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Back | Programme Area: Civil Society and Social Movements (2000 - 2009)

Understanding the Evolving Diversities and Originalities in Rural Social Movements in the Age of Globalization

The aim of this paper is to locate the potential social movements have for development in this age of globalization and, specifically, to trace how the politics of collective action at the local level develop as rural social movements to change and shape national and international development agendas. The paper takes as its starting point the diversities and originalities of local rural politics in which rural poverty is a dominant factor, where the nature and direction of local politics are shaped, influenced and, at times, determined by national and international processes and actors. It argues that in so far as these exogenous (to the local) processes and actors have a direct bearing on the nature and outcomes of local development processes, local social movements can by definition have consequences well beyond their immediate locations as they impact upon or are taken up within national and international development agendas.

The paper sees social movements of the rural poor as being strategic in nature, often possessing a degree of coherence and agreement with respect to their aims and objectives and serving as a means through which to change development processes and outcomes to the greater benefit of the poor. It is also suggested that democratization linked to reforms directed at decentralization, civil society and good governance has created a political space in which the agency of local actors is greater today than previously. The potential for poverty reduction is therefore also greater.

The introduction presents the main arguments of the paper concerning social movements, poverty and collective action. The paper then turns to the study of poverty in India and the problems that have been faced due to limitations in the conceptualizations of rural poverty over the past three decades. The need to reconsider the relationship between poverty and social movements is then taken up in a discussion that links the diversities and complexities of poverty with an analysis of the diversities and originalities of the collective action pursued by the poor.

The paper then proceeds to discuss globalization as a set of diverse forces that act and impact upon the rural poor and their poverty. These forces have an important role in the constitution of the political spaces in which the poor find themselves; as such they constitute a set of processes that can facilitate and support challenges by groups of the poor to dimensions of their poverty. It is suggested that globalization provides access to resources for use in the political strategies of co-operation, negotiation and contestation through which rural groups challenge their poverty. The paper looks at the forms their social movements have taken, the forces behind them at local and macro levels, and the nature of their leaders and organizational forms. The concept of “organizing practices” is introduced to capture both the diversity of forms that collective action can take and the argument that poverty is being contested in many ways and in many public spheres.

Underlying the discussion is a belief in the importance of the potential offered by democratization for a more pro-poor development trajectory. While the paper does not argue that successful poverty reduction lies in the hands and mobilization of the poor alone, it does argue that the agency of the poor is central to achieving changes in the practice of politics and policies at local, meso and macro levels. The ability of the rural poor to assert such political agency is analysed through the concept of citizenship and the contemporary discussion of a rights-based approach to development.

While the paper draws upon experiences of collective action in rural social formations across countries and continents with very different political histories, development trajectories and traditions of agrarian studies, the bias is toward the South Asian sub-continent where the author’s own fieldwork has, for the most part, been undertaken.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Feb 2004
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-8178
    From: UNRISD