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1.2 Defining rural development

By comparison with development, rural development is a much newer term. But how does it relate to 'development' and some of the ideas discussed above? Is it an alternative to existing theories of development or does it simply refer to development carried out in rural areas? Why does it warrant study as an independent discipline in its own right? These are some of the questions that we shall be addressing in the remainder of this unit. However, before we go further let us consider what is meant by the term 'rural'.

Defining 'rural'

Most people probably have a fairly clear idea what is meant by 'rural'. However, the definition of rural is not as clear-cut as one might think.

How would you define 'rural'? Think about this for a few moments before continuing.

Probably the first thing that springs to mind is the contrast with urban areas and the image of open spaces, either in a relatively natural state or cultivated or grazed by livestock. But what about rural towns? And what about those areas on the edge of towns and cities where the space between buildings grows larger and where small plots of cultivated land may begin to appear between industrial estates and other features that we closely associate with the urban concept. In short, there is no precise distinction between rural and urban, although where countries do wish to identify a cut-off point between one and the other, it typically relates to the population size of human settlements - towns, villages etc. Official definitions often refer to settlements with less than 5000 people as being rural, whilst those with more than 5000 are considered urban. However, this threshold varies from one country to another, due in part to differences in the overall population density.

In the context of this module rural is defined fairly broadly. It relates primarily to areas that have a relatively low population density compared to cities, areas where agriculture and related activities usually dominate the landscape and economy, and places where transport and communications need to cover relatively large distances making travel and service provision relatively difficult and costly. However, our definition also includes the towns (as opposed to cities) that are located in these areas and which are linked to them culturally and economically by acting as a focal point for people living in the surrounding areas - places where they can meet, exchange goods and services, and find transport to larger urban centres. Finally, we are also interested to some extent in the peri-urban areas - the areas that lie on the fringes of the urban environment, including the edge of major cities.

Whilst the challenges facing urban and rural populations in developing countries have much in common, there are differences. The distinct challenges facing rural communities relate above all to the problems associated with natural resource-based livelihoods, low population densities, and poor communications. These problems are a recurring theme in the examination of different conditions, challenges and processes in rural development.

Rural development as policy and as process

Rural development emerged as a distinct focus of policy and research in the 1960s and gained full momentum in the 1970s, as observers increasingly realised that, whilst economic growth and industrialisation were important, rural areas and rural development had important and different roles to play in a country's development.

What do you understand by the term 'rural development'? Spend a few minutes writing down your thoughts. Don't worry if you are not familiar with this field yet: try to answer the question anyway.

1.2.1 provides a short synopsis of one writer's understanding of rural development as it emerged as a major issue at the beginning of the 1980s.

1.2.1 Rural development as policy and as process

'Rural Development has emerged as a distinctive field of policy and practice and of research in the last decade, and particularly over the eight or nine years since the inception of the "new strategy" for development planning by the World Bank and UN agencies. This strategy came to be formulated as a result of the general disenchantment with previous approaches to development planning at national and sectoral levels, and it is defined by its concern with equity objectives of various kinds ...

The term "Rural Development" ... refers to a distinct approach to interventions by the state in the economies of underdeveloped countries, and one which is at once broader and more specific than 'agricultural development'. It is broader because it entails much more than the development of agricultural production - for it is in fact a distinct approach to the development of the economy as a whole. It is more specific in the sense that it focuses (in its rhetoric, and in principle) particularly on poverty and inequality. Although there is a substantial overlap between the field of conventional agricultural economics and the concerns of "Rural Development", the kinds of study required to understand the factors affecting "Rural Development" are not contained within the discipline of agricultural economics. Not only does "Rural Development" include attention to other aspects of rural economies as well as agriculture, but the analysis of distributional issues demands an inter-disciplinary approach in which the broader social and political factors interacting with economic processes are subjected to examination ...

The expression rural development may also be used, however, to refer to processes of change in rural societies, not all of which involve action by governments. In this case, the activity of "Rural Development" a form of state intervention, must be considered simply as one of the forces concerned - although it is one which has become of increasing importance.'

Source: Harriss (1982) pp. 14-15.

What do you notice about Harriss' understanding of this field compared to yours?

According to Harriss, rural development can be viewed as either of the following:

These are two angles, if you like, from which we can consider rural development. Implicit in the first of these is the notion of government intervention of one sort or another. Admittedly, policy can be characterised by non-intervention or a laissez-faire attitude to rural development. The withdrawal of government from rural development activities can also be considered to be a policy. However, in this unit when we talk of rural development as policy we are referring to a policy of active state engagement with the rural development process.

An area-based approach

In relation to rural development policy, Harriss identifies a number of important characteristics, perhaps the most obvious of which is that it is an area-based approach to development. In other words, rural development policy targets particular geographical areas (rural areas) rather than an economic sector (eg agriculture, manufacturing, education) or a particular group of people (eg small farmers, female-headed households, ethnic minorities) - even though individual sectors or groups of people may be targeted as part of a broader rural development strategy.

Given that the livelihoods of the majority of the world's rural population depend, either directly or indirectly, on the agricultural sector, agriculture is an obvious sector in which to concentrate efforts to promote growth. Indeed the promotion of agricultural development and smallholder agriculture, in particular, has always been a central feature of rural development policy.


However, rural development is not just about agricultural growth and, whilst agricultural growth is a very important dimension of rural development, it is not enough on its own to ensure economic growth in rural areas. Other sectors or dimensions come into play in the process of rural growth, such as health, education and economic activities outside the agricultural sector. Rural development is multi-sectoral. It embraces a variety of different economic and social sectors. These are summarised below:

The primacy of agriculture debate

Despite a multi-sectoral approach, current opinion is divided concerning the relative importance of different sectors and of agriculture in particular. On the one hand, there is the view that agricultural development, driven by growth in the small farm sector, is a pre-requisite for the wider development of the rural economy; that, in the poorest parts of the world, it needs to be the driving force in efforts to reduce poverty; and that rural development policies should focus on making small farmers more productive through improved access to technology and markets.

A contrasting view is that excessive focus on agriculture fails to take account of the complexity and increasing diversity of rural livelihoods, and the importance of income-generating activities located outside agriculture. Whilst not denying the role of agriculture in the development process, this view gives agriculture, and particularly small scale agriculture, less emphasis and calls for policies that are more tailored to individual circumstances within a very varied rural environment.

A third view plays down the importance of agriculture in local development processes and argues that while access to cheap food is important, this may be best obtained from imports or from large-scale agriculture rather than small-scale agriculture.

Superimposed upon this debate are questions about global food security and whether we are now moving into an era of food shortages. The optimism of recent decades is giving way to greater pessimism about the ability of supply to keep pace with demand, especially given the uncertainties surrounding climate change. We return to these issues later, but for now it is worth noting that this has reinvigorated the debate about the role of agriculture in development.

The environment and sustainability

Another central concern in rural development is environmental sustainability. Although Harriss' definition does not make any mention of the environment, the subject is clearly of particular importance in rural development, since so much economic activity, notably agriculture, is both dependent on natural resources, as well as having a very direct impact upon them, through for example deforestation, soil degradation, and loss of biodiversity.

One of the biggest challenges, both now and into the future, relates to climate change. Global climate change is likely to have a major impact upon the climate and natural resources of rural areas, affecting both the productivity of rural resources as well as the livelihoods of people who are dependent upon them. Agriculture is also a major contributor to the greenhouse gases that cause climate change and may well be affected by future efforts to reduce carbon emissions. We shall examine these issues further in the final section of this unit.

Rural poverty

Most approaches to rural development, at least in terms of stated goals, have had, and continue to have a strong poverty focus. Many people, including Harriss in 1982, viewed this concern as a distinctive feature of the study and pursuit of rural development, setting it apart from traditional approaches to development - the latter were mostly concerned with macroeconomic growth and how to stimulate output in the productive sectors of the economy; they assumed that poverty would fall automatically once these issues had been addressed. Interventions in rural development have often focused more directly on the problem of poverty - eg by addressing the basic needs of the poor in terms of food, health and education etc and looking to improve the productivity of the activities that the poor themselves are engaged in.

The attention given to poverty in the field of rural development has much to do with the high prevalence of poverty in rural areas. Most of the world's poor live in rural areas and it is in the rural areas that poverty and associated deprivations are typically at their most extreme. However, the world, and poverty itself, is becoming increasingly urbanised. Indeed, the problem of urban poverty is now high on the international development agenda, so it would be wrong to say that poverty concerns are exclusive to the field of rural development. The Millennium Development Goal objective of halving the number of people living in poverty by 2015 highlights the mainstreaming of poverty as a focus of policy.

Nevertheless, the incidence and severity of poverty will for some time continue to be higher in rural areas as compared with urban areas, so that even though the number of urban people in the world overtook the number of rural people sometime in 2010, the number of poor rural people remained higher than the number of poor urban people (IFAD 2010). Furthermore, many of the urban poor originate from, and retain close links with, rural areas; and the ranks of the urban poor are often swelled by migration that is precipitated by a lack of opportunity in rural areas. What happens in rural areas is therefore important both for both rural and urban poverty.


Gender issues feature prominently in the field of rural development. Women are often the poorest and most vulnerable members of the rural community and female children are often subject to greater neglect than their male siblings. Like poverty, gender concerns are not exclusive to rural development; however, gender-related poverty is often hardest to tackle in rural areas. Firstly, the cultural norms governing the division of labour and resources between men and women (which often disadvantage women) are usually more deeply entrenched in rural areas. Secondly, the wider difficulties of rural transport and communications keep women isolated from the support that they might get from each other or outside agencies were they to live in a town or city.

Multi-dimensional and interdisciplinary

Because of the broad concerns and multi-dimensional, multi-sectoral, nature of rural development, the study and practice of rural development requires skills and insights from a wide range of disciplines. Agricultural, economic, environmental, sociological, political and institutional theories can usefully be drawn together to study rural change and the best ways to achieve desired objectives. Additionally, the specialist expertise of natural and biological scientists, engineers, as well as education and health professionals are clearly essential in dealing with the challenges of rural development.

1.2.2 The dimensions of rural development

The natural environment supplies one set of factors affecting agrarian systems - of more immediate and direct relevance than they are in the case of industrial societies; and these and the way in which they work are intimately related to the technologies employed by people in making use of natural resources.

Demographic factors, the density of population and the trends of population growth are also likely to affect these relationships. But an analysis which took into account only these environmental, technological and demographic processes would be seriously deficient, for the economics of farming and of other production activities and the way in which these are affected by markets and by the connections between the rural economy and the rest of the national economy, or with world markets, must also be included. We must also ask how these factors are affected by the social structures of rural producers and by their values or their 'culture'. Satisfactory analyses of processes of change in rural societies have somehow to embrace all of these issues.

Source: Harriss (1982) pp. 16-17.

Both rural development and development more generally are about change. Understanding change and promoting desirable change requires good co-ordination between the various actors involved in rural development (farmers, rural residents, government organisations, NGOs and other civil society organisations, donors, rural development professionals, researchers, private firms and businesses etc). However, co-ordination in rural areas is a particularly tough challenge because of the relatively dispersed nature of rural populations, associated communications problems, and the uncertainties that are associated with dependence upon relatively unpredictable natural processes.

The characteristics outlined so far do not represent a comprehensive or definitive outline of rural development. Indeed, there is substantial disagreement over what 'rural development' actually encompasses. Nevertheless, these characteristics do provide a good starting point.