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5. Collective action

Possible policy indicator questions: Collective action

  • Is legislation in place to facilitate collaboration? What forms of incentives are used to encourage collective action (eg tax incentives)?
  • Are there clear rules on management, ownership and governance of producer organisations?
  • Does the policy framework promote farmer groups other than formal cooperatives? Does the legal framework recognise and protect organised farmer groups that are not legal cooperatives? 
  • Does legislation/regulation make explicit provision for including poor/marginalised farmers, for example by making inclusiveness and member empowerment a prerequisite for registration and access to support? Is female representation in governance structures specifically supported, e.g. through quotas?
  • Is there a legal requirement to assess the social and political impacts of economic reforms on smallholder farmers?
  • Is there a legal requirement to consult with smallholder farmers on policies that will affect them? Are special measures in place to ensure women are adequately represented in consultations?

120. Acting alone, the vast majority of African smallholder farmers face high input and output costs and are in a weak bargaining position in commercial negotiations with larger or better-informed market actors.  This affects farmers’ productivity and competitiveness, limiting their scope for entering into markets, as well as leaving them vulnerable to exploitation. They are also more exposed to climate and economic risks as individuals.
121. More fundamentally, smallholder farmers rarely have a say in the policies that affect them and usually have no effective platform from which to lobby for assistance or change (Bienabe and Sautier 2004). Decisions about investment in local infrastructure and public services, access to communal lands and other resources, taxes on deliveries to market and the like can have a decisive impact on farmers’ access to markets, yet they are unlikely to be given a chance to provide input into such decisions (ASFG 2010). Farmers also tend not to have any opportunity to provide input into the design of research programmes that could be hugely material to their own circumstances (IAASTD 2009; see also IIED 2012 and the work of INSARD); and are often not properly consulted on interventions and programmes – from governments, donors or other non-state actors – aimed at supporting them.
122. Collective action allows farmers to utilise economies of scale to lower their costs and improve their competitiveness, as well as strengthening their marketing capacity and helping them manage risks. Groups can provide a basis for knowledge exchange and shared learning, act as catalyst for innovation and facilitate the adoption of technology.  Groups are better placed to lobby policy makers and to influence resource allocation and other policy decisions, as well as research and development assistance agendas.  And working together towards a common goal can help strengthen communities and uplift the marginalised.
123. Collective action is particularly beneficial to women farmers, who face greater obstacles to accessing inputs and markets and are typically in a poor bargaining position due to weak land rights and lower social status. Pooling their resources can help women farmers overcome the many obstacles they face as individuals. Women’s groups can be an effective way of building women’s social capital, through promoting increased production and helping women maintain control over the additional income they generate. Established producer groups are not always accessible to women; women-only groups can be an effective stepping-stone to joining existing groups (FAO 2011a). Farmer groups have been shown to be inclusive of the poor, although wealthier households are more likely to join (Fischer and Qaim 2011); poorer women joining such groups can help increase the horizontal transfer of social benefits and skills.
124. Recent research by Oxfam and others found that women who participated in farmer groups gained significant economic benefits through their collective action compared to those not in groups.  It also found that support to formal collective action such as agricultural marketing cooperatives is beneficial for women who have some assets and limited household responsibilities; while younger women need investment in assets and/or more flexible organisation and support. In supporting women’s collective action, Oxfam’s research indicates that it is advisable to focus on high-value subsectors where control of land assets is not a critical constraint (Baden 2013).
125. Collective action can take many forms, from informal farmers associations, seed banks, self-help groups and savings/credit groups to more formal cooperatives, certification schemes such as fair trade or participatory organic schemes, and contract farming; and various permutations and combinations of all of these. 
126. A vast literature deals with the question of whether collective action results in a better deal for farmers overall, over time and at scale, more often than not arriving at a disappointing conclusion; many studies have analysed the institutional and management failings of cooperatives, marketing boards and other farmer groups[1]. Nevertheless, there is no shortage of anecdotal evidence of successful smaller-scale collective farmer action (see, for example, case studies presented in ASFG 2010).
127. There is no dispute about the benefits of farmer collaboration.  The problems with cooperatives and other similar organisations were related to failure in the mechanism of collective action rather than the principle of collective action.  However the challenge remains to take individual success stories to scale. It may be necessary for farmers to develop alternative institutional and management structures and learn from the experience of successful small farmer organisations to ensure the hoped-for benefits of cooperation materialise on a wide scale (Poole & de Frece 2010). 
128. Governments should put in place legislation to facilitate collaboration, and should consider offering incentives, such as favourable tax regimes, to encourage collective action. To ensure that farmers’ organisation provides the best service, clear rules should be developed on their management, ownership and governance. ILO Recommendation 193 “Promoting Co-operatives”[2] is an international policy guideline, adopted in 2002, which provides ‘a framework for governments to develop the laws, administrative systems and policies that can enable co-operatives to flourish’. For example, South Africa passed the Cooperatives Act in 2005 (amended in 2012) with a view to providing an institutional and legal framework to encourage formation and registration of cooperatives, and providing for support to cooperative enterprises from a range of state agencies.
129. The legal framework should recognise and protect organised farmer groups that are not legal cooperatives. Ideally, government should recognise both formal collective action as well as small-scale, information collaboration, as such informal groups have greater scope for including women and more marginalised farmers. For example, in Indonesia, Chile and Canada policy provision is made for “new generation cooperatives” which allows smallholders to benefit from the cooperative structure without being tied to one model of cumbersome decision-making (Vermeulen and Cotula 2010).

130. Special provision should be made for the inclusion of poor or marginalised farmers, for example by making inclusiveness and member empowerment a prerequisite for registration and access to support.  Female representation in governance structures should be specifically supported.  Ethiopia’s Federal Cooperatives Commission, created in 2002 to organise and promote cooperatives at the national level, aims at providing cooperative services to 70% of the population by 2010, and to increase women’s participation in cooperatives from 13 to 30%, and youth participation from almost none to 25% by 2010 (Bijman et al 2007).

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[1] See, for example, Poole & De Frece (2010) whose review of existing organisational forms of smallholder farmer’s associations concludes that “in general neither statutory or voluntary forms of association and collective enterprise have generated significant and sustainable agribusiness in Africa”. See also Ortman and King (2007) on the five problems inherent to cooperatives; and Jaffee (2011) on the high entry costs and limited benefits of joining certification schemes.

[2] Available at

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