FAO Experience and Assets in Decentralization
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Contact: Jean Bonnal

FAO Experience and Assets in Decentralization


This chapter is a general survey of lessons that can be drawn from different aspects of FAO experience, and assets in decentralization.(1) The underlying question of this study is this: given the necessary conditions for the success of decentralization, what expertise can FAO bring to bear on the formulation and implementation of a decentralization policy? Generally, the projects that FAO has put in place in different countries have been technical assistance with three dimensions:

Public Institutions
information production to improve the quality of the actions of the state, restructuring of institutions, training
Civil Society
managerial capacity by contract, participatory extension, participation programs and structuring of the peasantry
Local Government
role of local jurisdictions, poles of development, construction of dialogue, and regionalization

The accumulated experience in these three areas is the expertise that FAO can contribute toward the efforts of member states to create the necessary conditions to successfully carry out decentralization processes and restructure institutions responsible for rural development.

Public Institutions

FAO has carried out some actions to improve the performance of public institutions responsible for agricultural support services. With this it has promoted a new kind of relationship between these institutions and rural populations. The public institution dimension of FAO intervention comprises three lines of action:

  • carrying out surveys and establishing classifications on the situation of rural populations
  • training local actors on decentralized planning
  • restructuring public institutions having responsibility for agricultural support services and rural development

1. The role of surveys and classifications in the dialogue between the state and rural populations

This line of action is the gathering of information on agricultural production systems and their development. It helps decision makers have better knowledge of the problems of these systems and makes it possible to integrate the needs of rural populations (determined through surveys and classifications)(2) in the formulation of policy. The theory is that, to formulate effective policy, information available at the local level has to be taken into account. The accumulated experience in the gathering of such information is an asset which enables FAO to reestablish a balance to the disparity of access to information, and to better coordinate development activities.

This approach, at first centered on the identification of production systems, and based on agro-ecological characteristics at the local level, now seeks to take into consideration regional diversity. As a result, the approach can be used as a tool in the formulation of adaptable policies, by apprising public institutions of special problems of rural populations, and regions. It would thus make these institutions more effective.

The advantage of this approach is that it was one of the first attempts at including popular participation in problem identification and resolution. Indeed, projects implemented along these lines have demonstrated a strong willingness to register the opinion of peasants and to create structures for consultation at regional level. The establishment of frameworks for consultation is crucial for this approach, and is one of the assets of FAO. One other characteristic of the approach is its emphasis on partnerships at all levels. A network of partners, consisting of representatives of public institutions, elected officials and representatives of other social groups and organizations, should be created at each level of intervention. This kind of partnership is perhaps one of the most useful assets resulting from FAO experience in the establishment of new relations between the state, rural populations and other actors in rural development.

2. Decentralized planning and the role of training

The institution of new mechanisms for decentralized planning and strong training programs are the second line of action of the public institution(3) dimension of FAO intervention. FAO recognizes that decentralization is a complex process requiring some enabling conditions, to be sustainable, especially a strong continuing education program for personnel, citizens, or organizations that are assigned decentralized functions and responsibilities.

Part of FAO's accumulated experience is its capacity to analyze decentralization processes. It uses the analytical tool it has developed to assess training needs. This instrument is important because it enables FAO to support governments to target training actions on key sectors in the decentralization process, in order to give them priority.

Another aspect of its accumulated experience relates to efforts to integrate rural populations in the formulation of policy. FAO's experience indicates that it is not always easy to involve all groups of society in development activity. That is why FAO emphasizes training citizen organizations and government administrators, in order to instill a real culture of decentralization. There are three conclusions drawn by FAO in regard to training:

  • for training to be integrated into the participatory approach, it has to target not only managers of support institutions, but also citizens and their organizations
  • no training effort can be useful if its themes and pedagogical methods do not give priority to knowledge and organizational abilities of grassroot actors, and if knowledge and abilities of local populations are not taken into account
  • Decentralization increases the need for training just as training increases the chances of success of decentralization

3. Restructuring agricultural support services

The third line of action concerning public institutions relates to the restructuring of rural development institutions.(4) Restructuring, a component of structural adjustment, is based on principles of democracy, transfer of responsibilities, and consultation between actors in development. Accumulated experience made it possible to:

  • define the new role of the state, and transfer to actors of civil society, responsibilities that had been the sphere of the central administration
  • review relations between the different levels of government
  • redefine the relations between the state and private operators
  • establish a representation model which makes it possible to consult farmers on matters that concern them.

An aspect of this line of action relates to the functions of agriculture ministries. FAO thinks that rural development institutions should possess enough capacity to intervene but that this capacity should be used in the framework of clearly defined missions for each type of rural development operator. Promoting private initiative, reinforcing peasant and local capacity, regulation and control, are specific areas of public intervention. The link between the new functions of the ministries and the strengthening of professional organizations and the mechanisms for dialogue with the state are another aspect of FAO's accumulated knowledge. The method of restructuring institutions which is specific to FAO, emphasizes the need to reinforce peasant organizations so they are able to provide the services demanded by farmers, by resorting to partnerships with the private sector or NGOs. In pointing out that decentralization cannot work if the state does not have interlocutors who are representative of different categories of the population, FAO has made decisive progress in understanding the most important conditions for decentralization to take place properly.

Civil Society

This dimension of FAO activity, one of its assets in matters relating to decentralization, includes activities enabling citizens to play a role in rural development and in the management of their own affairs. Three lines of action appear to be particularly attractive. First of all, the experience relating to village soil management. Secondly, the organization of extension services on the basis of a participatory approach. Finally, citizen participation programs, and the structuring of peasant organizations.

1. Soil management programs and the links between local jurisdictions and the state

Village soil management (VSM) projects are an important line of action of FAO work.(5) It seeks to create the conditions that make it possible to involve local communities in the management of social investments and natural resources. Underlying this methodology is the diagnosis that projects put together without popular participation do not lead to sustainable development. Consequently, the VSM approach emphasizes a significant involvement of rural populations in development. The major advantage of this line of action is the taking over of agricultural support services by peasant organizations and rural communities.

The experience with village soil management is of interest to any deliberation on decentralization because it indicates the necessity of developing contractual relations between villagers and the state. It is from this point of view an important asset for the creation of conditions enabling decentralization to work well, because it prepares local jurisdictions for the transfer of responsibilities, in teaching them to manage their own affairs. In this regard, soil management can only succeed in a context where the power to formulate policy, to manage and evaluate are decentralized. Regional coordination guarantees the efficient and coherent implementation of the methodology, and also the success of national policy in the.

Another advantage of this approach is the development in the rural population of a new kind of relationship based on consultations first at the local level, then at the regional and national levels. It is an approach which gives priority to the immersion of agents in the field, consultation of citizens and all actors, the distribution of responsibilities, the pooling of knowledge and know-how. The transfer of responsibilities and partnerships are thus the two principal lines of actions of this approach. The accumulated experience of FAO in this area is an asset to be taken into consideration for the proper formulation of a decentralization policy.

2. Extension Policy in a Participatory Approach

The second line of action in relation to civil society concerns agricultural support services.(6) FAO work has taken a participatory approach to extension services, making it possible to integrate the needs of small farmers in a larger set of development actions. The approach leads to a specific support effort for peasant organizations. FAO projects have included coordination of local actions to ensure their coherence, and to enable regional programming. Moreover, extension systems have taken into consideration the diversity of production systems by putting in place a set of differentiated messages designed from knowledge of local know-how. These directions make extension a tool for reinforcing the capacity of communities to associate, and their sense of responsibility, in order to solve both up-stream and down-stream production problems.

The participatory approach to extension services takes three major forms of gradual commitment (consultation, co-management, and transfer of responsibilities) used both for the analysis of situations and review of problems, as well as the implementation of actions, monitoring and evaluation. The long-term goal is for organization and consultations to be the mode of transfer of responsibilities, and program determination by peasants themselves. One thus understands the advantage of the experience for deliberation on decentralization. This type of projects make peasants the key actors in the implementation of the methodology. Extension agents build an exchange relationship with them. Decision-making is on the basis of contract, committing both peasants and extension agents. In this methodology, rural populations work in partnership with extension agents. These are so many FAO assets for establishing the enabling conditions for decentralization.

3. People's Participation Programs and the Structuring of Peasant Organizations

People's participation programs are the third line of action of the civil society dimension.(7) In the context of decentralization and the transfer of responsibilities, this line of action is an important asset for creating the conditions for the most indigent groups to organize themselves to take over the management of support services. There are two basic aspects to FAO's accumulated experience in citizen participation. First, the people's participation programs (PPP) themselves, which emphasize the building of rural organizations capable of carrying out revenue generating activities. Secondly, projects aiming at structuring of peasant organizations.

The PPP view citizen participation as returning initiative and decision-making powers to rural populations in the implementation of actions that concern their future. According to the PPP, participation has two dimensions: an economic dimension directed toward revenue generation, and the integration of citizens into the monetary exchange network, and a political dimension, which for the poorest, is having a voice and recognition like other actors in development. Since participation can only be realized around a mobilizing project, PPPs seek to identify revenue generating activities. In these conditions, the approach gives priority to the development of entrepreneurial skills, as a means of ensuring self-sufficiency in the medium and long term. This is a very important methodological asset.

As for actions associated with structuring peasant organizations and the improvement of conditions for dialogue between the state and representative organizations, they take root in the idea of sustainable development which postulates that development actions cannot be replicated if they are not taken over by rural populations themselves. This strategy of rural development recognizes that if the rural poor are not given the means to participate in actions which concern them, they will remain excluded and marginalized. An important experience in this regard is the Forests, Trees and People (FTP) directed toward ensuring peasant participation in the management of community forests. Even if the program has not always succeeded in modifying policies, it has nonetheless had some influence in their formulation by having some concerns of grass-roots organizations included in the agenda of the state.

Local Governments

This third dimension comprises actions for reinforcing regional and local levels of government.(8) The subject of local government is directly related to deliberations on decentralization to the extent that regionalization is introduced when local governments are capable of being real centers for rural development. This methodology is the complement of the approach which attempts to build interfaces between national and local levels of government. The two approaches are an FAO contribution, which can lead to new thinking about the role of the region.

1. The role of local governments in decentralization

With decentralization, local governments will be where local actors retake the initiative to define the options of their development, and put them into effect. The weight given the local level as the locus of initiative and decision raises the question of connecting this level with higher levels of decision. The FAO approach sees the local level as an arena for initiative on organization and association, economic activity and recognition of actors. The idea is to support local actors so that they can define goals that mobilize them, and based on which it would be possible to build new dynamics. This approach recognizes all the same that the local level is not homogeneous, and that as a result, it is necessary to take into consideration multiple actors who are directly involved at the local level, or who take decisions having repercussions on local realities.

The context created by structural adjustment policies is an important background to understanding this approach to development. There has been a wave of democratization and strong demands for participation and decentralization, which require the strengthening of local administrations. Local governments are slowly emerging as the key actors for the implementation of new development strategies. This requires institution building to enable them to establish dynamic relations with their people.

It is possible to identify possibilities for action by rural municipalities. In particular, it is the identification of the real potential of rural municipalities in terms of support services for the small farmer, and social services for the indigent, but also the question of the necessary conditions for municipalities to carry out these tasks. Thus municipalities could become the geographic level to articulate and carry out public and private initiatives associated with rural development, opening the way for the municipalization of rural development. In order to effect municipalization, it is necessary, as do some FAO teams, to identify the most dynamic intermediate regions and municipalities, and on the basis of this identification, analyze the factors which could enable these municipalities to become poles of rural development. Thus FAO can provide some services and support to assist governments to solidify the dynamism of these poles.

2. Building interfaces between the national and local levels of government

The strengthening of local governments and their eventual transformation into true poles of rural development, require that the local level have decision-making powers and responsibilities, which is only possible through decentralization, and especially through devolution of decision-making powers and responsibilities relating to finance, to local institutions elected by citizens. The choice of subnational jurisdictions as the locus of development initiative is justified to the extent that it is from there that it will be possible to effect a sustainable integration of grass-roots communities, and organizations of civil society in a coherent political whole.

This development strategy, implicit in FAO experience, is based on the idea of partnership. This idea involves certain development characteristics that should be explained:

  • the recognition that local actors play a central role in determining and implementing development programs;
  • the primary role given to local governments as places of initiative and decision-making;
  • the recognition that there should be a sequence of actions between the short and mid term, such that actions helping to overcome immediate problems bolster more structured interventions.

The increased role given to local actors does not mean that the state no longer has important functions to carry out. It must especially ensure the coherence of actions, which requires the building of interfaces between the local and national levels, making it possible to integrate the needs and initiatives expressed at grass-roots level on the one hand, and the national directions, problems and coordination, on the other. The presence of the regional level would make it possible to referee these two contradictory problems. The regional level could specifically provide rural populations with information on the institutional, economic and technological, environment, that would enable them to participate effectively in the formulation of policy.

It is the recognition of the role of theses interfaces that led FAO to support the structuring of the rural sector through regionalization, seen as a dynamic method of linking the strengthening of the local level and the disengagement of state. However, on this relatively new path, a clearer definition of the boundaries between the local and regional levels still has to be made.


There is a consensus that the rural sector has a decisive role to play in the realization of the objectives of food security, poverty reduction and improving the management of natural resources. It is also recognized that decentralization could improve the actions taken for the development of the sector. But consensus is not enough, the institutional framework has to be organized, to transform this consensus into a participatory and sustainable rural development. The experience and accumulated knowledge of FAO can help in building this framework.

To give an overall view of the principal lesson learned from FAO experience, one can say that the major challenge of decentralization is the management of the tension between the collective and local initiatives, and the requirement of integrating these initiatives into an overall vision. Differentiation, regionalization, and institution building can help resolve this tension. In the final analysis, decentralization requires that the level receiving the decentralized functions be strong and dynamic, so that its actors can welcome the decentralized functions and initiatives. The three dimensions and the different lines of action of FAO work all seem to go in this direction.


  1. See FAO-SDA, "FAO Experience in Decentralized Rural Development", Decentralization and Rural Development Coll. No. 1, FAO-SDA, Rome, 1997.
  2. The department involved in this line of action is AGSP but other departments also resort to the production systems approach.
  3. The department involved in this line of action is TCAS.
  4. A number of departments were involved in such institutional support, notably, ESP, ESHA and SDAR.
  5. The departments involved in this line of action are TCIL, TCIR and TCII.
  6. The department involved in this line of action is SDRE.
  7. The departments involved in this line of action are SDAR, TCDN, and FONP.
  8. The departments involved in this line of action are TCAR and SDAR.