Rural governance that works

Food Security19 Mar 2013John Coonrod

Private sector and value-chain development will not contribute to poverty reduction without accountable, effective, inclusive rural governance. Economic development yes, poverty reduction no.

Food security is never simply a matter of food or farming. It lies at the center of a nexus of issues including health, education, nutrition, water, sanitation, environmental sustainability, transportation, energy and markets. In short, people need an integrated package of services that is the responsibility of rural governance.

Without a well-organized rural population with accountable, effective, inclusive rural governance, there is very little likelihood that the private sector and value-chain development will contribute to poverty reduction. Economic development yes, poverty reduction no.

One of the key reasons that rural communities remain impoverished, particularly in Africa, is that they are too small to exert meaningful political demand and organize an effective interface to the large economy. Health, education and agricultural extension services may be available at the district headquarters, but small-scale farmers cannot reach them. In a rights-based framework, the issue should never be “reaching the poor” – the point is for the poor to be able to reach the services – to take control over their own lives and destiny.

Strong decentralization is a must, with real devolution of services and resources.

Communities need to be big enough to manage local services, yet small enough for a woman farmer with her baby on her back to reach those services, know the local leaders and hold them to account. We’ve found the right size is a cluster of perhaps a dozen villages, with a radius no more than 10km and a population of 5,000-15,000 people. (In THP-Africa, we call these “epicenters” – see

Once the size is right, people need a participatory system of local governance that is accountable to local people, can access sufficient resources and decision-making authority to solve local problems, and a structure that guarantees the voice of women and is able to develop long-term plans.

Country-led strategies need to create an enabling environment for community-led strategies that work. In Mexico, for example, local elections happen every three years and re-election is not permitted. This makes long-term planning impossible. Mexico does have a strategy to address this through local multi-sectoral planning councils in which government is one player among many – a great idea that needs to be implemented.

The lack of public resources at the grassroots levels is a scandal. In 1993, UNDP recommended that grassroots-level government should command at least 20% of public resources. In China, that level has 70%. In India, it has only 5%. In Africa, there often is no government at the 10km level.

Claudio Schuftan on this blog (February 12) has noted that policies must maximize social mobilization, and we agree 100 percent. Traditional rural societies often have long histories of communal voluntary labor, and this can be the greatest resource available. Communities we work with train cadres of committed, volunteer “animators” – often who specialize in literacy, health, gender or agriculture – and become an outreach army for thinly stretched government workers, who in turn are coordinated by local community sectoral subcommittees. A paid extension worker cannot possibly reach thousands of remote small-holder farmers with improved techniques, but a well-mobilized community always can.

The only sustainable governance structure is a legally mandated one. NGOs and donors have done democracy a terrible disservice by taking the shortcut of creating parallel structures – community management committees for various projects that are not integrated with the local government structure. This undermines sustainable, accountable local self-governance. If the local structure doesn’t work, we should all support advocacy efforts to fix it.

Participatory local democracy is more than elections. It is a dynamic process between elected representatives and grassroots civil society. Youth, women, farmers, herders, traders, all need their own associations with the freedom to set their own priorities and fight for them through deliberative local processes. A key role for civil society, nationally and internationally, is to invest in these people’s associations – a tradition that has fallen off in recent years.

As humanity grapples with the Post-2015 development agenda, we need to make it an agenda that communities can achieve. This was a huge shortcoming of the MDGs – they were never localized. There is a strong likelihood that good governance will be part of the Post-2015 agenda – and we are pushing for good local governance as a goal. The recent governance thematic conference in South Africa held a round-table on this subject, and we call on all actors to chime in loudly on this subject. (See