The challenge of seasonality for the rural poor

13 June 2016

As IDS celebrates its 50th anniversary, there is no better time for me to explore on the rich history of research on the impact of seasonality on poverty here at IDS. It has been well appreciated for several decades that the seasonality of agricultural production, labour employment and infectious disease is a key issue in rural poverty in general and health and nutrition of families and young children in particular, in fact, IDS work from almost 40 years ago drew on case studies in different parts of the world to propose how these overlapping factors keep rural people poor during certain seasons.

Today, IDS research still emphasises these overlapping factors and connections. This is particularly true in the context of rural livelihoods and signalled the importance of climate change and HIV (pdf).

Understanding seasonality to shape policies and programmes

There is need for those shaping policies and programmes to pay greater attention to the variability of phenomena, how to stabilise crop production, and reduce the risk that surrounds it. For example, seasonality has gender dimensions, placing extra loads of work, infections and calorie shortages on women – which should be incorporated into responses to it. 

One approach to the ‘seasonal’ nature of planning is to build in short term compensatory programmes that operate at specific times of the year, for example provision of employment and reducing food insecurity by stabilising rather than maximising food crop production, or seasonal social protection programmes. These are programmes which John Shaw, Economic Adviser at the World Food Programme in the 1980s and 90s called ‘concertina programmes’ which could be expanded and contracted as required (and often involving food aid). There are also approaches to redesign sectoral programme in irrigation, health care provision, micro credit, storage and agricultural technology.

Why hasn't seasonality been successfully incorporated into approaches to address rural poverty?

Despite many of these promising approaches, incorporating seasonality into programming to reduce rural poverty has been hard to achieve. Among others there are three possible reasons:

  1. There is no climatic determinism to cause poverty: many of the ways by which seasonality affects the lives of poor people are closely bound up in social relations and the local political economy: more powerful people gain at the expense of those who lose out because of seasonality in a number of areas; for example, seasonally influenced food price rises, wage levels and migration patterns.
  2. The available data on the incidence of seasonal phenomena is thin, and expensive to collect and analyse. Data are often collected in ways to ensure seasonality is not a factor, such as baselines and end lines of evaluations, or decisions are made to collect data in the easiest time (and least damaging seasonally) of the year, such as in the dry seasons.
  3. Perhaps programming to incorporate seasonality within national government programmes is more complicated than we realise. Where are the incentives and what are the transaction costs involved in responding to the detail required of seasonal programming and what would be the benefits of doing so? Ministries may not be very innovative places if departure from tried and tested programmes is advocated by research findings, especially if special interest groups discourage such innovation. Someone makes the decision directly or indirectly that making agriculture and health programmes more seasons-friendly and cross sectoral is too complex a business. A similar argument could be made for the efforts to make national ministries of agriculture (and to a lesser extent, of health) respond to the importance of incorporating nutrition into programmes. What would help is to make the basis on how these decisions are made much more explicit.

What is could help is to draw up a balance sheet on the pluses and minuses of the implementation and added complexities brought by, for example, seasonality and nutrition concerns. How could this be done? Conventional research may be difficult as this requires observing the machinations of government ministries and few researchers have been successful at doing that, as it involves generating the confidence of decision makers. Government officials may be suspicious of researchers asking direct questions about what may have been said in closed meetings.

Drawing up the balance sheet for policy innovation

There may, however, be some lessons to be taken from current IDS research programmes that place importance on research uptake – making sure that the research is used. ORIE (Operations Research and Impact Evaluation) (the research uptake part of WINNN (Working to Improve Nutrition in Northern Nigeria)), and LANSA (Leveraging Agriculture for Nutrition in South Asia) both make research uptake as an integral part of their programmes.

Both programmes are involved in engaging with policymakers and responding to feedback, not just presenting research results, hearing their reservations and scope for action. These groups are the ones to address and find answers to the questions posed above about how decisions are made to address greater complexity in programmes and so be regarded as bona fide research in itself. In fact, the research uptake teams could and should be the ones who draw up the balance sheet of policy innovation. Understanding the research results does not go far enough, thought has to be put into the relationships and engagement for policymakers and others to truly use the evidence in front of them.

This is the first in a reflective series of blog posts on development to celebrate IDS’ 50th anniversary

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