Towards economic empowerment: together

Drawing on their experiences visiting Serbian cooperatives and businesses last March, Audrey Lejeune, Programme Learning Adviser, and Shekhar Anand, Regional Livelihood Development Lead, explain why bringing people together can lead to power in markets and sustainable economic improvements in smallholder agriculture.

What does working together mean? Are two pair of hands better than one? Acting together can make a real difference to the livelihoods of smallholder farmers, enabling them to increase their harvest and income. But what does it mean in a difficult and complex context such as the post-Soviet Union, with all its policies and long-held traditions? What does it mean in a rapidly-changing country such as Nepal? And how about the Middle-East with its own set of challenges born from historical, political and human decisions?

At Oxfam, we have been working with farmers for decades so that they can gain better access to support services, such as training and materials on irrigation, marketing, climate-adaptive solutions, and more. In turn, the farmers can increase their harvest and income, and thus have a chance to lift their lives and families’ out of povertyActing together can make a real difference to the livelihoods of smallholder farmers

One of the ways to achieve such goals is through ‘collective action‘ in the form of cooperatives, associations or informal groups of women and men producers. It makes sense to join up efforts: it contributes to the fair share of natural resources, promotes sustainable food systems, and creates a support network at different levels, economic, political but also social. The benefits are there for all to see, but the big question remains what is the best way to do it? And even more importantly, what is the best to do it in challenging contexts?

Back in March, a group of practitioners from the Middle East, Asia and Eastern Europe met in Serbia to learn from each other’s experience, but also to learn from the experience of cooperatives in Serbia as the country has undergone a wide range of transitional changes and has developed examples and business models to learn from. A series of case studies from Oxfam’s economic justice programmes have now been published on the themes of resilience and adaptation, markets and services, women’s
and policy influencing. The studies demonstrate how a complex array of issues can be effectively tackled collectively, for example how to improve access to markets or create an enabling policy environment. These things are key to increasing the power of smallholder farmers in markets and addressing the underlying causes of poverty.

Zarangiz Jalalova lives in the Seyidimli village in the Tartar region of Azerbaijan. Thanks to Oxfam's project, her strawberry harvest enables her to support herself and her grandson financially. Credit: Kieran Doherty/OxfamThe impact of collective action interventions from smallholder farmers varies from one context to the next. For example, during our visit to Serbian cooperatives we found that collective
worked better for cereals and grains than for vegetables and fruits. This was due to the quality variations and how quickly the fruit and vegetables could rot without appropriate infrastructure. Farmer groups performed better when their organisation was strong enough and they were able to leverage resources through contributions from members or loans from financial institutions. Their ability to establish linkages with private companies for services and access to markets was dependent on their experience of business management. But in most cases, we
have found that collective action works. It effectively helps to develop harmony among communities and promote social development – a necessary factor for economic empowerment.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country that has experienced similar challenges to Serbia, Oxfam is now working with the private sector and institutions to establish new business and value chain models to support berry farmers living in poverty. Similarly in Azerbaijan, Oxfam
has found that developing links between farmer groups and market players has had a profound effect on the lives of the farmers. To enable farmer groups and cooperatives to establish those links to the influencial sphere of government and private sector, it is crucial to raise the capacity of what can be informal groups.

In Georgia, Oxfam has developed methods and tools to do so, placing emphasis on organisational development and awareness-raising. In Nepal and Armenia, Oxfam developed the leadership skills of women
farmers that in turn develop farming businesses for their communities. We also chose to focus on women producer groups in Tajikistan where improving access agricultural extension services such as irrigation, inputs and machinery has increased efficiency and productivity. And in the West Bank and in the Gaza strip, where it is notably difficult to lead a normal life, let alone keep a decent livelihood, Oxfam suggests that humanitarian aid interventions should be complemented by longer-term economic recovery approaches. The successful Palestinian olive oil project shows that a federation of cooperatives can be key to market access and effective delivery of extension services.

In all eight papers, the case for collective action is strong. Many of these projects are still ongoing and learning as they go along, but the implications for future programming are clear: collective action works. Together we can create a more fair and sustainable food system that serves farmers, cooperatives, businesses, governments and consumers alike. At Oxfam, we strive to find innovative and practical ways of improving the lives of people living in poverty, and sometimes a safe pair of hands is all you need to get started.

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1. A worker in an apple cooperative in Serbia, with Artur Gomktsyan, Economic Justice Programme Officer in Armenia. Credit: Nino Gvianishvili/Oxfam
2. Zarangiz Jalalova lives in the Seyidimli village in the Tartar region of Azerbaijan. Thanks to Oxfam’s project, her strawberry harvest enables her to support herself and her grandson financially. Credit: Kieran Doherty/Oxfam

Author: Audrey Lejeune
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.