Collective action: the poverty-reducing power of groups

November 15, 2012
by Marcia MacNeil

It all comes down to power. That’s one major point from a new IFPRI issue brief that contends that collective action—when a group decides to act together to form a voluntary institution—and property rights have a strong and beneficial impact on a range of conditions faced by the world’s poor. Underlying power relations are often at the heart of policies and programs for the poor, but groups with less power, such as smallholder farmers, pastoralists, and women, can use collective action to negotiate with other stakeholders for rights and protections.

The brief, Collective Action and Property Rights for Poverty Reduction, which summarizes a book edited by Esther Mwangi, Helen Markelova, and Ruth Meinzen-Dick, describes results of a global research project by the CGIAR Program on Collective Action and Property Rights (CAPRi) that looked at poor communities’ coping strategies in 7 countries.

The seven countries studied—Cambodia, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Kenya, the Philippines, and Uganda—have economic conditions and challenges specific to them, but each serves as an example of how collective action can make a difference.

In Ethiopia, poor communities use collective action to recover from harmful and unpredictable shocks through iddirs, or burial societies, whose members donate to a common fund that is used to pay funeral and, occasionally, medical expenses.

In Kenya, smallholder farmers are joining forces to form producer marketing groups to improve their access to markets and information, and enforce property rights and contracts, thus raising their household incomes.

In Indonesia, collective action led to talks between locals living near a forested area and government officials who wanted to reallocate the land for agricultural use. Talks are still ongoing, but the locals now have a voice in the natural resources governance process.

In Cambodia, several decades of war have broken down mutual trust. Engaging people in collective action is helping rebuild that trust while securing property rights to ensure that resources—which are generally owned, used and managed in common—are sustainably managed to generate income and assets for the rural poor.

In Uganda, natural resource protection groups shifted the balance of power and gave residents facing land degradation and other resource threats the power to reform the natural resource management bylaws of their subcounty.

The brief emphasizes that these examples are not simply admirable scenarios but goals to encourage and facilitate. Collective action and respect for property rights, coupled with investments in infrastructure and access to better market information and telecommunications, is a recipe for truly effective poverty reduction programs.