SOAS University of London

Centre for Development, Environment and Policy (CeDEP)

Rural Development

Module Code:
P127 (P530)

Rural development is a broad discipline that covers many different themes. The central theme is defined by the name. In this module, rural development is about progress and change in the rural areas of developing countries. It is concerned with the factors that affect rural change, how we define progress, and what can be done to bring about the overriding objective of rural development, which is to reduce, and eventually eliminate, rural poverty. Most of the world’s poor still live in rural areas, and whilst poverty in the world’s growing cities is a major problem, a large proportion of the urban poor are migrants from rural areas. This makes rural development important, not only for the rural poor but also for the urban poor whose prospects are often made worse by the population pressures caused by rural–urban migration.

Rural development, as a focus for policy and academic study, emerged in the 1960s and 1970s in response to the failures of development policies based on industrial growth. Urban and industrial development were central to theories of economic growth in the 1950s and were supposed to offer the quickest route out of poverty. It soon became apparent, however, that the ‘modern’ sector was incapable of absorbing rapidly growing populations, the bulk of which remained rural and poor; and as increasing numbers of the rural poor crowded into already overcrowded cities, policy-makers began to shift their attention towards rural development.

The emerging discipline of rural development gave renewed attention to agriculture which had been somewhat neglected by earlier theories of economic growth. However, it also recognised that rural development is not just about agriculture: it has many interlocking facets and is most effectively approached from a multidimensional perspective.

The world has changed considerably since rural development first began to attract the attention of academics and policy-makers. Many of the challenges remain the same; however, there are also new ones and the policies that were appropriate in the 1960s and 1970s are not necessarily the ones that are appropriate now. Indeed, a recurring theme in this module is the debate concerning agriculture’s role in rural development, especially the role of smallholder agriculture. The renewed attention that was given to agricultural development in the 1960s and 1970s benefited many developing countries, particularly parts of Asia, where smallholder agricultural development led to significant reductions in rural poverty. For various reasons, other countries, especially those in sub-Saharan Africa benefited less. Agriculture’s future role in rural development policy is a subject of continued debate. For some it should continue to play a leading role; others are more sceptical. This module will hopefully allow you to reach your own conclusions, at least in relation to the countries that you know or work in.

Needless to say, the circumstances of rural development vary across space as well as time, so policies that are appropriate for the more advanced economies of Asia are not necessarily appropriate for the impoverished regions of sub-Saharan Africa or the more affluent, but highly unequal, societies of Latin America. As the world becomes more integrated through markets and improved communication, there is also increasing diversity within regions, as urban centres and accessible rural areas forge ahead of rural hinterlands. This diversity is something you need to be aware of as you work your way through this module. Diversity offers new opportunities but also increases the challenges of designing appropriate rural development policies.

Finally, much of the theory that the module draws upon is from the discipline of economics. However, you do not need any previous knowledge of this subject as you will be introduced to the relevant concepts as you work through the module.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

By the end of this module, students should be able to:

  • Explain and critically review current debates in rural development regarding rural livelihoods and the respective roles of markets, the state, institutions, property rights, agriculture and the rural non-farm economy.
  • Critically evaluate past and existing attempts to supply rural services, such as infrastructure, finance, research and extension, health and education.
  • Analyse critically alternative rural development policies in terms of their potential impact on rural poverty, equity and economic growth, taking account of different regional and geographical circumstances.
  • Outline and evaluate different approaches to the management of land and water resources and their potential impact on rural development goals.

Scope and syllabus

Unit 1: What is rural development?

This unit provides an introduction to key themes in rural development, how they originated and the way they have been applied in practice. It begins by looking at some of the defining characteristics of ‘rural development’ and what distinguishes it from ‘development’ more generally. The unit then moves on to look at how mainstream approaches to rural development have evolved over time, beginning with the green revolution, integrated rural development and ‘basic needs’, before looking at more recent trends relating to participation, sustainability and livelihoods.

Unit 2: Rural livelihoods

Rural development is fundamentally about improving the welfare of rural people, and a major element of this is the reduction of rural poverty. This unit is about poverty and how people experience it; it is about the relationship between poverty and people’s livelihoods; and it concerns the strategies people adopt to cope with poverty and, if they can, escape from it. This unit is not about the development of particular sectors of the rural economy such as agriculture, manufacturing or infrastructure, but about the perspectives of households and individuals and how policy-makers and development agencies can better understand the opportunities and constraints that the poor face. In this unit we look at two frameworks for analysing poverty, the entitlements framework and the livelihoods framework, examining both their strengths and weaknesses. We look at the relationship between poverty and livelihood diversification and how different types of development initiative may affect this relationship.

Unit 3: The agricultural sector

This unit starts by outlining the distinctive features of the agricultural sector in developing countries as well as regional variations in the role of agriculture. Next, we look at how the role of agriculture in economic development has been viewed over the past half century and examine the reasons for why interest in agriculture has tended to fluctuate. We highlight the importance of agriculture in broader development policy. From here we compare strategies for agricultural development, looking at the different ways in which agricultural output and productivity has increased in the past and the extent to which earlier models of growth can be pursued into the future. We examine the role of smallholders in development and consider the ‘big versus small farm’ debate, whilst also looking at ways in which agriculture can contribute to rural poverty reduction.

Unit 4: The rural non-farm economy

In this unit, we are interested in the characteristics and potential of the rural non-farm economy (RNFE). Comprising small-scale manufacturing industries, construction, mining, and all kinds of services, including trading activities, this sector is an important source of rural income and employment across the developing world. We begin by discussing some of the characteristics of the RNFE and how they evolve over time. We then introduce the concept of growth linkages and discuss the mechanisms whereby agricultural growth stimulates growth in other sectors of the rural economy. We ask how these intersectoral relationships can be exploited to maximise the beneficial effects on rural income and employment levels. We conclude by reviewing some rural labour market issues.

Unit 5: Rural infrastructure

This unit is about infrastructure and the role it plays in rural development. It is hard to address the problems facing rural communities in the developing world without at some stage being confronted with the question of how to overcome infrastructure constraints. Roads and transport, in particular, have an enormous influence on the ability of rural communities to access markets and essential services and the spread of mobile phones has had a major impact on some rural areas. In this unit we look at why infrastructure is important, why it has performed poorly in the past, and what options exist for ensuring that infrastructure plays a more positive role in rural development than has been the case up until now.

Unit 6: Rural finance

In this unit we examine the role of finance in rural development and the challenges involved in providing sustainable financial services to large numbers of poor rural residents. We consider the factors influencing supply and demand in rural credit markets and the problems facing borrowers and lenders. We draw on insights from new institutional economics to help us understand the way rural credit markets operate and what can be learnt from the enduring presence of informal sources of finance, despite the attempts of formal credit programmes to out-compete them. We look at microcredit, its strengths and its limitations and consider the particular problems involved in providing seasonal finance for agricultural production.

Unit 7: Agricultural research and extension

Agricultural research and extension (R&E) are concerned with the generation and dissemination of agricultural technology. Sometimes the activities of research and extension are closely linked, although in practice there is often insufficient integration between the two. Efforts to improve public sector R&E have often focused on strengthening the linkages between research and extension in order to facilitate a two-way flow of information between farmers and researchers. However, disillusionment with the capacity of public sector R&E to provide efficient services and technologies appropriate to the needs of resource-poor farmers have created pressures for further change. On the one hand this change has manifested itself in the form of approaches that give farmers greater influence over innovation and research priorities (eg farmer field schools and participatory research methodologies). On the other hand greater attention has also been given to getting the private sector involved in R&E. Many analysts would agree that, in developing countries, investment in R&E is inadequate. We examine this and related debates.

Unit 8:  Health and education

This unit introduces you to health and education and their importance in rural development, both as development goals in their own right, and as a means to the achievement of economic goals. We look at the difficulties poor people face in accessing them, and at the challenges policy-makers face in prioritising between competing objectives and in designing effective delivery mechanisms. We offer a number of conceptual frameworks for analysing the challenges. We also draw attention to the linkages between education, health and agriculture.

Unit 9: Land

In this unit we examine the ecological, economic and socio-political characteristics of land, including associated property rights and policy. We start with a ‘geography’ perspective, looking at the physical characteristics of land and the ways in which these constrain development or create opportunities. We look at proximate causes and manifestations of land degradation before moving on to look at how explanations of the underlying causes can be found in property rights. We conclude by looking at land tenure policy – including privatisation, nationalisation, support for collective action, and policies relating to so called ‘land grabs’ – and the circumstances under which these may help or hinder the development process.

Unit 10: Water

This unit looks at some of the key themes, concepts and tools associated with the use and management of water for rural development. We begin by outlining key issues relating to the supply of, and demand for, water. Supply is governed by the hydrological cycle and human interventions in it, whilst demand is derived from the demand for goods and services that use water as an input. Increasing demand is putting pressure on water resources and turning it into an increasingly scarce resource. Section 2 reviews some economic concepts and their relevance to water resource management, whilst Section 3 looks at the role of water in rural development, including its role in agriculture (rainfed and irrigated) and in maintaining rural ecosystems. The unit concludes by highlighting the need for an integrated approach to water resource management that recognises the multiple uses of water, the externalities of water use within individual river basins, and the way in which various uses of water impact on ecological and economic systems.

Module sample

The module uses a core text which is specially written and will take you through your self-directed study. Exercises, assignments and other activities, such as self-assessment questions, film clips and animations are included to help you with learning. Most module study guides are now provided in electronic format on a USB flash memory stick, but can also be downloaded from the online learning environment. Click the linked image below to view a sample of our e-study guide:

Click to start a demo of (Rural Development)


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules