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The Challenge of Political Empowerment

24 Mar 2012

  • Author(s): Peter Utting
  • Source: http://www.capacity.org/capacity/opencms/es/topics/value-chains/the-challenge-of-political-empowerment.html

The Challenge of Political Empowerment
Economic empowerment must be complemented by political empowerment
In the struggle over ideas in the development arena, terms that are associated with more radical perspectives are often picked up by mainstream actors and organisations. And this has been the case with ‘empowerment’. But such mainstreaming can cause original meanings to be modified or become obscure. From the perspective of strategies that aim to improve the well-being of small-scale farmers, there are various risks inherent in the way the term ‘empowerment’ has been taken up by international and bilateral development agencies.

Such agencies increasingly emphasise the importance of economic empowerment. However, unless accompanied by the access to resources and opportunities that foster political empowerment, a focus solely on economic empowerment runs the risk of misreading the causes of poverty – and will prove wanting as a poverty reduction strategy.

Economic empowerment
The turn towards economic empowerment should be welcomed as an important adjustment to past policies, which often neglected small-scale agriculture and focused too narrowly on the roles that social protection and safety nets play in poverty reduction strategies. Economic empowerment also seeks to address the supply-side constraints that affect the capacity of farmers to benefit from free trade agreements. Economic empowerment aims to facilitate market access, enhance productivity and improve the terms under which producers integrate markets and compete – for example, through information, managerial and technical knowhow, technology transfer, economies of scale, networks, partnerships and the ability to negotiate price.

But economic empowerment that is associated with exports and insertion into global value chains carries certain risks. Such markets and chains are dominated by large corporations with considerable bargaining power, and tend to concentrate value at the ‘other’ (retail/consumer) end of the chain. There is also a tendency for donors and programmes to favour ‘inclusive business’ models that embrace commercial farmers rather than the more marginalized rural producers.

Some strategies for economic empowerment, such as the Canadian International Development Agency’s (CIDA’s) and UN Women’s, seek to target marginalized women, but development cooperation associated with private sector development often favours producers that have more resources and greater technical capacity. And while smallholders may initially be targeted for inclusion in global value chains, over time, large retailers and buyers come to rely increasingly on suppliers that have the technical and managerial capacity both to deliver goods and to comply with the growing array of social, environmental and quality standards, and who can absorb the costs associated with standards regimes.

Underpinning the turn to economic empowerment is a preference for ‘productivist’ over ‘welfarist’ approaches – trade not aid. Also sustaining this approach is a belief that poverty is linked to lack of market access – and the solution is to insert producers into markets, and support them with corporate social responsibility (CSR). Such an approach often fails to understand poverty in terms of how producers are subordinated by class, ethnicity and gender, and how those social relations need to be transformed through the reconfiguration of power and collective action – in other words, through political empowerment. This broadens the focus of attention to include issues of equality, rights and distributive justice, and indeed questions what we mean by development.

A voice and a vote
Political empowerment is similar to the definition of ‘participation’ that was coined by the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) more than three decades ago: ‘the organised efforts to increase control over resources and regulative institutions on the part of groups and movements of those hitherto excluded from such control’. Political empowerment is characterised by producers organising collectively and attempting to enhance their influence and bargaining power – not simply with respect to other market actors, but also in terms of the development policy process itself and in relation to bodies such as local and national government, regional and global institutions, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and donor agencies, all of which significantly determine whether small-scale producers operate within an enabling or disabling environment.

Political empowerment is about the capacity of producers to exert claims on such actors and institutions, and to hold them accountable. Political empowerment is also about the capacity of smallholders to have a voice and to exert influence in the organisations that claim to represent them or speak on their behalf, whether such organisations be producer associations, NGOs or the growing array of private and multi-stakeholder standard-setting initiatives, associated with fair and ethical trade and CSR.

As standards regimes develop, it is essential to consider how they are governed. How much of a voice and a vote do small producers have in the governance structures of standards-based initiatives? Political empowerment is also about the struggle of ideas and definitions of development, and the capacity to frame and re-frame development discourse. Political empowerment is about the ability to contest approaches and bodies of knowledge, and to ensure that blind spots, contradictions and assumptions that are taken for granted are exposed.

In the mid-20th century, political empowerment was central in industrialised countries that were developing some degree of agrarian welfare state. For farmers, such arrangements provided significant protection against the vagaries of the market. They were fundamentally an institutional outcome that was based on the political empowerment of farmers who were well-organised, and who could negotiate policy, use their block voting power as a bargaining chip and, if necessary, engage in various forms of direct action.

The neoliberal years
The organisation and mobilisation of small-scale farmers have also been significant in crafting pro-rural policies in developing countries such as Costa Rica and Thailand. But during the ‘neoliberal’ 1980s and 1990s, farmers’ organisations and relatively supportive developmental states in many African and Latin American countries were significantly weakened as state and donor support for agriculture (and small-scale farming in particular) declined and service-delivery NGOs became the conduit for significant amounts of overseas aid.

Structural adjustment programmes followed by free trade agreements weakened domestic agriculture by focusing on exports and cheap food imports. Such approaches also paved the way for the penetration of foreign capital, often via contract farming with commercial farmers. As agricultural policy making shifted from local to regional and international institutions, the advocacy efforts of farmers’ organisations at the national level faced new constraints.

New wave of political empowerment
Unfettered economic liberalisation, and its associated social and environmental costs and insecurities, inevitably provokes a social response. Various forms of rural collective organisations and movements have been dynamic features of this response – both new entities and revitalised established organisations that could take advantage of changing political opportunities. Such collectives include women’s groups and other self-help groups and cooperative organisations, broad-based rural associations (as in Senegal) and grassroots movements such as Brazil’s landless workers movement (MST) and Ekta Parishad in India, both of which are engaged in the struggle to secure land and rights for the rural poor. Other groups and organisations that have become part of the response to economic liberalisation include regional farmers associations and networks such as the Latin American and Caribbean Network of Small Fair Trade Producers (CLAC).

Transnational global networks, notably La Via Campesina, have also emerged – in this case as a counterweight to the long-established International Federation of Agricultural Producers (IFAP), which represents mainly larger commercial agricultural producers. New coalitions and alliances have also been formed – with the decentralised governments and domestic NGOs that emerged in many countries in the 1980 and 1990s, and between mainstream political parties, international organisations such as the United Nations Food and Agriculture organization (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and international NGOs.

These new or revitalised organisations and movements are bringing together two forms of action that often remained separate in the past, namely advocacy for policy change, and local development or agro-ecology initiatives. They are also adapting to changes in governance through organisational structures, or networks, that link local, national, regional and global advocacy. This wave of political empowerment points to the potential for enhancing the ability of rural producers to gain control of the resources and regulatory bodies that affect their lives. It also contests ‘neoliberal’ development and challenges the definitions of terms such as ‘inclusive’ and ‘sustainable’ development as they are understood by the international development organisations and NGOs that promote the economic empowerment of small producers.

Diverging views on ‘inclusiveness’
Contested views on inclusiveness and development are even apparent within movements themselves, as seen recently in the case of fair trade. In late 2011, Fair Trade USA, formerly TransFair USA, split from Fairtrade International (FLO), formerly known as Fair Labelling Organizations International. Fair Trade USA announced unilateral plans to certify large coffee plantations, which is prohibited under FLO’s global standard. The US-based United Students for Fair Trade movement promptly disassociated itself from Fair Trade USA; and the Latin American producers’ organisation, CLAC, announced plans to initiate its own fair trade label.

The pursuit of different models of inclusive development and changes in the governance of fair trade underpin these schisms. Regarding the models, Fair Trade USA favours the scaling up of the fair trade niche market by engaging large corporations and agricultural estates, facilitating market access, empowering small producers economically, and promoting corporate environmental and social responsibility – which targets not only suppliers but also agricultural workers. Several currents within FLO, and the larger movement of alternative trade organisations and advocates, promote the original ethos and principles of fair trade, which is centred on fostering solidarity, empowering small producers both economically and politically through collectives, and promoting higher standards of agro-ecology.

Regarding governance, the voice of small producer organisations is increasingly being heard and their vote is carrying ever more weight in FLO’s governance structures. Such developments have favoured decisions to increase both the fair trade floor price and the social premiums that support various local projects. Meanwhile, particularly in Latin America, national and regional producer associations have become stronger, gaining a more robust voice within FLO, and also reframing the meaning of fair trade. This has involved broadening the focus away from merely considering how to secure premium prices in export markets to examining such aspects as:

  • the need for small-scale producers to capture for themselves the benefits of a growing fair trade market in their own countries and regions;
  • the need to add value to their primary products through processing;
  • the need to balance export-oriented commodity production with the principles and practices of ‘food sovereignty’; and
  • the need for ongoing political empowerment of producers through self-supporting organisation, more effective participation in policy processes and the governance structures of intermediary organisations, and building coalitions and alliances.

No economic empowerment without political empowerment
Probably, none of this would have happened through economic empowerment strategies alone. The likely upshot of an exclusively economic approach to empowerment would have been the increasing encroachment of corporate values and interests into the governance of fair trade. This would have had implications in terms of price, standards and who pays the associated costs – and would also have locked fair trade into a mainstream mode of development where small farmers in developing countries are simply suppliers of raw materials to northern export markets, rather than agents capable of contesting and reframing ‘development’, capturing value and crafting an enabling environment that can both secure their livelihoods and promote sustainable development. Economic empowerment that reconfigures price and market access needs to be complemented by political empowerment that reconfigures power relations.

The article was first published on Capacity.org on 24 March 2012.



This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.