Do agricultural innovations help or hurt the poor?
By Dina Najjar and Bipasha Baruah
Most social science research over the past few decades has argued that agricultural innovations – whether technological, social or financial – end up reinforcing existing socio-economic hierarchies. This conclusion has been reached by innovation, class and gender studies across the world’s most important crop production systems, including wheat, maize, and rice.
A recent study conducted in three rural communities in Rajasthan, India, looked at different economic and gender norm dynamics to gain a more nuanced understanding of how the adoption of pro-poor innovations – improved barley varieties and Marwari goats – and their benefits, are affected by gender, class, and age.
Data were derived from in-depth interviews with the early adopters of the new innovations; individuals who have moved out of poverty with the aid of these innovations; and focus groups composed of people from different social classes and generations.
Purdah and women’s empowerment
By engaging with local actors, researchers hoped to determine which norms influenced the enabling context, and which norms needed to be challenged to ensure that the benefits of the adopted innovations were equitable.
The findings revealed that women’s empowerment and Purdah – a religious and social practice of female seclusion – were not mutually exclusive. Women simultaneously navigated both well, evidenced by the compromise many found selling milk from their homes, which given the higher milk yield and fertility of Marwari goats, also provided them with higher incomes.
However, despite women being able to make modest gains through changes in gender norms - mainly due to external influences (they were directly targeted by a milling company to plant barley) and an increase in women’s education - property ownership and the lack of political participation remained a constraint.
Findings also revealed that even though a higher share of the benefits from innovations accrued to wealthier and more powerful groups, less privileged groups (such as women and lower-income groups) also benefited. The research suggested that the relationship between higher and lower income groups in rural communities did not always have to be antagonistic and oppressive.
In fact, wealthier farmers enabled innovation adoption by poorer farmers and women: while wealthier farmers were able to invest in the improved barley varieties and sign contracts with milling companies, enhanced barley production increased the availability of feed and subsequently encouraged the purchase of Marwari goats among women and poorer farmers.
This suggests that although existing social hierarchies may be reproduced, poorer groups can still benefit and improve their quality of life, a finding that contradicts the claims of previous studies which suggest that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer (or stagnate).
The big lesson that emerged from this study was the need to think beyond established wisdom about how innovations help or hurt the poor. Paying attention to local norms and context, and understanding that rural communities are constantly evolving and adapting to wider social and economic changes, provides a much more complicated understanding of how agricultural innovations benefit people of different genders, economic classes and generations.
Finally, wheat subsidization policy is a key impediment to the adoption of barley. Barley could be as popular as wheat if it also received subsidization and government support. In order to reduce poverty, governments should be advised to support barley farmers in the same way they support wheat farmers – particularly since barley appears to have a wider uptake among poorer groups.
This study is part of GENNOVATE, a global comparative research initiative that addresses the question of how gender norms and agency influence men, women, and youth to adopt innovation in agriculture and natural resource management.
Dr. Bipasha Baruah is a Professor and Canada Research Chair in Global Women’s Issues, University of Western Ontario, Canada