Desencuentros in theory and practice: livelihoods and resource accessing in the Andes

Anthony Bebbington
University of Manchester
[email protected]

Leonith Hinojosa
IDPM, University of Manchester

Diego Muñoz
PIEB, La Paz, Bolivia

Rafael Rojas
CEP, La Paz, Bolivia

As much as development is about encounters (Peters, 2001; Long, 1989; Escobar, 1995), it is also about desencuentros - discontinuities, misunderstandings, conflicting interpretations, impositions and resistances. The discussions of livelihoods (or often sustainable livelihoods) that came increasingly into vogue during the 1990s reflect such a sense of desencuentro. Scholars, practitioners and activists have invoked the notion of livelihood in order to argue that the ways in which poor people get by are far more complex than most interventions allow for. The idea has also been used by those working within the “they know how” (Meehan, 1979) tradition of populist, basista approaches development, in order to argue that the only livelihoods that stand any hope of being sustainable will be those that build on the ways in which poor people currently live, that reflect people’s own knowledge, and that are grown from the grassroots.

This paper discusses part of a research project in which a concept of livelihood was used to explore such encounters and desencuentros between livelihoods and development interventions – in this case the interventions of aid chains involving Dutch and Andean NGOs. Specifically the paper focuses on the asset (resource) management dimensions of rural livelihoods to explore the points at which household strategies of resource accessing converge with and diverge from the strategies used by actors within the nongovernmental aid chain to enhance household asset bases. As will be clear the degree of convergence/divergence varies according to type of household and – to some extent – type of NGO. This in turn appears to reflect dissonances between what it is that intervention strategies imply rural people want for their and their children’s future, and what rural people appear to be seeking for this future.

Second, the paper explores the ways in which political economic forces and relationships influence rural people’s aspirations for the future, and the quality of the livelihoods that they build. That discussion suggests that interventions (be it practical or academic) in people’s livelihood practices need to pay as much attention to the structures and relationships that govern access to resources and the productivity and quality of those resources, as to actual asset bases and resource accessing strategies of rural households.

The paper first discusses livelihood approaches to rural poverty and development. In particular it explores the potentials and drawbacks of approaches that focus on household asset bases, and discusses certain ways in which questions of political economy have been brought into such approaches. It then presents recent evidence on household resource accessing strategies in the communities in which research was conducted and explore how far external interventions have responded to the dynamics underlying these strategies. The discussion outlines general patterns in the resource accessing and broader livelihood strategies used by families and the extent to which external interventions have helped improve the outcomes of these strategies. It closes by discussing some of the socio-political and political economic factors that have influenced livelihood possibilities and resource accessing preferences, and the convergences and divergences between household livelihood strategies and rural development interventions.

Livelihoods and NGO interventions: encuentros y desencuentros

Several recent studies of livelihoods in the Andes have talked of a “desencuentro” between rural livelihood strategies and project interventions, particularly of NGOs (Zoomers, 1998; le Grand, 1998a, b; van Niekerk, 1997). At their core, such studies suggest two main problems. One is that the selection of project sites, contents and ways of working are not necessarily based on a prior analysis of priorities and current conditions in the rural economy; instead they are driven by institutional concerns, pre-existing networks of contacts, existing human resource capabilities of the institutions etc. NGOs speak of the campesino economy, without ever defining it conceptually or empirically.

A second and related claim of these studies is that interventions have often been based on misconceptions of contemporary rural livelihoods. The most frequent misconception, it is claimed, is to view rural livelihoods as essentially agricultural, and therefore geographically static, when in fact they are often geographically mobile and based on multiple income sources and activities, pursued in a range of locations (Zoomers, 1998, 1999). This “agro-centric” view of livelihoods leads to desencuentros between the geographical structure of project interventions which tend to be based on one delimited site (community, municipality, watershed etc.), and the geographical structure of livelihoods which is often discontinuous, with some activities within the community and watershed but many others in other rural and urban locations.

This study suggests a similar phenomenon. All the projects reviewed include activities related to agriculture, livestock or natural resource management. They all work in geographically bounded areas; and in all these areas the livelihoods of many families include important economic and social activities in other locations. While these activities may not always be directly related to immediate income generation productive, they do assume importance in family life strategies – for instance, educating children etc.

As a consequence, projects and families appear to differ in the assets that they prioritize. Projects have spent considerable resources investing in tangible assets, while families also invest much of their effort in building up human and social capital (in the form of social networks). In Laja, respondents estimated that they spent from 25 to 30% of their income on their children’s education. The implicit and explicit rationale for this has been that families view their children’s future as being outside of agriculture – and that indeed they want it to be (c.f. Garcia, 2000). While people have invested mostly in the human capital of their children, they have also aimed at expanding their own capacities – particularly by participating in literacy programs. Literacy – and education more generally – are viewed as crucial for empowerment and advancement, and also in order to reduce mistreatment when working and living as migrants in other areas. Indeed, a general sense from those cases in which the NGO combines productive activities with human capacity formation is that the latter activities have been more effective. They have also tended to reach a far broader segment of the population than have productive activities that (for understandable reasons of cost and risk) are generally concentrated in just a few families.

Another desencuentro between interventions and communities – particularly in the first half of the decade – derived from NGOs’ conceptions of community economic organization and culture. Reflecting the tradition of community studies and community development in the Andes (Degregori, 2000), all these NGOs at some point pursued a model of collective production. These all failed, reflecting the extent to which production was always individual. The community never governed production, and while it has governed resource management (land, water, pasture), in all the case studies this role is also under pressure as the tendency among comuneros is to want ever more private tenure in natural resources. The community continues to play an important role in providing collective assets and NGOs have been able to build on this by mobilizing communal labor for building infrastructure. However, because in many cases this infrastructure has been a group asset open to some rather than a collective asset open to all, this has sometimes generated dissatisfaction and tensions among those comuneros who don’t benefit from the asset.

These problems reflect a related “misconception” - the continuing tendency of these NGOs to understate or skate over the implications of social differentiation within the community (de Zeeuw et al., 1994: 133 also noted this). This has meant, in practice, that the productive options promoted by the projects tend to be relevant for the more “viable” – i.e. wealthier – families, but not for the livelihoods of poorer people. As a result interventions seem to have fostered yet further differentiation.

Such reflections lead to a larger more strategic question – how far ought actors within the aid chain pursue strategies that prioritize direct support to families asset building strategies, or how far ought they direct their attention to the structures and institutions that govern overall patterns of access to resources in Peru and Bolivia. A related question is whether livelihoods frameworks – at least those that focus attention on asset management strategies – have the effect of encouraging intervention strategies to focus on direct asset building rather than on the social and political economic arrangements that do so much to structure overall patterns of well-being. This paper began by arguing that livelihoods approaches do not necessarily divert attention from these structural questions, and the research reported here suggests that such approaches can be used to demonstrate that grassroots asset building strategies are only a small part of poverty alleviation and the enhancement of well-being. It also suggests that a livelihoods lens can help illuminate the logics inhering in popular strategies as well as the ways they are embedded in broader sets of social and economic relationships. However, at the very least the research makes palpably clear the dangers inherent in focusing too much on assets and too little on political economy, too much on popular agency and too little on social structure.