A “revolution” for Latin American policymakers and academics

December 19, 2012
Barbara Fraser
The findings from research into economic growth, poverty reduction, and equality are inspiring changes in Peru’s public policies. As other Latin American policymakers learn about the findings, academics are re-examining their theories about rural development.
Two years ago, Carolina Trivelli was studying the factors that enabled a rural area in the Peruvian Andes to reduce poverty and inequality. Now she is putting those findings into practice as the head of Peru’s new Ministry of Development and Social Inclusion.
The task is monumental. Trivelli’s job is to make the country’s maze of social-assistance programs more efficient and effective, creating opportunities for the poorest Peruvians, most of them rural dwellers who have benefited little from Peru’s explosive economic growth.
For guidance, she is drawing on the results of the Rural Territorial Dynamics program, a regional research project conducted by long-time IDRC partner in Chile, Latin American Centre for Rural Development (Rimisp).
The research has provided a trove of information that is changing the way policymakers and academics view rural development, according to Arilson Favareto, a sociology and economics professor and researcher at Brazil’s Universidade Federal do ABC.
Six factors for rural development
Through case studies — including Trivelli’s — of 19 territories in 11 countries, the researchers identified six factors that, in various combinations, contribute to a win-win-win situation: economic growth with poverty reduction and greater equality. The six factors are:
  • reasonably equitable distribution of land and availability of natural resources
  • access to markets
  • a diversified local economy
  • proximity to mid-size cities
  • government investment in infrastructure and services
  • local stakeholder coalitions
“These successful combinations are very rare,” says Rimisp principal researcher Julio Berdegué. Nevertheless, their very existence proves that “the idea of win-win-win is possible.”
Mapping exercise in HondurasFrom research to policy

Government officials now face the challenge of translating those findings into public policies.
“The Dynamics Program has made the task more complex,” Trivelli said. “We know we can’t just go in and say, ‘We need to build a road,’ or ‘We need to decentralize more.’ None of those things, in itself, will bring about inclusion. And that’s the goal – not just economic growth, but greater inclusion. The process must create opportunities for everyone, not just for the people who always benefit.”
Trivelli has targeted 20 of Peru’s poorest provinces. She is beginning with a rapid assessment of infrastructure gaps, local officials’ plans and perceptions of needs, and a map of stakeholders — from community organizations to businesses to non-profit organizations — in each area.
That information will help her ministry identify more efficient and effective ways to reduce poverty and malnutrition and provide high-quality government services, she says. She hopes her work will also provide valuable feedback to the Rural Territorial Dynamics program about how research-based policy works in real life.
Civic-society-government dialogue
Not every country has a Rimisp researcher in a top government post. In other countries, researchers, business leaders, and civil society representatives have formed local dialogue groups to lobby for policies that incorporate the six key findings. The groups, which are active  in Mexico, El Salvador, Colombia, and Ecuador, “are civic initiatives for influencing government policy,” says María Ignacia Fernández a researcher with Rimisp.
Too often, Fernández says, countries focus on providing subsidies to prosperous farmers instead of on reducing poverty and inequality. But the dialogue groups’ efforts to change mindsets are beginning to bear fruit.
In Colombia, where the government is beginning to make restitution to rural dwellers displaced by the country’s internal conflict, the dialogue group has helped design a new Land and Rural Development Law, according to Santiago Perry, the group’s technical secretary.
New avenues for research
Rimisp’s research is making an impact not only in government ministries, but also in university classrooms, where it “has caused a revolution in the way rural development is conceived,” says sociology and economics professor Arilson Favareto.
The researchers’ first achievement was to compile a data set about rural areas in Latin America that will serve as the basis for future studies. The second was to uncover factors that have not been part of conventional thinking about rural development.
“The traditional idea has been that the configuration of rural regions was based on agriculture,” explains Favareto. “But the Rimisp study shows that reality is much more complex.”
While researchers have generally focused on the role of agriculture in rural development, the Rimisp studies indicate that agriculture alone cannot create a thriving rural economy. For example, traditional rural development studies have ignored urban areas, Favareto says, but Rimisp’s research indicates that rural areas need proximity to mid-size cities to catalyze markets and provide services such as health and education.
The identification of the six factors will lay the groundwork for future research, he says. He expects that the next generation of rural sociologists and economists will draw on the Rimisp studies to re-examine conventional theories of rural development — and probably rewrite them.
Barbara Fraser is a freelance journalist based in Lima, Peru.
Photo (right): RDS/Pedro Quiel
Read Rimisp’s report on inequality in rural Latin America and many other documents related to the Rural Territorial Dynamics Program.