Why does farmers’ collective action matters for food security?

24 février 2014
Nora Ourabah Haddad, Team Leader, Producer organizations and Cooperatives,
Office of Partnerships, Advocacy and Capacity Development, FAO

Today, more than 800 million individuals throughout the world still suffer from hunger, the majority of whom are located in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. Despite progress made in the last few years, this figure is truly unacceptable. The fact is that there is enough food to feed the planet.  The main issue is not so much about how much food there is in the world; rather it’s about availability and distribution. This was demonstrated during the recent food price crisis in which both urban and rural populations in many countries faced difficulties in purchasing food of sufficient quantity and quality.

What can be done to overcome this challenge, one of the most pressing that humanity faces today? Many would argue that agriculture needs to reinvent itself and that it is now time to think in a more holistic way, while drawing on lessons from the past and ensuring the sustainability of agricultural models as an unavoidable way forward. In other words, the productivity model, based solely on investing in physical capital regardless of the human, social, or organizational capital, as well as the environmental dimensions, cannot be sustained. This year, the world is celebrating “family farming”, a model which has the potential to provide a viable alternative to the productivity model. However, the family farming sector often suffers from under-productivity due to the various barriers faced by t family farmers and particularly in the developing countries. Therefore, this model can only be effective in achieving food security if family farmers form their own organizations in order to overcome these barriers.  

Farmers’ collective action is key to food security

Farmers’ collective action which translates in the form of cooperatives, producers’ organizations and associations or self-help groups has proven to be one viable solution to achieving food security and eradicating hunger in the world. These organizations, when they are efficient and equitable (that is, inclusive and gender sensitive) are a proven means to increase the productivity of agriculture while responding to social and environmental demands. In this way, such organizations become the expression of jointly owned, democratically controlled and membership-driven enterprises, where generating profit goes alongside satisfying members’ needs and aspirations. In other words, they become organizations at the service of their members.

What are the main motivations that make these organizations contributors to food security?

Evidence shows that through pooling their assets together, bulk purchasing, and developing a common vision and actions around common objectives, small farmers, fisher folk, livestock keepers and forest holders  manage to gain access and adapt to input and output changing markets, access information, knowledge, innovation, natural resources and have a say in policy making. By creating their own organization, stemming from their own initiative, these producers become more strongly equipped to face all kinds of shocks. Their resilience has been demonstrated in times of crisis and in particular during the food price crisis.

And yet, up to the end of the 1980s much has been said about the failure of cooperatives and producer organizations. Who did not hear about ill-functioning organizations, not representing the true interests of the farmers? Who did not come across an article, a paper or a farmer complaining and expressing the loss of faith in cooperatives and what they can provide to their members? Often, these organizations have been considered “empty shells”. And yet, organized agriculture is key to feeding the world.

Beyond past failures

Before going through some of the essential ingredients that lead to successful collective action schemes that are managed and run by the farmers themselves, in the form of organizations, cooperatives, self help groups and the like, let’s look back to analyze the reasons behind their past failure. The period from the 1960s to the 1980s was marked by state-led policies with the creation of organizations, often given the name of cooperatives. Instead of encouraging the farmers, fisher folk, forest holders and livestock keepers to come together on their own initiative, these organizations were formed either under the impulse of the state or the donor community, following a top-down approach. This led to a situation whereby the government had control over the decisions made by the organization and its members. An immediate consequence of this top-down approach was demotivation of the membership, which itself translated in some cases into significant drop outs. The members did not own these organizations; rather they considered them as an extended arm of governments.

Another important factor that explains the failure of these organizations is due to the nature and modalities of external support provided mainly by some donors and non-governmental organizations. Instead of thriving to support organizations so that they become sustainable and autonomous, the latter developed a dependency towards aid. Indeed this support often focused on the technical aspects of organizations instead of looking at longer term issues related to the three dimensions of capacity development (individual, organization and institutional strengthening) including the so-called “soft skill development” such as: strengthening the effective participation of members, developing their managerial and financial skills, enhancing governance and equity aspects of organizations as well as looking at their external environment which impact them (policies, legal framework, incentives, consultation platforms.). Besides, this support was often managed by donors and the development community and not by the organizations themselves.
In brief, these organizations failed when governments, the donor and development communities imposed their agenda, priorities and organizational models as a tool for their own development policies. This is certainly not sustainable.

The need for a “social contract”

The last three decades have seen a withdrawal of public institutions from rural areas, along with a decline of public agricultural expenditure (less than 4% in many African countries). This situation provided an “autonomous space” for farmers and gave rise to a wide range of organizational innovations. Indeed producer organizations, cooperatives, private companies, public-private organizations emerged to fill this void, albeit imperfectly at times. At the same time, recognition of the importance of smallholders to meet growing food needs as the main investors in agriculture, has contributed to a real shift in thinking in terms of organizational development. Many of these organizations are based upon a new organizational approach whereby the smallholders themselves define their own needs, preferences and agenda within their organization. As a result, they develop their own autonomy forming transparent and efficient organizations. Indeed, those organizations that succeeded in becoming more efficient and equitable invested in forming good social and organizational capital bases through the development of three types of relationships: bonding relations among small producers within organizations to build an autonomous capacity, bridging relations through cooperation among similar organizations and, finally, linking with public actors and economic agents.

This shift in thinking and practice in organizational development is a necessary condition for food security but is not on its own sufficient. It should also be based upon a transformation of the relations between member-based organizations (cooperatives, producer organizations and others) with other actors such as the public sector, the development community (including donors). Instead of considering member-based organizations as mere recipients and passive actors, this relationship needs to transform into a win-win partnership whereby the “traditional beneficiaries” become partners on an equal footing. It is only through this transformed relationship that collective action will be able to perform its role of becoming an agent of development alongside other powerful actors (including donors) and decision-makers. Therefore, a new “social contract” is needed to overcome the challenge of securing food needs in the world.


3 commentaire(s)
Cet article touche un élément intéressant ; c’est-à-dire l’importance des regroupements de producteurs pour la sécurité alimentaire dans le monde. Les raisons des échecs connus dans les années 1960 à 1980 ont été bien présentées et sont justes. Mais, je trouve qu’il y a un autre aspect très important, celui du manque d’appui à l’internalisation par les producteurs du concept même de coopérative, ses avantages microéconomiques, légaux et en matière de lobbying vis-à-vis des gouvernants. Aussi, doit-il être internalisé par les autres acteurs (Etats, donateurs, ONG, …) le postulat que j’énonce comme suit : « plus la situation socioéconomique des producteurs agricoles s’améliore, plus le monde bénéficiera d’une agriculture plus productive, durable et résiliente à l’insécurité alimentaire». Pour s’en convaincre, j’invite les lecteurs à lire sur Internet ma thèse de doctorat intitulée « Dynamique de pauvreté et pratiques agricoles de conservation en milieu rural africain. Le cas du plateau Adja au sud Bénin ». Cette thèse à l’issue de laquelle je dégageais une position théorique entre la théorie malthusienne et la théorie boserupienne sur l’incidence de la pression démographique sur le développement agricole, permet de comprendre les freins au développement agricole durable, et donc à la résilience à l’insécurité alimentaire en Afrique. C’est dire que tout le monde a intérêt à travailler à cette l’internalisation du concept de « coopérative » par les producteurs agricoles et à les appuyer dans ce sens. La thèse est disponible en ligne à l’adresse : http://tel.archives-ouvertes.fr/tel-00680042.
Ecrit le 24 février 2014 par : Dr Emile N. HOUNGBO enomh2@yahoo.fr 2883

I subscribe to your comments. Considering their social aim (non profit maximisation objectives), collective agricultural organizations have showed their capactity to propose a different and more sustainable development model. However this model has gone through great critics as it grows and tend to integrate dominant market rules. The partenerships you talk about should also take place with civil society groups/actors in order to make them allied and kind of guardian of the collective organisation purpose. What we need is a much more multistaholder model of collective organisations embedded in their local community.
Ecrit le 24 février 2014 par : Martine Vézina martine.vezina@hec.ca 2885

Au moment où je publie mon commentaire sur le sujet, se tient à la COPACO (Confédération Paysanne du Congo) à Kinshasa un atelier sur la Phase Principale de PAOPA axée sur les services économiques. Comme vous le remarquez, les Organisations Paysannes en Afrique sont confrontés à d'énormes problèmes sur la chaîne de valeur. Malgré les engagements pris par les différents gouvernements africains à Maputo pour augmenter le budget de l'agriculture jusqu'à 10%, rien n'est fait. Ceci entrave toutes les tentatives de voir l'agriculture aller de l'avant. Il faut d'abord que ces engagements soient respectés avant de tenter de faire autre chose. Ir Hubert NDOLO
Ecrit le 28 février 2014 par : Ir Hubert NDOLO hkndolo@hotmail.fr 2873

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