The Project, Part I: Background

I suppose it’s time I actually make an effort to explain what it is exactly that I’ll be doing in Uganda. Until now, when people have asked what my project is, I’ve told them that I honestly don’t know (except that I’m horribly unqualified to be doing it). That’s still basically true, but after doing some preliminary research, I can offer a sketch of sorts as to what we’re trying to accomplish – even if I have no idea as to what I’ll actually be up to.

It is a sad irony of the world economy that third world farmers – as in, people who grow food – constitute the majority of the hungry people in the world. The barriers to survival for rural farmers in poor nations are staggering. Farmers hoping to export cash crops must somehow producer cheaper products than mechanized farmers in developed nations. Moreover, thanks to the lowering of tariffs and trade barriers under globalization, these farmers increasingly must compete with heavily subsidized crops being imported into their domestic markets.  To top it off, a recently released Oxfam report suggests that global warming will disproportionately harm third world farmers.

In Africa, government policy typically exacerbates the situation. In order to pay down their collective $150 billion in debt, African nations have been forced by international institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to slash their budgets. In democratic and un-democratic nations alike, the driving impetus for the political establishment is survival, and so programs for politically powerless and disorganized demographics – like subsistence farmers – are the first to go. In fact, many African governments artificially lower the prices farmers receive for their products in order to provide subsidized food for urban dwellers. What assistance is available typically goes to large and well-connected farms.

Our project is focused on assessing and improving the effectiveness of one strategy that is currently popular among international aid donors as a way to help farmers overcome these barriers: organizing rural agriculturalists into farming cooperatives. The concept of “farm collective” sounds straight out of Soviet Russia, and to a certain extent, the idea is basically the same. By pooling their resources, small farmers are better able to share innovation, purchase equipment and make capital improvements, and find buyers for their products. The big difference is that these farming cooperatives are organized, operated, and led by the farmers themselves.

Uganda, since 2004, has had a particularly ambitious program of organizing farmers. So far, the results are unsurprising: some collectives bring substantial gains to their participants while others fail to change anything. More interesting to social scientists, though, is what seems to explain this variation. The variables you might expect to be responsible for the success of some farms over others – the socioeconomic, educational, or ethic background of the farmers, the choice of crop, or the location of the farm – do not seem to account for the differences. Instead, the key determinant of the success or failure of a collective seems to be leadership: who is in charge, how they were chosen for the position, and how they lead. Our project seeks to measure and systematize these characteristics in a way that will help donors and organize improve programs to create cooperatives.

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