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View the documentLocal groups and the empowerment of the marginalized

Local groups and the empowerment of the marginalized

Local Organizations: Intermediaries in Rural Development, by Milton J. Esman and Norman T. Uphoff. Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 1984, 391 p.

Local organizations in the rural areas of the Third World here receive their first systematic and sympathetic assessment. Based on extensive field experience and an ambitious survey of 150 cases, this book has put these bodies firmly on the map. The types of organizations surveyed are quite diverse - from cooperatives to mothers' clubs, from tenants' leagues to water users' groups. Yet they are all intermediaries in the rural development process, distinguishable from the public and private sectors alike. The aim of this book is to study organizations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America to account for their success and failure, and, ultimately to determine how they can improve the well-being of rural people.

Esman and Uphoff present the aims and objectives of local organizations as: efficiency, equity, and empowerment. Insofar as they increase the efficiency of resource use they are widely welcomed. As to whether they improve the position of the poorer members of society, however, there is more debate. The concept of "empowerment" is perhaps the most interesting because this implies that organizations can play a role in increasing the general profile and social weight of marginal farmers, poor women, disadvantaged ethnic groups, and others in rural society who at present lack all power.

For organizations to fulfill this triple objective, they have to overcome many obstacles. After introducing the types and tasks of organizations, the authors assess the impact of the environment on the performance of rural local organizations. It is generally assumed that good performance depends on a favourable endowment of natural and human resources, but the authors find that "environmental constraints are not as determinative as may have been thought by academics and policy-makers alike". A subsequent chapter deals with structural factors affecting organizations, such as functions(single versus multiple), organization (informal versus formal), size, the decision making structure, and links with other organizations and governments. One interesting conclusion with regard to the equity/productivity relation is the "even under indifferent or adverse conditions, organizations that are highly participatory and egalitarian can register an impressive degree of success". Another chapter examines the vulnerability of rural local organizations in terms of resistance from and subordination to outside agencies, internal division, ineffectiveness and malpractices. One conclusion is that the opposition to organizations that seek to advance women's interests is often as deep-seated as opposition to those seeking to improve the condition of the rural poor. This chapter provides a daunting catalogue of obstacles to the effective development of organizations and shows the tendency toward bureaucratization of even the most healthy initiatives.

Policy oriented. Since this book is policy oriented, it obviously provides general guidelines on how the efficiency and equity of local organizations can be promoted, on the basis of the case studies examined. One chapter deals with the various measures, tactics and principles which may support or lead to better performance of organizations. These include measures to make the leadership of organizations accountable to their members and to prevent (or at least lessen}subordination to outside agencies. The possibilities of "consciousness raising" are discussed as is the futility of trying to eliminate conflict, which may indeed be a symptom of a healthy organization. A further chapter discusses strategies for strengthening organizations at the local level, focusing on what the authors call "the paradox of assisted self-reliance". By this they mean that top down initiative can be used to promote bottom-up development, with local self-reliance being the keystone for effective interaction with outside governmental or private agencies. Finally, the authors consider the contributions of governments and external assistance agencies to the development as organizations. One of the most effective outside interventions to improve the productivity and well-being of rural households is considered to be the FAO-supported Small Farmer Development Programme, particularly in Nepal. In general, the authors stress that rural development will not come from infrastructural investment and technical assistance alone, but that it entails institutional and human resource development, in particular viable membership institutions, namely local organizations. It may seem churlish to express reservations at such a coherent and incisive book, yet there is a problem. It is to do with the methodology and the presentation of data. The book is clearly based on much practical experience and detailed knowledge of particular organizations, but this does not come across well. Quantitative research has its uses but also its limits. This book would have been far richer if it had presented qualitative case studies in more detail, instead of relying on statistical wizardry. Only in a brief appendix are what the authors: all "some illustrative glimpses" provided. While appreciating their desire do generalise through a quantitative evaluation of organizations, l would have preferred more than mere glimpses at the real social organizations which lie behind the figures. As to presentation of data, the book suffers from the same overwhelming urge for "scientificity". Why are interesting topics in development studies so often presented in a dry report format? Presumably because a study of local organizations is directed at the functionaries of international organizations and government organizations. I would argue that the issue of local social, political, and economic organizations in the Third World is of such importance that the knowledge buried in this study should be made available to a wider audience.

Ronaldo Munck