Addressing the needs of low-income communities has long been a worldwide challenge. The prevalent top-down, neoliberal approach has dominated the global development agenda to date.
Traditional vs grassroots development approaches
Multiple strands need to be addressed simultaneously. The current, prevalent approach is based on ecological modernisation and technological innovation with a focus on large scale organisations, the private sector and state-owned institutions.
However, a long-standing and accomplished alternative can increase both power and agency. Rooted in local knowledge, grassroots innovation offers viable solutions to pressing global needs which are effective, durable and act as a vital part of restructuring power imbalances as they work towards equitable societies. Societal structures affect individuals’ ability to exercise agency. Low-income communities are often more socio-economically insecure, they are repeatedly held back when it comes to being active agents in their own development.
Innovation is dependent upon the structures it operates within. One such example is Bt cotton – a genetically-modified, pest-resistant variety of cotton.
In the late 1990s, multinational corporation Monsanto aimed to overhaul cotton farming in India through the introduction of a genetically modified crop. Monsanto partnered with seed company Mahyco and proposed the technology as a solution to farmers’ reliance on pesticides against the boll weevil, which has blighted Indian farmers’ crops for years.
Once it was connected with hybrid seed companies, powerful Monsanto became hugely influential with cotton growing markets. Within ten years, 95% of the cotton crop in India was Bt cotton.
Monsanto marketed the rollout of Bt cotton seed as a very simple process. However, their view did not take into account local and indigenous knowledge of the farming process. The risks and outcomes of the process were defined by those with power, directly disempowering local communities.
The model put forward by Monsanto disregarded issues within the farming community, most notably: potential illiteracy, limited access to reliable and up-to-date technologies and the socio-economic status of farmers.
As a result, the farmers were given an oversimplified and wholly misleading message. Promising to reduce farmers’ dependency on pesticides and claiming to use natural resources more efficiently, the reality for many farmers was dramatically different to the proposals initially made.
The initial rollout of Bt cotton was already exclusionary with low-income farmers locked out due to high levels of capital investment, not only in terms of machinery and materials but the need for an increased use of fertiliser. Despite the mixed evidence on if there has been any positive increase with regard to crop yields, the unjust monopoly over the market has led to greater difficulty in abstaining from the use of Bt cotton seeds.
Global connections – from India to Brazil
Brazil is a major player in the global cotton production market. The country’s cotton farmers have a wealth of technical expertise often handed down through generations. Cotton crops remain an essential item in millions of farming families’ livelihoods through the generation of employment and income and contributing significantly to food security, especially in developing countries.
Despite such deep knowledge specific to cotton production, chemically intensive farming methods have become widespread. This may increase crop yields in the short term but it can lead to land degradation, congested water systems, pest resistance, toxicity to humans and animals and damage to biodiversity. In the case of Bt cotton, the power and agency disparity between seed suppliers, manufacturers, landowners, government policies and farmers led to a stagnant system of dominant norms.
Operating in parallel was Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, (MST, Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement). Dominant modernisation models in Brazil have long placed land ownership in the hands of a powerful few, making it difficult for small-scale farmers and low-income communities to obtain land vital for livelihoods.
MST was formed by rural workers and become a national movement in 1984. Now, it leads more than 2,500 land occupations, with about 370,000 families – families that today settle on 7.5 million hectares of land that they won as a result of the occupations.
Through agrarian reform, MST has opened numerous opportunities for families and farmers to use suitable agroecological farming methods. This has allowed for the expansion of socially shared, low-cost, ecologically considerate, and replicable models, driven not by economic growth but by humanity’s needs.
Although grassroots innovation is the driving force of MST, a network of agents provides sustainability and permanency for the movement. Using a mixture of social innovations and innovative technology, MST had great success with organic rice growing and, in keeping with grassroots innovation transferability, extended this to cotton. Brazil’s cotton farmers, previously so reliant on chemically intensive methods, have gained organisational capacity and collective agency.
They have been able to bring in innovative, novel forms of cotton production in accordance with methods allowing for fair-trade certification. The result is greater seed choice, access to a diverse market and increased autonomy in pricing. The production of organic cotton crops and the land permanency gained by MST has given small-scale farmers greater agency in their own socio-economic development whilst addressing systems which previously allowed inequalities to persist.
Persistent power imbalances
Nevertheless, structural constraints continue to bar low-income communities from having vital space to define and address their own needs which are crucial to prosperity.
The knowledge contained in low-income communities must be utilised to its full potential. The success of MST and organic cotton farmers is both crucial and commendable but they still exist within a wider global structure of cotton production markets. Globally, the uptake of organic cotton continues to lag, held back by a multitude of factors such as growing inequality and the rise and expansion of fast fashion in an increasingly inter-connected world.
Power imbalances are embedded within models of technological innovation and current top-down approaches. But we have seen that social ingenuity and collaboration can increase both power and agency among individuals in low-income communities. This, in turn, leads to widespread and positive results.
With a bottom-up, multi-actor partnership, the likes of MST and Brazil’s organic cotton farmers demonstrate that longevity of grassroots innovations can be ensured. In our existing global system of such unequal power and agency distribution, we need to ensure that the balance is restructured.
Only then will locally-fuelled and novel innovation begin to address local issues and place greater emphasis on the power of people as agents of change.