Government and small-scale agriculture: understanding the successes and failures in respect of learning, planning and implementation

The South African government embraces rural development as a national priority, and within this identifies the need to promote food security and rural livelihoods through small-scale agriculture, particularly within the former homeland areas. This position makes eminent sense: there is both a dire need and vast potential, for a more vibrant small-scale farming sector.

 However, this unrealised potential also reflects our collective, inadequate record over the past two decades (and longer) in promoting small-sale farmers. Despite significant increases in expenditure on support to small-scale farmers, too few people benefit from these interventions. Most smallholders are below the poverty line, many subsistence producers are still food insecure, and vast stretches of arable land in the former homelands of Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, and Mpumalanga, remain under-utilised. And yet, there is little agreement as to why, and just as little as to ‘what to do about it’.

 This research project is inspired in large measure by the idea made popular by David Korten regarding the role of the ‘learning organisation’ in rural development. Korten’s insights from 30 years ago sound poignantly current where South Africa’s small-scale farmer development processes are concerned:

 “In hindsight, the results [of governments’ and donors’ various rural development initiatives] seem quite predictable…. It remains the rule rather than the exception to see in development programming: a) reliance, even for the planning and implementation of ‘participative’ development, on centralized bureaucratic organizations which have little capacity to respond to diverse community-defined needs or to build on community skills and values; b) inadequate investment in the difficult progress of community problem-solving capacity; c) inadequate attention to dealing with social diversity, especially highly stratified village social structures; and d) insufficient integration of the technical and social components of development action.”

Broadly speaking, the development literature since Korten has recognised the distinction between the ‘blueprint approach’ and the ‘process approach’, where the former involves centralised planning and often frustrated attempts to implement, while the latter is a more people-centred, bottom-up approach. The point is not necessarily that one approach is always better than the other (moreover, the advantages of hybrid approaches are also recognised), but that in certain contexts or for certain tasks there may be good reason to lean in favour of one over the other. The premise of this study is that current approaches to promoting the small-scale farming sector in South Africa appear to be tilted too far towards the blueprint end of the spectrum. Moreover, the issue is not just government policy, but the ‘readiness’ of small-scale farmers themselves to seek their development on different terms. As the quote from Korten above suggests, one reason a more process-oriented approach is urgently needed is because the challenges that small-scale farmers face can best be overcome by means of their own problem-solving skills; but when the rigid blueprint approach prevails, the problem-solving capacity is not harnessed, never mind cultivated. At the same time, the blueprint approach also inhibits the implementers themselves from learning, adapting, and in fact listening.

The study seeks to provide evidence in hope of facilitating a more balanced approach. In short, the study will carefully describe and analyse current practices among small-scale farmers, among associations/groups that serve and represent small-scale farmers, and within government, and reveal whether and how they inhibit learning and problem solving, among other things. In addition, it will seek to demonstrate alternatives through active engagement with farmers’ associations and, if possible, local-level officials who are meant to support small-scale farmers. The vision for the participatory processes that will characterise this aspect of the study, is broadly sketched out by Korten in his discussion of the role of social scientists in improving how we do rural development: “The task is to make a demystified social science available as every person’s tool, turning agency personnel, and in some instances the villagers themselves, into more effective action researchers….”

The study began in July 2015 and will carry on for 18 months.

The study is funded through the Programme to Support Pro-poor Policy Development  (PSPPD), which is situated within the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation. The ultimate funder is the European Union.

Reference: D. Korten, 1984, “Rural Development Programming: The Learning Process Approach”, in In D. C. Korten and R. Klauss (eds.), People-centred Development: Contributions Toward Theory and Planning Frameworks, Kumarian Press, West Hartford, Connecticut.