1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Gender and Development

Feminization, Agricultural Transition and Rural Employment (FATE)

  • Project from: 2014 to 2019

The FATE Project is coordinated by the Interdisciplinary Centre for Gender Studies and the Centre for Development and Environment at the University of Bern. The UNRISD Gender and Development Research Team participates as a research partner along with other institutions (see Research Teams below).

About the Project

The production of non-traditional agricultural exports (NTAE) such as delicate spices (ginger, cardamom) or nutritious grains (quinoa) can generate wage labour and stimulate female employment in developing countries. This project analyses the developmental impacts and gendered implications of the growth of export-led agriculture, with a focus on the effects on rural labour markets, wages and the quality of jobs; on women’s empowerment; and on responsibilities in the productive and reproductive spheres. The research also seeks to identify the conditions under which NTAE employment contributes to asset accumulation, and enhanced well-being and capabilities, or, by contrast, greater dependency and vulnerability. It also considers what can be done to mitigate negative outcomes.
See the University of Bern's fact sheet on the project.

The Research Issue in Context

Agriculture is the most important source of employment for men and women in the poorer regions of the globe; 86% of the world’s rural population depends on farming, and according to the FAO 450 million people are agricultural wage workers. Small-scale, subsistence-oriented agriculture is a vital source of resilience and livelihoods: agriculture remains an important engine of rural development and growth, and a critical route out of poverty. However, agriculture in the global South is also considered to be “underperforming”, with calls for more capital-intensive commercial agriculture that promotes forms of employment with higher returns. Non-traditional agricultural exports (NTAE) have been a response to these demands, creating wage labour and, notably, stimulating high levels of female employment in rural areas. The developmental impacts and gendered implications of these dynamics are the subject of this research, which analyses the effects of the increasing integration of rural women into export-led agriculture, and the conditions under which this contributes to asset-building and enhances individual well-being and capabilities, or, by contrast, increases dependency and vulnerability.

While rural employment and women’s work in the agricultural sector have received some attention in research, little evidence exists about the implications of changing employment conditions in the context of this new wave of agricultural commercialization and how it relates to alleged feminization processes in the labour market and other sectors. Research on shifting patterns of agricultural employment and their gendered implications is hampered by a lack of data, particularly on rural women’s employment. This lack is partly due to the fact that these issues lie at the intersection of agriculture and labour concerns, and are not adequately addressed across these two sectors. Indeed, a number of ill-founded and oversimplified assumptions about the rural labour market have shaped the discourse on rural employment and rural workers. In-depth and comparative and longitudinal research is thus needed to inform the debate on these issues.

The gender perspective provides an important analytical lens for assessing how potential risks associated with transitions are spread and negotiated between different social groups, as well as for understanding how such changes affect gender relations and women’s status in society. Based on the concept of intersectionality, the proposed study defines gender as a category which is mediated through other social structures, namely class/caste, generation, and ethnicity.

Research Objectives and Questions

Main objective: Opening up pathways for sustainable rural employment by identifying the social and political conditions under which increased labour market participation of the rural population in export-led agriculture contributes to asset building, and thus to increased well-being and capabilities of women and men.

Overall research question: What are the effects of the increasing integration of rural women into export-led agriculture, and under which conditions do these effects enhance individual well-being and capabilities, open up pathways out of poverty for households, and advance overall social and economic development?

Specific objectives:
  • Mapping the contexts: To investigate the evolution, the extent, the character, and the meaning of NTAE employment for the rural population, and particularly for women from different social classes, castes, and ethnic groups, and to compare them against alternative income-generating opportunities.
  • Assessing the transformative power of economic change: To examine how systems of gender and generation are re- and/or decomposed, and to what extent these changes are empowering or create new forms of dependence and subordination.
  • Governance of the rural labour market: To compare NTAE employment and alternative income-generating opportunities by assessing labour market policies, social services, and the protection of natural resources in terms of their employment outcomes in rural areas where our research is being conducted.
  • Sustainable use of natural resources: To analyse the impact of rural households’ increased wage dependence on the use of natural resources, and thus examine the role of NTAE in modernizing forms of livelihoods, and the trade-offs this implies with regards to the division of labour.

Methodology and Approach

A cross-case comparison adopting a mixed-methods framework will serve to highlight outcomes of NTAE employment for different groups of women (in terms of age, class, caste, and ethnicity) and compare them with alternative income-generating opportunities on individual and aggregate levels.

Four study sites on three continents with different, but highly dynamic trajectories of export-based agriculture were selected from the UN priority category of least developed, landlocked countries: Bolivia, Lao PDR, Nepal, and Rwanda.

Research Teams

Project Management: Dr Sabin Bieri, Centre for Development and Environment, University of Bern

Research Teams:
  • University of Bern: Prof Dr Heinzpeter Znoj (Interdisciplinary Centre for Gender Studies), Prof Dr Ulf Liebe (Department of Sociology); Dr Sabin Bieri (Centre for Development and Environment); Christine Bigler (Interdisciplinary Centre for Gender Studies), Maurice Tschopp (Centre for Development and Environment)
  • Bolivia: Dr Elizabeth Jimenez Zamora, Universidad Mayor de San Andrés
  • Laos: PDR: Dr Saithong Phommavong, National University of Laos
  • Nepal: Dr Bishnu Raj Upreti, Nepal Centre for Contemporary Research (NCCR)
  • Rwanda: Dr Eliud Abucheli Birachi, International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT)
  • UNRISD: Dr Valeria Esquivel, Dr Paola Cagna, Dr Andrea Kaufmann

  • Institute for Statistical, Social and Economic Research (ISSER), Accra, University of Ghana, Ghana
  • FAO, Rural Employment and Poverty Alleviation, Rome, Italy
  • Department of Economics, Vermont University, Burlington, USA

Research Beneficiaries

The findings will feed into debates on the transformative power of economic change induced by globalization, and particularly of the current shifts in rural employment and their effects on multiple forms of disparities which have been seen as hindering development.

By generating original data, the study aims to identify social and political conditions which encourage asset-building and thus help transfer high-value crops into high-value jobs for rural workers. Transdisciplinary in nature, this project will provide evidence-based knowledge for governance – knowledge that can inform negotiations of gender equality in the context of agricultural transition and rural employment, opening up pathways to sustainable development in rural areas.

Outputs and Activities

FATE deploys a comprehensive communication, knowledge transfer and implementation strategy which will include a range of elements. However, our priorities are Partnership Actions for Rural Employment (PARE) as well as the creation of platforms for exchange between different stakeholders.

Knowledge transfer and implementation activities
  • Partnership actions for rural employment (PARE) will bridge research and action. Building on the research results generated in the first three years of the project, these initiatives will be implemented by local actors under the guidance of research staff in the region, primarily PhD students between their first and third years. PARE products may include interactive trainings, participatory codes of conduct, manuals, and formation of interest groups, depending on context-specific needs.
  • Stakeholder workshops: Two sets of stakeholder workshops are planned for each research site; the first will take place shortly after project launch, and the second once the data collection phases and initial interpretation of results have been completed. A third set of workshops is planned for implementation following completion of the longitudinal and comparative assessments.
  • Contributions to international development agendas via relevant UN bodies: The comparative framework will enable us to channel generalized findings into international development agendas. We aim to contribute to upcoming programs related to post-2015 MDG- or SDG-agendas by disseminating our synthesis findings through all relevant channels to which our team has access.
  • Regional and international science–policy events: Regional kick-off events and concluding events will include sessions tailored to professionals, implementers, and policy makers.

Communications activities
  • Blog and project website: Hosted by the University of Bern.
  • Media work: Cooperation with the local media will be encouraged, and media training will be included in the capacity-building workshops.
  • Film: Ethnographic films will initially be employed as a research instrument, and subsequently will also serve as a powerful means of communication.
  • Policy briefs, dialogue papers, information booklets: Scientific publications typically remain within the scientific community. We have therefore also planned other attractive, user-friendly publications to disseminate FATE findings to practitioners, donors, and policy makers.
  • Poster summarizing the research.


The project is being funded by the R4D programme of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) .