to create the necessary conditions for such areas to be to a national network, while straightening the development of whatever network that already exists. Viewed from this perspective, the new approach to rural development consists primarily of two parts: (1) identifying the evolving centres of activity having the potential to function as nodes of hierarchy of the national network of social and economic interactions, and (2) creating the conditions that lead to interactions between them and their hinterlands and also among them.

Centres of a national network of economic and social interactions have to be identified by means of an assessment of the balance between travel time and frequency of interaction needed on the demand side, and the viability of the economic space surrounding any given centre with which its hinterland and other centres interact.

Although there is a body of theory which deals with this problems it is not necessary to use such sophisticated analysis, and it would eventually have to depend on many assumptions to come up with a solution. For practical purposes it is sufficient and reliable enough to get guidance from the locational pattern of the already existing centres.

3.2 Promotion of Investment
Means of promoting the development of centres after their identification consist of firstly, making public investments by the government and secondly, by inducing private investors to start  enterprises in and around the selected centres.

Public investments should be focused mostly on the building of physical infrastructure both in and around the centres and on a nationwide scale so that the central and region-specific facilities would be connected to a well laid out national grid. Roads, electricity, water, health and sanitation, education, postal and telecommunications facilities, and administrative services comprise the specific components of such public investments.

Within the basic framework of public investments, the government should devise various policy instruments to attract private investments to the selected centres on a discreet basis, to both stimulate agricultural production in the hinterlands of the selected centres and also to generate new employment opportunities through industrial production and provision of services in and around the centres, so that they are able to use the excess rural labour along with other resources available in the respective regions.

This, of course, entails two other areas of public investments: (1) research to discover ways and means of using local resources, and (2) training and retraining of rural labour to meet the demand for skilled and semi-skilled labour by the new industrial and service enterprises that are induced to come into selected centres.

`Inducements to private investors in and around the selected centres in the respective regions may have to be identified and formulated in two separate integrated packages; one for the entrepreneurs who are going to make investments in industries and services; and the other for the different groups of rural people living around the centres and engaged in agricultural an other forms of primary production.

Tax concessions, facilities for import and export trade, special loan arrangements, good infrastructure facilities and preferential treatment in transacting business with them by the government and the normal components of the package of inducements extended to attract industrial and service ventures to new centres.

The package of inducements that should be extended to rural areas should focus on the improvement of the supply and marketing services dissemination of information and direct intervention wherever necessary to provide the poor farmers and landless labourers with adequate land, capital, inputs and technological know-how to show a positive response to the evolving market demand in the region, country or outside by using the local resources to their maximum capacity. Some of the poor farmers and landless labourers can be diverted for employment in the  industrial and service sectors by providing training and special investment facilities.

3.3 Creation of Institutional Mechanisms
The promotion of investment activity as discussed above necessities the development of an efficient institutional system. The strategy in respect of that should be to allow it to evolve in response to the need felt by the rural people and the entrepreneurs. Specialists must be appointed to regional and rural development bureaus, that should be established at selected regional centres. They should be specially trained personnel who are prepared to and having the skill and disposition to learn and think in the light of the of the people who face and aspire to have solutions acceptable to them.

A development fund should be allocated to each of the rural development bureaus by pooling all resources explicitly made available for rural development in the respective regions. That fund may be administrated by the banks and rural institutions like the cooperatives. Moneys from the fund may be made available to anyone venturing out to make investments within the region to promote agricultural and industrial development using local resources, increasing incomes and generating employment opportunities.

Funding must be tied to the capacity of investments to bring in these benefits. Investors who qualify in this respect should be provided with funds as well as other facilities on specially favoured terms to make the investments in the region attractive not only to them, but also to the prospective entrepreneurs.

International bodies concerned with rural development in the developing countries can assist this process of rural development by linking their aid packages to chosen investments in the selected centres. The aid they provide could be extended beyond financial resources to include technical assistance for production, marketing, research and training.

3.4  People's Participation
The government may make investments without giving much consideration for the financial profitability of ventures, though not without any limitations. It is unthinkable however, that private entrepreneurs, who include the rural people, would do so unless they can expect financial profits from such investments. No government would be able to successfully provide all the services and facilities that rural people need without involving them also as actively participating entrepreneurs.

How effectively can the rural people then function as a group to give expression to the type of change they desire, and work towards its realisation? Guidance for this may have to be sought from the way voluntary organisations of the rural people function to accomplish objectives identified on their own.

Many rural communities have voluntary  organisations set up by the rural people themselves for various purposes such as to conduct of religious activities, extension of assistance in instances of death and provision of capital on a rotational basis: there is no intervention from outside for any of these purposes.

In all instances of voluntarily organised collective action by the rural people, the starting point is the identification of a commonly felt need through direct experience, observation and discussion. It is followed almost simultaneously by an assessment of consensus and commitment and an identification of a generally acceptable leadership to initiate collective action.

When people get together formally, almost everyone has been already briefed by persons know to each other about the general  purpose of the meeting. In other words when they come for a meeting of this nature they have made up their mind regarding the change that they are collectively trying to bring about in their community.

Formal meeting of a voluntarily organised collective action by the rural society is not a forum where its objective is debated; all that has been cleared earlier at informal discussions people have had over a period of time, when they had enough opportunity to feel beyond doubt the need and usefulness of the objective they are trying to achieve.

A formally organised meeting is convened to map out the course of action and the procedures, and also to select persons who should be assigned the responsibility of carrying out the functions needed to achieve the objective. Death donation societies, religious societies and other types of voluntary organisations in rural communities display amply the effectiveness of this process.

Why then has this same process not got activated to bring about the kind of change that is implied by the term rural development when governments have used organisations like cooperatives for this purpose.

To find answers to this question and develop strategies to enlist people’s participation, on a basis similar to the functioning of the voluntary organisations in rural societies, emphasis has been placed on ‘grassroots’ decision making in the  control and direction of social change at the local community level.

Conventional village surveys arenot the best mans for this. Intensive dialogue with rural people by maintaining empathy with them over a period of time may be a better way to gain insights into the new  approaches needed. Such exercises should invariably be carried out for the additional objective of identifying and training rural people capable of spearheading rural development programmes as rural people movement, and not simply as a government investment programme or even as a peripheral programme of an aid-dependent non-governmental organisation

An approach to rural development as outlined above encompasses both overall national development and rural development as an integrated process having a direct and positive commitment of the government. Moreover, it affords the opportunity for people to participate actively in a process of change stimulated by the government, but adapted to suit the specific conditions and aspirations of the people living in different areas.

It also would afford the opportunity for all persons in rural areas to participate and benefit from the development process without being subjected to a discriminatory process, as promoted by the target group approach followed since the disappointing results of the first development decade.