1963-2018 - 55 years of Research for Social Change

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

Evolving Agricultural Structures and Civil Society in Transitional Countries: The Case of Central Asia

  • Project from: 2002 to 2005

Agricultural structures have evolved rapidly in Central Asia following the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. In this region, and in much of Eastern Europe, the agricultural sector has seen a more or less uniform pattern in the restitution of land property rights to original owners before the 1917 revolution, the breaking up of large collective and state farms and the allocation of land to private individuals and households, the privatization of essential support services and the development of land and labour markets. Although the process has occurred at different paces in different countries, with some even resisting certain elements of privatization and rapid market liberalization, the agricultural sector has nevertheless undergone profound changes in all countries. While there is now some country-specific information available on the nature and extent of reforms, and general agricultural performance, little systematic cross-country data and analyses exist on many vital underlying issues, related livelihood consequences and emerging agrarian relations at the local level. On the whole, the provision of support services to the agricultural sector has been severely limited. The vast majority of the rural poor, consisting of small cultivators, workers and crafts people, find it very hard to cope with the new situation. At the same time, a handful of privileged groups and families have moved swiftly into dominant positions of power, thereby also monopolizing economic resources.

Collecting and analysing information on emerging rural social and economic inequalities is complex, especially as trends are rarely linear and conditions vary from one context to another. How do different groups of rural people hold vital resources—land, water, forest and grazing areas—and how is this changing over time? How do poorer producer groups obtain credits and other necessary production inputs, and from whom? How are any new opportunities relating to economic and commercial activities exploited? How is rural employment in both formal and informal sectors shared, and how viable now is self-employment? How are labour relations organized? How are prices of farm products and wages decided, and at what levels? How able are average people to invest in their children’s education, household health care, food, nutritional needs and diversification in production activities? How are self-help networks, safety nets and internal solidarity maintained? How are local positions of power held and decision-making processes influenced? Understanding these questions is central to gathering any systematic information on the evolving nature of agrarian structures.

In this respect, understanding the role played by various institutions and actors is crucial, as they frequently facilitate or impede the access of rural groups to assets, inputs and gainful employment and income. In a similar manner, they can help boost or obstruct the influence and power of the rural poor, as well as their ability to mobilize for alternative courses of action. The current discussion on institutional change in Central Asia is primarily concerned with the role of the government and donor agencies in promoting agricultural and rural development within the framework of market-oriented policy measures. In particular, only sketchy information is available on how civil society is emerging and helping the poorer and weaker groups in rural poverty reduction programmes—which have tended to be dominated by the state or market forces. What actually constitutes the civil society in these countries in transition? What has been the role of the voluntary sector, professional NGOs, sociopolitical associations, farmers unions, co-operatives and so forth? How are they trying to influence policy reforms favourable to rural livelihoods? How are they seeking to protect past resource gains and monitor variations in rural working and living conditions? And how are they helping the rural poor to defend themselves against new forms of exploitation and manipulation, to manage internal conflicts and to widen their political participation?

The choice of Central Asia is quite appropriate when seeking to illustrate many of these aspects. Rural poverty is widespread in the region. Most countries remain overwhelmingly agrarian, yet the productivity level is low and rural unemployment has risen. Access to productive assets, stable work and decent living conditions has become even more unpromising despite a continued government/donor promise that free-market economies will bring in rapid improvement. Outside investment on the whole remains quick-fix and, at best, sectoral (e.g., specializing only in strategic cash crops or natural resource extraction). There is a political vacuum left by the withdrawal of the state and previous party cadres. New political forces remain highly unpredictable. Local organizations set up to promote “civil society”—such as NGOs—have met with few successes. Instead, deteriorating livelihood conditions within the community and growing national and regional political instabilities have led people to become easily influenced by fundamental ideologies and groups. Many prevailing systems of self-help and community solidarity are breaking down under the pressure of growing consumerism and individualistic attitudes.

A broad objective of the project is to provide an institutional setting for comparative research, dialogue, networking, exchange of valuable information and experiences of policy intervention on the evolving nature of agrarian relations and the activities of the civil society sector in Central Asia. The effort is oriented toward assessing:
· the current processes of agricultural transformation and their effects on changing patterns of vulnerability in selected agrarian settings in the region;
· the resourcefulness and capacity for action of grassroots organizations and other civil society forces; and
· the implications of different approaches, methods and experiences related to agricultural policy measures and technical co-operation programmes in dealing with economic deprivation and social inequality within particular agrarian contexts; and new, more holistic policy options that merit consideration.

Workplan and output
The initial phase of the project will begin in early 2002, with the commissioning of analytical papers on key cross-cutting themes. These papers should serve as valuable background material to guide research and policy appraisals in dealing with recent evolutions in agricultural changes and civil society actions across the region. The researchers who will carry out studies on the various themes under the project will be identified shortly.

Papers will be prepared on the following themes:

1. Agricultural restructuring and trends in rural inequalities: a socio-statistical analysis
2. The evolving role of professional organizations in protecting past agrarian gains and creating further opportunities for improved livelihoods (e.g. Youth Groups, Women’s Committees, Farmers’ Associations)
3. Dynamics in labour conditions and rural unionisation
4. Remaining relevant to peasant needs: the research, training and monitoring role of agrarian research institutes and universities
5. Farmers’ political representation and the significance of the old guard as well as new political parties
6. Rural poverty and the emerging role of religious fundamentalism
7. Strengthening of self-help networks and internal solidarity in agrarian communities: the role of the voluntary sector (NGOs)
8. Agricultural investment and the private sector.

Upon completion of these papers, a seminar will bring together the researchers and other experts to evoke the major research findings and policy conclusions on the current pattern of agricultural transformation in Central Asia. The exercise should help to further strengthen the present network of scholars, research institutions, civil society organizations and donor agencies in the region. Furthermore, the seminar will also provide a valuable opportunity for commenting on the conceptual and methodological basis for undertaking detailed national studies in the region, creating essential databases, identifying promising experiences and seeking to implement imaginative projects.

Outputs will include UNRISD Programme Papers, an edited volume and a report on the seminar (to be published as an issue of UNRISD Conference News).

Partial funding for the project has been approved by FAO, in addition to UNRISD core funds.