Rural Democratisation: (Re)Framing rural poor political action


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With two-thirds of the world’s poor rural poor, rural democratisation is clearly relevant and urgent, but at the same time an especially difficult--and underestimated--challenge. If democracy is to be organically rooted in any society, the struggle to “get there” must systematically be opened up to integrate rural poor citizens system-wide, taking stock of their aspirations and, more importantly, their existing efforts to gain control of decision-making affecting their lives.

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About rural democratisation: (re)framing rural poor political action

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Rural poverty remains a major problem today. “Globally, poverty still has a rural face with two-thirds of the world’s poor constituted by the rural poor. Its persistence has defied policymakers for decades despite sustained efforts by national governments, international institutions and civil society”.(1)

According to one recent study, “chronic poverty is more prevalent in rural areas than in urban, and especially so in remote rural regions (which may include towns and cities)”.(2) Regions likely to have concentrations of chronic poverty are those that are ‘remote’ (geographically far from centres of economic and political activity), with ‘low potential’ (few agricultural or natural resources), ‘less favoured’ (politically disadvantaged) and ‘weakly integrated’ (not well-connected in terms of communications and markets). This means about two-thirds of the rural population of developing countries. (3)

Widespread chronic rural poverty makes rural democratisation a relevant focus of activist inquiry and analysis, and involves examining the collective efforts of the rural poor to overcome the obstacles to effective participation in decision making that affects their lives. Rural democratisation is a long and difficult process that involves struggles to build rural social and political organisations capable of representing the diverse interests of the rural poor and amplifying their voices in public policy processes. It also involves struggles to increase state accountability to previously excluded or marginalised members of the rural population, especially the landless poor and rural women. And nowadays especially, it involves deploying strategies for effectively claiming rights as well.

Despite their potential importance, there has been relatively little systematic interrogation of a comparative nature of the democratisation initiatives of the rural poor. This contrasts with a growing activist scholarly literature on urban-based experiments in popular democracy, such as the Porto Alegre experience in participatory budgeting (Chavez & Goldfrank, 2004). But the relative invisibility of rural-based democratisation initiatives often has more to do with how activists and researchers decide what counts as meaningful reform or political “innovation”, than it does with the actual substance or impact of the initiatives themselves -- seen here, broadly, as potential movements forward in the difficult political transition from clientelism to citizenship (Fox, 1994a). A fresh look is warranted.

Central Questions

The transition away from centralised authoritarian regimes and national one-party rule in many countries of the global South in the 1980s and 1990s has ushered in a new political era internationally, one that may be very broadly characterised as animated by a commitment to elected civilian rule and the democratisation of local political arenas through decentralisation. This new era has brought with it promises of more and better opportunities for amplifying the voices of the rural poor, and so for increasing state accountability to them, in the development process. At times, the promises have been backed up by the creation of new, officially sanctioned and ostensibly more democratic spaces for popular participation in both electoral and non-electoral processes, especially at the local level.

Looking back, however, actual political dynamics and their outcomes in terms of development policy too often have fallen far short of what has been promised. Underlying inequitable structures, and the flawed institutions and practices that perpetuated them in the past, have been maintained and even reinforced in some cases. Too often, the new rhetoric of democracy and democratic development has served as a veil for national and local governments, oftentimes in cahoots with foreign governments and foreign and transnational corporate interests, to renege on promises, squander opportunities and even block initiatives of and for reform and change that might have made a difference. For many social change activists across the globe, this gap between rhetoric and reality has proven to be a very hard nut to crack. This is partly because the new policy spaces, however promising they may be, are not neutral. As John Gaventa (2002: 10) reminds us: “The fact that public spaces for participation exist, whether in rule of law or social practice, does not mean that they will always be used equally by various actors for realising rights of citizens. Rather, such space is itself socially and politically located, with dynamics of participation varying across different levels and arenas of citizen engagement, and across different types of policy spaces”. Some social change activists who attempt to participate in the new policy and political spaces find themselves having to give up their political rights and freedoms in order to access the promised social and economic benefits. Others may decide that it may be worthwhile to forego their rights and freedoms for a while in order to grab the social and economic benefits offered in the short-term, but then find it more difficult than thought to reassert themselves politically afterward. Still others dismiss the new policy spaces outright, arguing that they are inherently biased and immutable to purposive social change interventions from below. But how to deal with such a situation is not obvious. Especially in the absence of credible and sustainable alternatives, many poor and marginalised people simply do not have the luxury to indulge in outright rejection of new official policy and political spaces that may be opening up. The underlying issue is how can the new policy and political spaces be pushed beyond “mere window-dressing”, and instead used and transformed to effectively serve the needs, demands and aspirations of the poor?

This project is an attempt to look into actually ongoing and potentially innovative attempts by rural poor groups in six countries to deal with this crucial issue. In between the orthodox left’s usual insistence on an “expose and oppose” strategy and outright rejection of new policy and political spaces on the one hand, and the conservative mainstream push for quiescent incorporation on the other, there is still room for innovation. Most discussions of innovative efforts to date have started from clearly innovative outcomes in urban settings, and then retraced the processes that led to them, in hopes of identifying how they could be replicated elsewhere. By contrast, while appreciative of the need for innovation on the outcome side, this project starts from the proposition that innovation can be seen in the process side of efforts themselves, and not just the (potential) outcomes of such efforts. The efforts the studied here may ultimately fail to produce the desired outcomes; it remains to be seen since they are still underway. Yet each has the potential to produce important innovative outcomes, and so the efforts are still worth looking at. This project can thus provide insights that might help to explain when innovative outcomes are achieved, and when they are not. Moreover, our research is “integrated” into the efforts themselves, hopefully so that it can contribute to improving them as they unfold. From the perspective of rural democratisation, the project will thus look into the emergence and trajectory of innovative rural-based initiatives or collective campaigns that are currently underway in six countries, in terms of their substance, political significance and their impact on development processes. What exactly constitutes an “innovative” rural-based initiative or collective campaign will be part of the inquiry itself. The term “collective campaign” comes from American sociologists Marwell and Oliver (1984: 12), who use it to refer to “an aggregate of collective events or activities that appear to be oriented toward some relatively specific goal or good, and that occur within some proximity in space and time”. Each country team will examine the selected ongoing collective campaigns or initiatives in their country by addressing a common set of basic core questions and then also a series of common additional questions that will help to situate the initiatives in their actual historical and institutional contexts. Addressing a common set of questions should facilitate systematic comparative analysis across the six countries.

Core Questions

What is the main objective of the initiative, what is the main strategy employed and why?

How/when did the initiative first emerge, why/how did it evolve/change over time since?

Why/ how can the selected collective campaign or initiative be considered “innovative”?

What accounts for any progress toward success, what accounts for any setbacks?

To what extent has it made progress in achieving its objectives to date?

What are its prospects for large-scale and/or institutionalised impact on development?

Context Questions

Structural Context – What are the social and production relations between social classes that characterise pre-existing agrarian structures in the case study area? How have such structures emerged historically and how are they perpetuated currently?

Larger Historical-Institutional Context -- What is larger historical-institutional context as regards democratisation and development, within which the collective campaign in question has emerged and evolved; this includes: (i) the main national land and rural development policies/laws and the scale and nature of state resources for these; (ii) the role rural activists have played in shaping and implementing these to date; (iii) the role rural elites have played vis-à-vis formulation and implementation of these laws and policies, as well as (iv) the role that has been played by rural municipalities/state governments in their implementation to date;

Established Social-Political Relationships -- What has been the relationship between: (i) rural elites in the case study area, (ii) rural municipalities/state governments, and (iii) organisations representing the rural poor historically, and how has it evolved to date; To what extent and how have rural elites tried to distort national development policies and undermine autonomous rural social organisation? To what extent and how have local officials made themselves accountable to rural elite versus rural poor constituents? And how and to what extent have rural social organisations been tied to rural elites on the one hand, versus been coopted by local government officials on the other, versus been able to carve out islands of political autonomy for themselves? Worldviews “From Below” -- What has been/is the meaning and experience of ‘democracy’ for residents on farms and in towns in the selected rural areas (including participation in elections, policy advocay and rights claim making; membership in parties and associations; and their expectations of the state); Organisational Histories -- What has been the organisational character of the respective rural social movement actors involved in the collective campaigns in question and their allies (including urban) historically and at present (e.g. composition, organising approach, structure and strategy, resources, and main lines of work – including campaigns spearheaded and to what extent they succeeded or failed); what are these actors perspectives on the role of rural social movement leadership in rural transformation (e.g. perceiving issues, identifying obstacles, exploring opportunities, aggregating demands, framing proposals etc.)


The basic unit of analysis and building block of this project is a particular ongoing collective campaign in a specific country. Each country team will examine a particular collective campaign as it unfolds, offering useful and relevant insights wherever possible, and then bring their country-level insights to bear in a cross-country comparative analysis of the different collective campaigns. The collective campaigns examined in this project are all attempting to engage state law and processes while at the same time attempting to transform them into something more meaningful that goes beyond “mere window dressing”. In short, they are all geared toward opening up access and increasing the effective participation of rural poor people in a relatively important development related process. A process-oriented approach considers democratisation in general as an actor-driven process involving conflicts and struggles between contending groups and social classes in society. The collective campaigns undertaken by excluded, marginalised and vulnerable groups to open up access to development related decision making are an important part of such struggles. The emphasis on political conflict allows one to distinguish analytically between political process and outcomes.

Making an analytic distinction between process and outcomes is necessary to be able to detect and explain any unexpected or unintended outcomes of less-than-democratic political processes. Meanwhile, as Piven and Cloward (1979: x) have pointed out, “[t]he main features of contemporary popular struggles are both a reflection of an institutionally determined logic and a challenge to that logic” and so an institutional approach is also warranted. An institutional approach emphasises the formal and informal institutions that structure conflicts and shapes the different parties involved by defining their power resources and influencing their choices of strategy. The collective campaigns examined here do not spring out of thin air, but rather have emerged and evolved in relation to an institutionally determined logic. An institutional approach also stresses the role that conflicts over effective participation play in reflecting back on and altering the existing institutional parameters of politics. A historical approach emphasises the analysis of conflicts and how they evolve over time and in relation to certain critical historical turning points, in order to better detect incremental changes in a collective campaign’s substance or strategy, as well as its impact on the larger institutional context, that may occur from one historical moment to another. This combined process-oriented, historical-institutional approach adopted here is an eclectic one that stresses the role of political interactions and conflict, while giving due importance to the role played by pre-existing structures and institutions that facilitate or constrain poor people’s actions. It is informed largely by Thelen and Steinmo’s (1992) “historical institutionalism, Byres’ (1995) “comparative political economy, Long’s (1988) “actor-oriented” approach, and Fox’s (1993) “interactive state-society” approach. In addition, our methodology also attempts to be gender sensitive and is inspired by the work of Bina Agarwal (1994), C.D. Deere (1996, 2003), Naila Kabeer (1999), and Lynn Stephen (1997), among others.


Chronic Rural Poverty

The recent conceptual focus on chronic rural poverty gives recognition to how “different kinds of social relations produce [rural] poverty effects which differ in intensity and duration”, thereby moving beyond the conventional fixation (of the World Bank for example) on poverty as a bracketed state, a problem of the poor who are ‘separate from the rest of society’, which can be escaped only through increased household incomes or targeted inclusion policies. (4) More explicitly, pre-existing agrarian structures marked by skewed distributions of wealth and power, among other conditions, are widely understood as key determinants of chronic rural poverty. But for Green and Hulme (2005: 872), the key question anymore is “not why are some people poor in society, but why some societies tolerate poverty as an outcome and for whom, and how this toleration becomes embedded within institutional norms and systems”.

In a similar vein, the Chronic Poverty Report (2004-05: 28) cites ‘weak institutions’ and ‘political isolation’ combined, as one of the ‘multiple deprivations associated with spatial poverty traps’, with political isolation in particular as being ‘especially associated with weak political parties and networks, weak claims on local and central goverrnment services’. That study goes on to say that ‘[p]olitically, concentrations of very poor people are often characterised by a less organised civil society, less responsive government, and even a less visible NGO presence. Pockets of chronic poverty therefore exist where socio-political exclusion – often on the basis of language, identity, or gender – shapes the prospects of a significant proportion of the population’.(5) But like Green and Hulme, the Chronic Poverty Report argues that if exclusion is the problem, simple inclusion (e.g., ‘add’ previously excluded people and ‘stir’) is not the answer, since it is the terms of inclusion that matter by determining actual breadth and depth. Some analysts argue that the underlying issue is “adverse incorporation”, rather than merely social exclusion, since “chronic poverty flows less from exclusionary forces that hold certain groups at the margins of society and economy and rather more from the relationships through which these groups are intgerated into wider economic and social networks”. (6)

The problem of widespread and persistent chronic rural poverty then has important historically conditioned social-political causes. It is this feature which has encouraged some poverty analysts to think, in turn, more deeply about the potential political relevance and importance of rural social movements and/or social movement actors in addressing the problem. This renewed attention to social actors in general appears to be more analytically nuanced and balanced than in the past: “Few if any of these politically sensitive interventions suggest that social movements are in and of themselves vehicles for adressing chronic poverty. Instead they suggest such movements can be vehicles for forms of political action that attack the social relationships underlyng chronic poverty and that therefore increase the likelihood that chronic poverty will be addressed, by … by whom? Almost always the implication is ‘by the state’ or perhaps more exactly ‘by a state’, a state that still does not exist. That is, social movements are the progenitors of change in the form and culture of the state, and this is their main contribution to chronic poverty reduction”.(7) (1)

Social movements play an important role not only in pushing states to address the problem of chronic poverty, but also in shaping how this problem is addressed by states. In short, ‘development’ may still be the answer to chronic rural poverty, but who defines what development is, is now equally important. Clearly the term and concept mean different things to different people, and must therefore always be ‘unpacked’ in discrete situations– what kind of development and for whom? For instance, the World Bank and La Via Campesina hold very different ideas about rural development, by whom and for whom. One of the most important roles of social movements, according to Bebbington (2006: 5), is to “make visible different ideas of development” and to “challenge the meanings of core ideas that underlie policy debates, challenge dominant notions about what counts as legitimate knowledge in the process of forming policy and argue that alternative actors and alternative sources of knowledge ought also have a seat in policy making processes”. In the contemporary politicisation of development debates, the underlying analytic issue is who decides? While this is a key issue for many, it may be a particularly important issue for rural populations, especially those in the global South. This is because, historically, the rural poor in many developing countries have tended to be viewed by urban-based policy elites and even many urban-based social change activists as “passive receptors of change”, a phrase borrowed from Ileto (1979: 9). Embracing a leftist politics does not necessarily preclude such a perspective either, whether implicitly or explicitly. For example, historically, “[t]he Left’s traditional disdain for peasant autonomy is tied up in the belief that political process is less important than economic outcome. In other words, the question of who participates in decision-making is less important than who benefits in the end”. (8) Many civil society groups today question both the dominant and the traditional left approaches, as partly reflected in the powerful slogan: “Not about us without us”.

But it bears stressing that it is the question of who participates in decision making that most directly links the issue of the nature and direction of ‘development’ to the challenge of rural democratisation. As the American political scientist Robert Dahl puts it:

“[I]f you are deprived of an equal voice in the government of a state, the chances are quite high that your interests will not be given the same attention as the interests of those who do have a voice. If you have no voice, who will speak for you? Who will defend your interests if you cannot? And not just your interests as an individual. If you happen to be a member of an entire group excluded from participation, how will the fundamental interests of that group be protected? The answer is clear. The fundamental interests of adults who are denied opportunities to participate in governing will not be adequately protected and advanced by those who govern. The historical evidence on this point is overwhelming”. (9)

Similarly, if we look to the world of development practice, Oxfam International’s framing of the challenge as the “right to be heard” also points to the link between democracy and development and refocuses attention on the democratisation of development-related decision making, considered here as a subset of the larger problem of how to achieve full-blown political democratisation system-wide. To be sure, the challenge of achieving full democratisation system-wide is one of huge proportions. Limiting the analytic lens to dynamics in and around the rural political dimension or arena might at first appear to make an unnecessary division between urban and rural populations and political environments. But certainly, agrarian structures and class formation – and the chronic rural poverty that these have caused – are very distinct, but not delinked, from their urban counterparts. The long and rich tradition in agrarian political economy studies has taught us this, from the seminal work of Barrington Moore Jr. (1967), to the more recent works of Byres (1995), Kay (2002) and Bernstein (2006). Moreover, it is important to recognise that the particular character of contemporary rural political arenas, and the particular challenges of democratising them that they imply, has deep roots in urban-rural political divides that are inherited from the past.

Differentiated Political Arenas

To varying degrees across global regions and countries, divisions between rural and urban populations indeed exist. Such divisions may be understood as the combined result of the historical legacies of colonialism and post-colonial transactions and processes, national liberation and post-liberation trajectories, dictatorship and post-dictatorship regime transitions. In a comparative review of Mahmood Mamdani’s seminal 1996 study of politics in Africa, Fox (1998) points out that despite differences between and within global-regions with regard to colonial histories (including timing and duration), similar patterns of ‘internal colonialism’ in Latin America and Africa laid the foundations for an urban-rural political divide that survives to varying extents across different national settings today. In many countries in different regions of the global South, “de facto bargains were struck historically between [urban-based] national political elites and [mainly rural-based] local political elites, where national elites ceded territorial and political-economic power monopolies to local bosses in exchange for political stability and loyalty to the national regime”.(10)

For Africa, “Mamdani paints a picture of emerging political citizenship limited to urban areas that had experienced direct colopnial rule, while the rural hinterlands tend to remain dominate by despotic rule by local ethno-political elites whose power was consolidated by indirect colonial rule”.(11)

According to Fox (1998: 237), this is similar to what happened (albeit earlier) in Latin America, where “[p]olitical and economic control of largely rural indigenous and partly Afro-Latin American peoples tended to be left in the hands of regional bosses, intermediate links in the chain of domination known as internal colonialism”. Moreover, this pattern reappears in more recent times in Latin America in the transition to civilian rule as well. “Many of the transitions to elected civilian rule in Latin America brought political freedoms to urban areas but left large swaths of the countryside under authoritarian or semi-authoritarian rule, at least until recent breakthroughs by rural social and civic movements managed to broaden and deepen. In short, in both Latin America and Africa, urban civilian rule is necessary but far from sufficient for rural democratisation, and this deep cleavage is historically inherited in both regions”. (12)

The received rural-urban divisions have often been replicated or reinforced in the contemporary era, not only by state policies and interventions, but also through the actions of non-state actors as well, including social-economic elites and civil society actors -- including even alternative ‘new politics’ actors and agents of social change, whether implicitly or explicitly (see for example Veltmeyer’s (2004) useful discussion in the context of Latin America). Evidence from Brazil and Mexico, South Africa and Mozambique, Indonesia, and the Philippines – the six country cases taken up in this project – supports this claim. Brazil’s post-dictatorship civilian regime gives disproportionate representation to rural states in the federal legislature; this combined with the lack of effective majority rule in the Brazilian countryside has led to electoral outcomes that give rural elites significant national as well as regional political clout. (13) This is also the case in Mexico, where in the 1988 presidential election rural districts gave Carlos Salinas his official majority. (14) In the Philippines, the newly elected civilian executive in 1986, under pressure from the rural social movement, promised to put land reform at the top of the national political agenda, but then passed the key policy decisions to the landlord-dominated national legislature, leading to a compromise law that gave important concessions to landlords.(15)

In many regions of Indonesia after the fall of Suharto, ‘old alliances between business and state elites’ were soon reconstituted ‘through the institutions of the new democratic order, such as parties and parliaments’.(16)

South Africa’s post-1994 state ‘inherited a[n apartheid era] system of administration that was based on the concentration of all power in these rural areas in the hands of unaccountable traditional authorities (chiefs and headmen)’.(17)

In post-liberation Mozambique, the Frelimo dominated national legislature promulgated a law which introduced municipal elections in urban municipalities and some rural centres, but effectively barred the majority rural population from electing their local government officials, who continue to be appointed by the central govenrment in Maputo.(18)

As some of these examples suggest, once inside government (whether executive or legislative branch), the actual performance of even progressive political parties claiming to represent the interests of rural poor populations, particularly on the pressing issue of land reform – which if effectively and fully implemented would contribute a lot to eroding the power of rural elites, has been decidedly mixed, often leaving inherited rural-urban divides essentially intact. The dynamics of land reform in Brazil under the Workers’ Party and Lula is a case in point (Sauer 2006). In short, despite the coming to power of progressive political parties in recent decades, “(i)n many countries conservative rural political machines still have national clout, keeping peasant problems off the agenda”.(19)

Such political actions and outcomes in turn form part of the very political environment and context (historical, institutional, and ideational or ideological) within which today’s social change activists from both sides of the “divide” actually experience and interpret the world, develop critical perspectives and alternatives, and then proceed to act upon them. In sum, the received urban-rural divides in any given country are better acknowledged and integrated into activist analyses, rather than ignored. Likewise, the ways in which received rural-urban divisions have been replicated and reinforced, or undermined and eroded, by the political actions and interactions of both state and non-state actors in the contemporary era must be identified and understood, rather than dismissed. In focusing attention on struggles for rural democratisation, the present project aspires to ‘problematise’ the received historical divisions and linkages between rural and urban populations and their persistent social-economic and political effects within rural society, as well as within urban society and between the two, and then, while giving greater emphasis than usual to the linkages (rather than divisions) between rural and urban populations, spotlight the ways in which rural poor people struggle to confront and reshape them ‘from below’.


Democratisation in general is a difficult process involving struggles within society and the state to extend effective access to democratic governance to the entire citzenry system-wide. This definition includes changes of regime as well as political processes within a regime. For a national regime to be considered fully democratic, it must provide for universal adult suffrage in free and fair electoral competition for governing offices at all levels. But such competition must be based on the extension of certain minimum political conditions throughout society, including civilian control over the military and guaranteed respect for basic political rights and freedoms.(20)

Dahl (1998) has identified five criteria that potentially offer a more practical means to measure or evaluate the democratic-ness of political systems, but can also be applied to specific development initiatives or efforts. These are: (i) effective participation (ii) equality of voting (iii) enlightened understanding (iv) final control over the agenda and (v) inclusion of all adults. Each of these criterion in turn point to or imply a set of interrelated basic political rights and freedoms, including freedom of expression and freedom association, right to a secret ballot, and the right to know (or right to information).

The Overall Challenge

Conventional views of democratisation in general often fail to take seriously democracy’s minimum political conditions and how these are constructed and extended fully throughout society. For example, those who emphasise national elections as the main indicator that a country is democratic, often take for granted the actual freeness and fairness of given elections and ignore serious underlying obstacles to their being truly free and fair system-wide. By contrast, for many critics of such a view, the tendency is to instead stress particular socioeconomic or participatory outcomes as the main indicator of democracy, while taking for granted the actual opportunities and contentious political processes that are often required to achieve such outcomes. Yet so much empirical evidence from many parts of the world suggests that the guaranteed respect for and access to basic rights and freedoms needed for the poor, marginalised, and excluded to be effective agents of their own destinies cannot be taken for granted. Nor can we expect basic rights and freedoms to be given automatically or freely. Rather, rights and freedoms must be claimed by those who are excluded, within the very systems that have worked in the past to exclude them. Existing limits and constraints on poor people’s political agency inherited from the past do not disappear automatically or without struggle, while even ‘good’ laws do not implement themselves.(21) The present discussion thus follows Fox (1994a, 1994b) in stressing the dynamics of movement toward full political democracy and the role of political action and conflict in producing them.

The precise character of the overall democratisation challenge may vary over time and from one country to the next, shaped in part by the underlying agrarian structure, as well as the prevailing “national political architecture”.(22) But in many developing countries, it often involves a three-way struggle for control of the political process and its outcomes between: (i) central state authorities, (ii) anti-reform subnational elites, and (iii) democratic social and civic (opposition) movements. The Challenge of Rural DemocratisationIn many rural areas, and amidst neo-liberal globalisation pressures ‘from above’, the rise or resurgence of what Fox calls ‘local authoritarian regimes’ (and what Mamdani refers to as the problem of ‘decentralised despotism’), often coexist with competitively elected civilian leaderships at the national level.(23)

In recent decades much empirical evidence has emerged to indicate that still incomplete democratisation processes and the continuing presence of serious limits and constraints on rural poor people’s effective access to basic rights and freedoms.(24) This situation can be seen across a diverse array of national historical-institutional settings: from more established ‘cacique democracies’ such as Mexico, Brazil and the Philippines, to more recent ‘new democracies’ incorporating local ‘traditional’ authorities, such as in post-apartheid South Africa, post-conflict Mozambique and post-Suharto Indonesia. The failure of states to account to its rural citizens has played a significant role in setting limits on the consolidation of democratic regimes in numerous countries throughout the developing world, even in those without rural majorities, such as Brazil or South Africa. At the same time, the inherited rural-urban divide in some countries has changed, become more porous, and even lost relevance over time, especially in more recent decades, even as it has persisted in others.(25)

For many social change activists, the compelling questions are becoming less about the nature and effects of the inherited divisions themselves, and more about the changing nature of rural-urban crossings, linkages, connections, exchanges and ‘entanglements’. This is clear perhaps most especially with respect to South Africa, which has a majority urban/ peri-urban population and where much thought consequently is being put into this issue. But even in South Africa, an estimated 45 percent of the population remains to be purely rural according to one source (Andrews, 2007). Such large minorities should not be ignored or dismissed just because they are in the minority.

Three of the countries in this project can be said to be predominantly urban – South Africa, Brazil and Mexico. Each still has significant rural populations whose prospects in life and access to basic rights and freedoms cannot be taken for granted, who are confronted by many similar challenges and dilemmas, and, equally important, who similarly seek out solutions that involve making alliances with urban and peri-urban counterparts and activist networks.(26)

Regardless of the size of the rural poor population in a country, what goes on in the rural political arena is important because it can affect the lives and livelihoods of large numbers of people, including those living in more urban areas. The ongoing failure of governments to enact and/or fully implement redistributive social justice oriented agrarian reforms for example, or the wanton imposition of ‘mega’ development projects such as hydroelectric dams, or the unregulated promotion of export-oriented corporate farming, have all contributed to dispossession and impoverishment in the countryside, fuelling rapid and unrestrained migration to the cities. Efforts to solve today’s most pressing ‘urban’ problems, such as acute shortages of affordable housing and rising unemployment, that do not recognize and address the linkage between what happens in the cities and in the countryside, are bound to fall short, as can be gleaned from Mike Davis’s recent book Planet of Slums (2006). The prevailing problems in the production and distribution of food, resulting in “more food – more hunger”, is very much linked to these urban-rural dynamics as well.(27)

The recent currency of the “sustainable rural livelihoods” approach, a highly differentiated genre of scholarship, is inherently founded on the realisation of the more interlinked nature of livelihoods that span the urban-rural and agricultural-industrial divides.(28) As Bridget O’Laughlin explains in her powerful critical review of the livelihoods approach, “… the term livelihoods signals recognition of complexity, diversity and historical specificity, particularly in rural life. Rurality is not coterminous with farming; to survive rural people combine many different activities, one of which may be agriculture” (2004: 385). O’Laughlin’s very useful review draws out some of this literature’s key insights about the multiple livelihood strategies of the poor, but also points out some of its key weaknesses. Perhaps most importantly for our purposes, the existing research under the livelihoods rubric, she notes, “… frames no questions. In particular there is no theorisation of political space, a major problem for an approach that seeks to improve the quality of policy advice in development studies. There is concern with individual agency in livelihoods research, but very little with the contingent politics of collective agency” (2004: 387-388). This point is fundamental and helps to inform the present project. Indeed, our emphasis on political dynamics and political conflict, and particularly on rural-based collective campaigns that target national policy making and implementation, is a response to the continuing capacity of rural elites to prevent and undermine progress towards more democratic development. Much law and policy-making that affects the pace and direction of rural development continues to be disproportionately influenced by rural elites and their allies in national capitals.(29)

A great deal of existing state law and policy, including anti-poverty-oriented policies and programmes targeting rural areas, remain dependent on rural elite-controlled local governments and line-agency offices for implementation. For example, national land policy-making and implementation continues to be ‘twisted’ by rural elites, often in alliance with urban-based national and international elites, including transnational companies and their allies, in numerous countries -- from Brazil to Indonesia, from South Africa to the Philippines (Akram-Lodhi, Borras & Kay, 2007). Regional rural elites, through exclusionary political practices, continue to influence electoral outcomes at all levels. The rural elite ‘spoiler’ role thus has the potential to undermine even urban-based ‘new politics’ initiatives. Although useful in their own right, one cannot assume that ‘best practice’ models in participatory democracy being developed in (mainly urban areas) in the South and North can work in rural settings.(30)

The distinct demographic and geographic conditions of the countryside, and their impact on the social-political landscape, will likely require different kinds of initiatives than have been pioneered in the cities, though some cross-pollination of ideas is certainly possible and potentially fruitful. In the end, the challenge of achieving full democratisation system-wide is formidable and there are many ways to approach thinking about this problem. To be sure, limiting the analytic lens to dynamics in and around the rural political dimension or arena is just one approach, but one that is especially relevant in light of persistent and widespread chronic rural poverty throughout the developing world today and the persistence of rural-urban divides inherited from the past. Yet no elected national civilian regime can be considered fully democratic until all authoritarian enclaves have been eliminated and the entire rural citizenry is effectively enfranchised.

Rural Social Movements: Amplifying Voices, Increasing Accountability

As discussed above, the underlying question (posed earlier by Green and Hulme) of “why some societies tolerate” chronic rural poverty “as an outcome and for whom” is essentially a political one. That is, it has to do with the political dynamics of how the institutions in a society, both formally or informally, aggregate and (re)distribute (decision making) power over time. If we can agree on this, then the next crucial question is how societies might reduce or eliminate such tolerance for chronic poverty (and therefore make real strides in addressing it). This next question is also essentially political. Take the issue of land reform, for instance. As Lungisle Ntsebeza (2007: 13) asserts, “What land reform is for, who should benefit and how it should be pursued are often treated as technical economic questions, but at its heart the land question is political – it is about identity and citizenship as well as production and livelihoods – and can be resolved only through political processes”. In the end, more generally, as John Harriss (2002) argues, “depoliticising development” is unlikely to result in any significantly pro-poor outcomes.(31)

By adopting a rural democratisation standpoint, we address this overarching question by emphasising the role of political conflict between pro-democratisation and anti-democratisation forces over time in altering the inequitable status quo (or institutionalised patterns – both formal and informal -- of power distribution) in a society. This project contends that rural social movements have a key role to play in pushing forward the democratisation process. The most urgent challenge facing rural social change activists today is that of effectively ‘amplifying’ the voices of the rural poor, marginalised and excluded in development-related decision-making that affects their lives, and increasing state accountability to rural citizens. Amplifying rural poor people’s voices and increasing state accountability to rural citizens requires pushing back the existing limits and constraints, both formal or informal, on rural poor people’s effective participation, through collective political action. Rural collective action that targets the development process necessarily involves addressing and engaging ‘the institutions and social structures that affect…people’s access to, control of, and security of assets and…people’s ability to use, transform and reproduce those assets’.(32)

According to Bebbington (2006: 7-8), “Many phenomena can fall under this category of institutions and structures, some more formal and institutional, others more social and relational. The former might include land tenure rules, subsoil ownership rights, environmental regulation standards, rules governing access to and provision of health care and education etc. The latter (which interact with the former) may include relationships of race, ethnicity, gender, region and class that also have significant implications for access, control, security, use and reproduction of resources. Such relationships can influence: who the judiciary, polity and police are more likely to defend when control over assest becomes contested; the balance of power in marketing relationships and price negotiations; the bargaining over and control of assets within the household; the relative security of tenure of different ethnic and gender groups; and so on”.

A basic assumption of this project is twofold: (i) that rural social movements indeed have a key role to play in the long and difficult process of eliminating established authoritarian practices that restrict rural poor people’s effective participation in development related decision making that affects their lives, thereby opening up the development process and pushing it in more democratic directions; (ii) but that this role is not automatic or always succesful. In making this assumption, we take an initial cue from an earlier effort to study specifically rural democratisation processes (see Fox, 1990: 3) in that we “do not assume that peasant political behavior is inherently qualitatively different from that of other social groups. The premise, rather, is that the obstacles faced by the rural poor are such that democratic collective action is often more difficult in rural than in urban areas”.

This earlier study found that the obstacles to democratic collective action in rural areas are of two types: those internal to rural social and political movements, and those which lie in the interaction between such movements and the state (both local and national). The internal constraints were said to include the difficulty of mass assembly, the relative dispersal of communities, the diversity of economic activities, the ecological context, and the daily precariousness of family survival. The external constraints were seen to flow from the fact that it is often more difficult to establish respect for and effective access to basic political rights and freedoms in rural than in urban areas, precisely because of the relative strength of authoritarian-clientelist practices and relative weakness of public media and watchdog institutions. Just how rural social movement actors actually endeavor to overcome these obstacles in their pursuit of more democratic development outcomes, and which strategies offer the best prospects for success, is a crucial part of the present inquiry.

Broadly speaking, empirical evidence suggests that progress toward more democratic rural development requires rural social movements to work along three broadly distinct but related lines of action, each involving multiple levels of engagement. First, it requires the building of social and political organisations capable of effectively and democratically representing the plural identities and interests in society vis-à-vis the state, and engendering more democratic social-political practices in the process (organisation building). Second, it requires developing innovative ways to wage the struggle to democratise the state and make its development policies more accountable to the poorest sectors of society (policy making). Third, because laws and programs do not implement themselves, democratic development requires that the poor, marginalised and excluded sectors of society mobilise to claim and exercise their rights and freedoms in order to “make them real” (claim making). Each of these lines of work, and the ways in which they involve multiple levels of engagement, is discussed in more depth below.

Organisation building First, progress toward more democratic development requires the building of social and political organisations capable of effectively and democratically representing the plural identities and interests in society vis-à-vis the state, and engendering more democratic social-political practices in the process). In the first instance, building alternative rural social organisations – that is, ones that are capable of representing the diverse interests in rural society -- is not easy, since rural social organisations must represent diverse economic, ethnic and gender interests. And these diverse interests may themselves, in turn, be geographically-spatially conditioned, as shown by Wolford (2003) in the case of Brazil.

For example, as Fox (1992: 39) has noted, “the gulf between those with and without land looms large. Often the landless are left with at best ‘indirect’ representation by slightly better-off smallholders. This process has led to the emergence of separate autonomous movements of farmworkers and smallholders in Brazil, Nicaragua, Mexico and Chile”. But access to land and other key natural resources is not the only potential gulf. Most notably, apart from differences in terms of access to key natural resources such as land, gender differences are also important in both uniting and dividing the rural poor.(33) Finally, ethnic differences may also unite and/or divide excluded and marginalised rural populations.(34) For movement organisers, the underlying issue may be “how to incorporate autonomous spaces for ethnic and gender differences, and guarantee democratic participation”.(35) In the end, while “broad organisations can offer a national forum and improved electoral possibilities”, they may be less useful for addressing the diverse needs of the rural poor.(36)

There is an inherent tension between building organisations that have a national reach and impact, and at the same time building organisations that have local grounding and depth. Both are needed, however. As this suggests, beyond the issue of diverse interests among the rural poor, building alternative rural social organisations is further complicated by the need to “scale-up” so as (i) to confront elite power where it is most concentrated, which is often at the regional (rather than local) level, and (ii) to effectively manage the elite avoidance strategy of “passing the buck” of accountability from one level of the polity to another. On the rural front, the problem of scale has two dimensions. One involves extending the geographic spread of rural-based initiatives ‘horizontally’, through coalition building among the rural poor, both within and between the villages and municipalities where they live, in order to build effective counterweights to the usually regional-level concentration of rural elite power. The other entails extending the political reach of rural poor voices beyond the local level, by constructing ‘vertical’ linkages and alliances that connect different levels of the polity, from the local to the national level. Giving attention to alternative organisation building on both planes (e.g., the horizontal and the vertical) is necessary to overcome the geographic isolation and institutional exclusion – or the geopolitical ‘distance’ between individual rural poor households and governmental officials in national capitals -- that tends to simultaneously reinforce the power of regionally-based rural elites and weaken state accountability to the rural poor.

Policy making

Second, because of the central role of the state in making the laws and setting the policies that frame official development processes, progress toward more democratic development requires developing innovative ways to engage the state and make its development policies more accountable to the poorest sectors of rural society. If the state is frequently the source of problems for the rural poor, it is then necessarily part of the solution as well. As Bebbington (2006: 17) rightly observes, “While social movements are often directed at society and culture, they generally cannot get away from the state. Whether the goal is to change constitutions, land laws, mining regulations, free trade deals … these are all changes that can only be achieved through the state”. (37)

Indeed, according to Gillian Hart (1989: 48), understanding the state is key to understanding “how power struggles at different levels of society are connected with one another and related to access to and control over resources and people”. Today, the problem of how to engage the state on development policy and development related legal frameworks indeed remains the central challenge for rural social movement organisations.(38)

Policy making in general is a process that involves numerous steps or stages, namely: (i) agenda setting, (ii) policy formulation, (iii) decision making, (iv) policy implementation, and (v) policy evaluation. Analytically, each of these steps or stages is institutionally distinct and can be posited as discrete historical “turning points” in the overall struggle to direct or redirect development in a more democratic direction. Each step or stage in the policy making process thus raises a distinct set of historically and institutionally specific difficulties and challenges for those interested in influencing them. To illustrate, as Walker has argued in the case of South Africa, the women’s movement played a key role in getting gender equity on the national political agenda and embedding the principle in the new post-apartheid constitution, but the subsequent “movement of gender activists into parliament and the public services after 1994 weakened organisation among rural women” and also “the ability of rural women to utilise the enabling spaces created by the national ‘gender machinery’” since then (2002: iii). It is important to note, however, that although each step in the policy making process is distinct and thus presents a distinct set of problems for social change activists, the actual dynamics of policy making in real life are not necessarily linear and do not “in reality work through these stages logically”.(39)

There is a basic consensus among activists and academics alike that to make development related policy making more accountable to the rural poor requires bringing strong social pressure to bear in all phases of the policy making process. But one question that immediately comes to mind is “What kind of pressure is needed?” – e.g, should social pressure from below be of the more reactive “expose and oppose” variety, or should it be of the more proactive “propose” variety? In the end, some combination of both is probably necessary. Many of today’s most prominent militant rural social movement organisations, such as the MST in Brazil and the transnational La Via Campesina, clearly combine elements of both types of social pressure.(40)

In general, the mobilisation of strong social pressure is certainly a fundamental starting point in any discussion about influencing public policy. However, as social change activists increasingly discover, and as a growing number of studies have found, the key challenge is no longer simply a matter of mobilising strong social pressure from below, as it was when centralised authoritarian regimes were in place in many countries throughout the global South. With the national transition to elected civilian regimes followed by programs of decentralisation “from above” in many countries, the challenge necessarily has become more nuanced and complex, to encompass the issues of exactly how, where and when to mobilise such pressure.

Indeed, activist attention to and scholarly interest in the calibration of social pressure “from below” has increased in recent years and continues to grow. For instance, in the Philippines, the rise of the “bibingka strategy” in land reform implementation in the 1990s (adopted by one segment of the broad peasant movement) is chronicled by Borras (1999), while Franco (forthcoming) highlights the ways in which rural poor land-rights claimants deploy integrated social movement-legal strategies. The 1990s shift from national-level policy advocacy to local level land occupations in Indonesia, examined by Bachriadi & Sardjono (2006), is perhaps another example of how social movement actors calibrate and recalibrate their approaches to meet specific and changing historical-institutional conditions. In South Africa, the last five years has seen a resurgence of rural social organisation building amidst a growing realisation that the most urgent problems of “poverty, environmental degradation, landlessness, food insecurity, HIV/AIDS, and a lack of basic services are not simple or separate problems that can be solved by applying separate solutions. These are complex problems that require multiple solutions and strategies”, according to Andrews (2007). Some of these studies, moreover, seem to confirm Fox’s (2001) findings on the importance of adopting strategies that are “vertically integrated” in order to be able to monitor different elite actors at different levels simultaneously. Meanwhile, Keck and Sikkink have shown how transnational human rights and environmental advocacy networks arose where “channels between domestic groups and their governments are blocked or hampered or where such channels are ineffective for resolving a conflict, setting into motion the ‘boomerang’ pattern of influence” (1998: 12). But it is also important to remember that transnational movements are not the new “magic bullet” – as Edelman (1998) shows in his analysis of the case of the transnational peasant movement ASOCODE in Central America, there are also risks involved for local and national movements in linking up with transnational networks.

In short, moving beyond a purely “expose and oppose” orientation in recent decades has been facilitated by social movement actors’ growing recognition -- especially in an era of decentralisation and the subsequent emergence of “a more polycentric state, with multiple centers of decision making”, as Chalmers, Martin and Piester (1997: 545) put it -- of the value (and perhaps even necessity) of developing more calibrated and nimble political strategies that make use of multiple forms of action, multiple levels of intervention and multiple centers of social movement power. Such a recognition, they say, in turn, may well be encouraging the rise of the “associative network”, ostensibly a new type of social movement network mirroring a more polycentric state, as an alternative to the clientelist, populist, corporatist or mass-mobilizationist types of structures that dominated the social movement landscape in Latin America in the past. Claim making Finally, it may be obvious that laws and programs do not implement themselves. But this is perhaps especially true in rural political arenas marked by inequitable distributions of wealth and power, for the very reasons already mentioned above regarding the external obstacles to rural democratisation. Instead, laws and policies are implemented (and altered) through the actions and interactions of a wide range of actors, including not only of state agencies and judges, but also lawyers, law firms, professional associations, non-governmental law reform organisations and civil society rights-advocacy groups and social movement organisations. What kind of law or policy becomes authoritative in a given space and time depends upon the ‘interactions between actors in society and the state over the setting, interpreting, and complying with authoritative rules’ (Houtzager & Franco, 2003).

This means that bringing about, or indeed consummating the struggle for, more democratic development requires not only that state law and policy become more responsive to the autonomously organised demands of the rural poor, but also that the rural poor and other marginalised and excluded sectors of rural society, must mobilise specifically to claim their rights, in order to “make them real” over and above or against the efforts of those, both in the state and in society, who would deprive them of their rights. Given many frustrating experiences in the past, in the United States and elsewhere, in trying to claim rights through litigation (leading to the rise of the “myth of rights” school of thought in sociology of law circles), it is important to note that as far as this project is concerned, “mobilising to claim rights” may involve litigation, or some form of direct action (such as land occupation), or -- and perhaps more likely -- some combination of both. In his critique of the “pervasive concern that rights strategies necessarily lock social movements into the dangerous and paralyzing embrace of litigation”, Alan Hunt makes a distinction between “rights” and “litigation”, arguing that “[t]he espousal of a rights strategy does not necessarily imply the espousal of a litigation strategy” and that the “deployment of litigation is one possible – but certainly not a privileged – feature of a counterhegemonic rights strategy” (1993: 237, emphasis in original). Indeed, for social change activists and movements, litigation may best be viewed (as Hunt does) as “nothing more than one of the tactics to be deployed within a much broader conception of an essentially political, rather than legal, strategy” (1993: 237). (41)

More generally, poor people’s struggles to claim their rights and “make them real” are shaped by institutionalised understandings of rights, but are not necessarily coterminous with or limited by them. A perceived legal “rights gap” is today an important source of social movement inspiration and political innovation, not only but perhaps especially in the countryside, where state authority may be weak or lacking altogether, in relation to established or aspiring “traditional” or non-state authorities, who may or may not be concerned about villagers’ ostensible human rights or their putative “right to have rights”. (42)

This gap may be between what rights people think they ought to have, or “people’s own understandings of what they are justly entitled to” as Celestine Nyamu-Musembi (2005: 31) puts it, and what rights are actually institutionalised under state law. Or, as Kevin O’Brien (1996) points out, it may be the gap between what rights are promised by state law and what rights are actually delivered by state authorities. In this situation, one way to think about the act of mobilising to claim rights is “rightful resistance”. According to O’Brien (1996: 33), “[r]ightful resistance is a form of popular contention that (1) operates near the boundary of an authorized channel, (2) employs the rhetoric and commitments of the powerful to curb political or economic power, and (3) hinges on locating and exploiting divisions among the powerful”. The distinctive way in which rural populations in China in recent years have experienced and used existing laws and policies is illustrative. “In particular, rightful resistance entails the innovative use of laws, policies, and other officially promoted values to defy ‘disloyal’ political and economic elites; it is a kind of partially sanctioned resistance that uses influential advocates and recognized principles to apply pressure on those in power who have failed to live up to some professed ideal or who have not implemented some beneficial measure”.(43)

And according to O’Brien, “[s]o long as a gap exists between rights promised and rights delivered, there is always room for rightful resistance to emerge”. In short, for much of the world’s rural population, “rights” remain unrecognised aspirations or unkept promises. Either way, “specific social movement struggles.…have [already] transformed the pre-defined normative parameters of human rights, questioned established categories, expanded the range of claims that could be characterised as rights, and in some cases altered institutional structures”.(44)

And our assumption in this project is that, if they are to remain (or become) politically relevant in the process of making development more accountable to the rural poor, especially the landless and rural women, rural social organisations must continue to do so.

Six Country Cases

As explained earlier, the collective campaigns examined in this project are all attempting to engage state law and processes while at the same time attempting to transform them into something more meaningful that goes beyond “mere window dressing”. They are all geared toward prying open access to and increasing real spaces for effective participation of rural poor people in a relatively important development related process. In each country, the analytic emphasis will be on the political dynamics of challenging and breaking through the monopoly on power held by rural elites and asserting the right of poor rural citizens to a meaningful voice in priority-setting, resource allocation and development planning. All of the country cases will examine political processes emerging at the municipal/district level – this being the most immediate level of engagement with government and state - but will necessarily go beyond as well (e.g, provincial, national) since rural elite power is often concentrated at higher levels of government and local political dynamics are usually framed by national policies. At which level or levels of analysis the emphasis will lay depends on where the knots lie as well as where the organisational partners have identified the opportunities.

Mozambique: the focus is on how UNAC and other rural organisations in the province of Niassa are engaging with municipal governments around the deployment of two sources of new funds for local government (20% of proceeds from natural resource exploitation in a municipality are to be ploughed back into the affected communities; national government is to give block grants worth about $300,000 to local governments).

South Africa: the focus is on how ALARM affiliates are engaging at local government level in the Eastern Cape province to put land reform on the agenda of official local development planning through official 'Integrated Development Planning' processes; and on engagement with provincial and national government regarding the government commitment to redistribute 30% of land in the Western Cape. Mexico: the focus is on how a new state-wide forum that includes 32 civil society organisations is engaging with state/provincial government in the poorest rural state of Guerrero around transparency in state government through a 'right-to-know' campaign strategy.

Brazil: the focus is on state-society engagements in the states of Pernambuco and Parana, sites of major land occupations, to reorient rural development away from a neoliberal model and toward a more sustainable people-oriented model.

Indonesia: the focus is on state-society engagements in West Java, where rural social movements are mobilising to sustainably occupy and launch large-scale pro-people rural development in state-owned (but often private corporate-exploited) public forest land.

Philippines: the focus is on how UNORKA and its affiliate organisations’ engagements with governement officials in the regions of Southern Luzon and Central Visayas, where landlords use regular municipal and regional trial courts to 'criminalise' land rights claimants, through campaigns for 'rightful resistance' as part of ongoing land reform struggles.

The country cases will examine the above initiatives among rural communities to push the state into being more accountable to poor, marginalised and excluded sectors. Exactly how they will do this, however, will vary from case to case. To illustrate, take the case of Mexico. As outlined above, the project will focus on rural people’s efforts to promote greater state transparency through a ‘right to know’ campaign in the state of Guerrero. The Mexico study team will (i) work with a local NGO in studying the campaign strategies, then (ii) bring their analysis to the larger population of local activists in Guerrero for validation and discussion, and then (iii) bring the processed study of the case to the transnational table to share lessons and insights with the other country teams during periodic international workshops where all the country teams are present.

It is then expected that the other country teams, which are likewise composed of rural social change activists and activist researchers, will in turn carry these ideas, lessons and insights home and integrate them back into their own settings, situations and engagements where appropriate. The country studies are expected to be used by rural coalitions for internal reflections on organisational strategies, the opportunities for taking forward rural democratisation and development agendas, and political strategies towards achieving these.

Conclusion: Towards a Comparative Perspective

Building on the country studies more broadly, we will then reflect comparatively on three dimensions of the challenge of building and amplifying rural poor voices that are considered to be especially important and relevant to ongoing struggles: rural coalition building, rural-urban alliances, and party-movement relations. The starting point for reflection in each of these aspects is outlined below. For example, in reflecting on rural-urban linkages, they will assess the potential for greater co-ordination, using the outcomes as a basis for strategic discussions with major urban organisations eg. trade unions, civic associations, and sectoral associations with clear existing links to the countryside – for example, small traders. Research findings on the obstacles to rural democratisation and a people-centred rural development, and alternative propositions emerging from rural movements would be the basis for discussions with national progressive political parties, with a view to challenging the urban bias of the major parties in all countries concerned, breaking the historical pacts with rural elites and influencing programmatic positions such that they reflect the self-defined policy proposals of rural social movements.


Key dimension


Points for collective reflection

Rural Coalition Building

The limits and opportunities of rural coalition-building today, and significance and impact on rural democratisation of often difficult dynamics of coalition building around rural social change issues.

- Many factors have the potential to divide, as well as unite, the rural poor, including: socio-economic class, economic interest, ethnicity, gender, ideology, political affiliation, network affiliation, religion, elections, state policy and government programs, etc. When and how do they divide, when and how do they unite?
- Meanwhile, rural coalitions also come together and fall apart under specific historical-institutional conditions. When do they coalesce, and when do they collapse?
- When and to what extent do today's coalitions contribute to democratising the rural political arena? How might they be falling short in doing so?

Rural-Urban Alliances

The imperatives, obstacles, limits and opportunities of rural-urban alliance building, 'cross-border' linkages, flows and exchanges and the diffusion of alternative political cultures across urban-rural borders.

- Many factors have the potential to divide, as well as unite, people across rural-urban boundaries, including class, economic-sectoral interests, natural-resource access, etc. On what basis do rural-urban alliances emerge, thrive and falter? Under what conditions do they either promote or impede rural democratization? How have rural and urban movements shaped each other?
- Meanwhile, some have observed sharing or borrowing of organising strategies and collective action idioms and repertoires across urban-rural divides in different national settings. How have urban movement political cultures shaped the rural, and vice versa?

Movement-Party Relations

The complementary-competitive, disruptive-constructive relationship between (i) rural social movements and political parties and (ii) electoral and non-electoral politics more generally.

- Traditional tensions between urban-based progressive political parties/movements and peasants and rural workers (parties viewed as instrumentalising, controlling, inattentive; peasants viewed as politically unreliable, individualistic, 'petty-bourgeois').
- 1990s saw many peasant movements turning toward greater autonomy and thus rethinking the terms of their relationships with political parties: To what extent did rural social movements in our cases embark on a such a journey? How did this 'strategic turn' work out when it was undertaken? Where is the relationship going today?

The global framework for the project has thus been designed to facilitate international comparison, with each country study addressing the same questions and reflecting on the same dimensions of the challenge of rural democratisation (as explained above). Here, it is important to note, the international consultants have a key role to play, not only in helping the country teams to strengthen the individual country studies, but especially in helping the whole project team to identify, draw out, deepen and sharpen the collective analysis of important similarities and differences between countries on the key questions and key dimensions. Such analysis and insights will, it is hoped, contribute to building and refreshing local activists’ existing stocks of knowledge regarding the building of organisation, social change opportunities and effective political strategies. There is consensus among the partners of this project that there is huge organisational and strategic value in systematising and exchanging accumulated knowledge and experiences among activists, locally and internationally. Alongside helping to share experiences and strategies in overcoming obstacles to social change (such as, inequitable structures, unrepresentative institutions, unaccountable leaders etc), such exchanges may also help to address other potential obstacles in the form of parochial perceptions, predetermined interpretations and constrained imaginations among activists themselves of what is possible. In undertaking this effort at relevant and grounded knoweldge production, the project thus aspires to make a significant contribution not only in the six countries, but beyond as well, to strengthening the political impact of rural social movements on state policies, reinforcing their demands for governments to be more transparent and accountable to rural citizens and more responsive to demands to reorient rural development models towards the needs of the rural poor.

This paper is only the first draft of the overall framework paper for the three-year project on rural democratization, carried out under the auspices of the TNI New Politics Programme. This paper is intended to serve mainly as a resource and guide for the country teams in the first phase of the field work. Comments are strongly encouraged! I am extremely grateful to Fiona Dove and Saturnino Borras Jr. for useful critical comments and crucial suggestions in earlier versions of this draft. Any errors or omissions are my own.


(1) Borras, Kay & Akram Lodhi, 2007: 12.

(2) The Chronic Poverty Report 2004-05: 12.

(3) The Chronic Poverty Report 2004-05: 28.

(4) Green & Hulme, 2005: 873.

(5) CPR, 2004-055: 33.

(6) Bebbington, 2006: 8.

(7) Bebbington, 2006: 4.

(8) Fox, 1992: 39.

(9) Dahl, 1998: 76-77.

(10) Fox, 1998: 237.

(11) Fox 1998: 237. See also the recent study by Boone (2003).

(12) Fox 1998: 237.

(13) Fox, 1990: 7.

(14) Fox, 1992: 38.

(15) See Lara and Morales (1990), Franco (2001), and Putzel (1992).

(16) Aspinall, 2004: 88.

(17) Ntsebeza, 2005: 14.

(18) Serpa, 2003: 3.

(19) Fox, 1992: 39. See for example Franco (2004) for the Philippines, and Wainwright & Branford (2006) and Sauer (2006) for Brazil.

(20) This definition draws from Franco (2001).

(21) See Franco (forthcoming) and Houtzager & Franco (2003).

(22) The term u201cnational political architecture" comes from MacIntyre, who uses it as a metaphor u201cto capture the complex totality of a countryu2019s basic political institutions u2013 the rules, usually enshrined in a constitution and other key laws, that determine how the leadership of a state is configured and how state authority is exercised" (2003: 1). (23) See for example Franco (2001) for the Philippines and Ntsebeza (2006) for South Africa.

(24) For the concept of u2018local authoritarian regimeu2019 see Fox (1994a).

(25) See Tacoli (2006), Lynch (2005), McGregor, Simon & Thompson (2006), and Hart & Sitas (2004).

(26) See Veltmeyer (2004) for Latin America.

(27) See for example Rosset (2006) and McMichael (2006).

(28) The development studies community was perhaps the first to put forward a more coherent analytic framework for dealing with such diversity and complexity, as gleaned from the work of Scoones (1998), Lahiff & Scoones (2000), Bebbington (1999), and Ellis (2000).

(29) For discussion on the classic debates, see Moore (1967), Lehmann (1974) and Harriss (1982).

(30) For important urban new politics initiatives in participatory democracy, see Fung & Wright (2003) and Chavez & Goldfrank (2004).

(31) Moore & Putzel (1999) also emphasized this link between politics and poverty.

(32) Bebbington, 2006: 7.

(33) Bebbington, 2006: 7. See for example C.D. Deere (2003) on class and gender in the landless womenu2019s movement in Brazil, and Lynn Stephen (1997) on class, gender and ethnicity in rural social movements in Mexico.

(34) Bebbington, 2006: 7. See Yashar (1999).

(35) Bebbington, 2006: 7. Fox, 1992: 41.

(36) Bebbington, 2006: 7. Fox, 1992: 39.

(37) Bebbington, 2006: 7. Wainwright (2003) also emphasizes the continuing importance of the central state in shaping popular struggles.

(38) Bebbington, 2006: 7. This point has been made by Pollard and Court (2005: 9), among others.

(39) Bebbington, 2006: 7. Pollard and Court, 2005: 2.

(40) Bebbington, 2006: 7. See for example the civil society paper presented at the ICARRD by Rosset et al. (2006).

(41) Bebbington, 2006: 7. For a similar perspective and conclusions, see Cousins (1997), who looks at the difficult challenges of u201cmaking rights real" in the context of conflicting resource rights claims around South Africau2019s land reform.

(42) Bebbington, 2006: 7. For the notion of u201cthe right to have rights" and how it inspired rural social organizations in Chiapas, Mexico in the 1990s, see Neil Harvey (1998). (43) Bebbington, 2006: 7. Ou2019Brien (1996: 33). For an updated discussion, see Ou2019Brien & Li (2006).

(44) Bebbington, 2006: 7. Nyamu-Musembi (2005: 45).


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