The Value of the Actor-oriented Approach to Understanding Rural Development Policy and Practice: The Case of Vietnam João Cotter Salvado London School of Economics and Political Science January 2010 1. Introduction The great majority of the extreme poverty is found in rural areas. These areas are often seen as complex and disadvantaged in multiple ways (Rahman and Westley, 2001) and therefore efforts must be put in understanding rural development and more specific the policies and practices in this process. The aim of this essay is to assess the value of the actor-oriented approach to understanding rural development policy and practice relating with the specific setting of Vietnam. This essay will be organized as follows: in the first part we will present the evolution of different theoretical approaches to development and rural development thinking and compare them with policies and practices in Vietnam; in the second part we will present shortly the actor-oriented approach and then discuss the value of this approach to understanding rural development policy and practice always focusing attention to the case of Vietnam. In the conclusion we discuss briefly some challenges that are nowadays encountered in this approach. 2. Arriving at the actor-oriented approach Rural areas can be defined as “the space where human settlement and infrastructure occupy only small patches of the landscape, most of which is dominated by fields and pastures, woods and forest, water, mountain, and desert” (Wiggins and Proctor, 2001 pp. 427-428). The promotion of the development of these areas is extremely important due to three main reasons discussed by Hall (2005): first, the persistence of high levels of poverty and deprivation; second, the crucial importance for employment and, finally, the fundamental contribution of agricultural production - which characterizes the rural areas to the overall process of economic growth. Rural development was generally marginalized by mainstream development mainstream. During the 1950s and 1960s, modernization and dependency development theories neglect countryside. During the 1970s, there was a growing commitment with rural poverty but, however, the still dominant ideas from the previous years did not enable to get satisfactory results. The structural adjustment plans and the Washington Consensus on Agriculture during the 1980s and 1990s intensify the negative impacts of the previous decades (Hall, 2005). In a more broad way, Long and Van Der Ploeg (1994) refer that the two dominant structural models in the sociology of development are the modernisation and neo-Marxist political economy theories. “Modernisation theory visualises development in terms of a progressive movement towards technologically and institutionally more complex and integrated forms of „modern‟ society” and the neo-Marxist theories of political economy “stress the exploitative nature of these processes, attributing them to the expansionist tendency of world capitalism and to its constant need to open up new markets, increase the level of surplus extraction and accumulate capital” (Long and Van Der Ploeg, 1994 pp. 62-63). In terms of rural development thinking, Ellis and Biggs (2001) identify the main strands and switches. The first shift, they refer, is the small-farm focus which “dominated the landscape of rural development thinking in the last half-century” (Ellis and Biggs, 2001 pp. 440); and the second paradigm shift was what they call the process approach: a more bottom-up approach in opposition to a top-down approach characterized by “external technology and national-level policies” (Ellis and Biggs, 2001 pp. 443). This last paradigm shift occurred during the 1980s and it comprises the actor-oriented approach that we will discuss in detail in this essay. To analyse rural development policies and practices we will use the case of Vietnam to illustrate how they have evolved since 1950s. Vietnam has, in a certain way followed some policies that can be identified with the previous theories and approaches. Until mid 1950s, Vietnam was an extremely impoverished and backward agricultural country with the majority of the land owned by 2-3 percent of the population (Boothroyd and Xuan Nam, 2000). In 1954, and in line with a small farm focus, the policy reform that was conducted was mainly focused in the guarantee of land ownership to the peasants. The period between 1955 and 1959 was the one with the highest growth for Vietnamese agriculture. Between the late 1950s and late 1970s the policy focus was the agricultural collectivization (Boothroyd and Xuan Nam, 2000). In the first years the focus was on small scale cooperatives and from mid-1970s till early 1980s the guiding priority was to “reorganize agricultural cooperatives in the direction of large-scale socialist production” (Boothroyd and Xuan Nam, 2000 pp. 21). Due to problems that we will analyze in more detail in the rest of this essay, Doi moi (or renovation) policies were introduced in the late 1980s and 1990s. These policies “moved Vietnam from chronic food deficit to being the world‟s second largest rice exporter” (World Bank, 2005 pp. 1). Agricultural growth between 2000 and 2005 has been sustained at 4% per year and the share of rural households living in poverty was reduced from 66% in 1993 to 36% in 2002 (World Bank, 2005). 3. Contributions of the actor-oriented approach In the early 1970s in sociology and anthropology, “a number of general theoretical studies dealing with issues of structure, agency and the link between the so-called “micro” and “macro” phenomena have appeared” (Long and Long, 1992: pp. 4). These contributions motivated a more forceful approach to the understanding of social change emphasizing the central role played by human action and perception (Long, 2001). In the view of Long (2001) what was missing from the previous theories of development was an “attempt to analyse in depth the intricate and varied ways in which new and old forms of production, consumption, livelihoods and identity are intertwined and generate heterogeneous patterns of economic and cultural change” (Long, 2001: pp. 12). The concentration in the social actors is the main feature in this actor-oriented approach and this interest is based on the conviction that “although it may be true that certain important structural changes result from the impact of outside forces, it is theoretically unsatisfactory to base one‟s analysis on the concept of external determination” (Long, 1992 pp. 20). In terms of methodology, the actor-oriented approach “calls for a detailed ethnographic understanding of everyday life and of the processes by which images, identities and social practices are shared, contested, negotiated by the various actors involved” (Long, 2003). This has strong implications on how we look at rural development practice and policy formulation, implementation and evaluation (Long, 2003). We can organize the contributions in three main sets that are extremely related between each other: centrality and heterogeneity of social actors, re-conceptualization of processes of social construction and reconstruction and, finally, a wider contribution on the conception of other approaches. The first main theoretical contribution of actor-oriented approach to social development and specifically to rural development was the introduction of the centrality of actors and the emphasis on the fact that structural circumstances or interventions are actively processed by heterogeneous social actors who have information and strategize in their dealings with various relationships. (Long, 1992). The centrality of social actors was firstly introduced in Vietnam‟s rural development policies and practices in the beginning of the 1980s. Due to the failure of the heavy agricultural development in the previous years there was a readjustment of the socioeconomic development policies. “With regard to agriculture and rural development, recognizing the objective existence of a multisectoral economy the main focus was on the encouragement of individual initiatives in the household economy” (Boothroyd and Xuan Nam, 2000 pp. 23). This actor centrality will remain one of the main features of the rural development policies in Vietnam after the 1980s. Fundamentally, this centrality of social actor was ignored in main theories of development and rural development. As Long (2001) refers the dominant structural models of development - modernization and neo-Marxist - although representing opposite ideologies, “share a common set of paradigmatic beliefs” and converge both to see “development and social change emanating from external centres” (Long, 2001 pp. 11). The second major contribution of this approach to the understanding of rural development was the re-conceptualization of processes of social construction and reconstruction. In this contribution, key concepts are introduced in rural development thinking. The most important of them are “human agency”, “knowledge” and “power”. The notion of agency assigns to the individual actor the “capacity to process social experience and to devise ways of coping with life, even under the most extreme forms of coercion”. (Long, 2001: pp. 16). The actor-oriented approach states that the elements of human agency must be translated culturally to be fully understood. It is important to examine how “agency is differently constituted culturally and affect management of interpersonal relations and the kinds of control that actors can pursue vis-a-vis each other” (Long. 2001 pp. 19) Knowledge is a “fundamental property of human agency which allows actors to construct socially the field of rural development” (Arce, Villareal and Vries, 1994: pp. 169). “Knowledge is constituted by the ways in which people categorize, process and impute meaning to their experiences and emerges out of a complex process involving social, situational, cultural and institutional factors” (Arce and Long, 1992). Power “is to be seen not as fixed property, or as a possession of any particular actor, but rather as a consequence of micro-social negotiations” (Arce, Villareal and Vries, 1994: pp. 170). Actor-oriented approach introduced the idea that power configurations are “depicted in terms of the idea of interlocking actors‟ projects made up of heterogeneous sets of social relations imbued with values, meanings and notions of authority and control, domination and competition” (Long, 2001 pp. 242) The importance of these concepts can be seen in the research carried out in Vietnam about the twenty year period of collectivization. This rural development policy option was “not a normal process stemming from the aspirations of the peasants or in response to necessary requirement of the elevated socialization level of the productive forces” (Boothroyd and Xuan Nam, 2000 pp. 22). Although various modifications in the collectivization process, it did not attain the desired effects. There was no link between people‟s daily experiences and the abstract concept of cooperative, there was no determination of social desirability of the policy and finally there were no local in-depth studies about the policy local and nation-wide impacts (Boothroyd and Xuan Nam, 2000). In a practical point of view, it is difficult to assess the specific contribution of the actororiented approach to understanding rural development practices and policies (Booth, 1994). In Vietnam, after the socioeconomic crisis in 1985 a set of institutional reforms – called Doi moi or renovation policies - was carried out which included, among other, certain aspects that can be categorized as actor-oriented: the recognition of co-existence of various economic activities in the countryside other than agriculture; and the recognition of households as autonomous economic units that can make decisions about the use of labour, funds and land (Boothroyd and Xuan Nam, 2000). Actually, this two policy priorities adopted in Vietnam are related to more wide-ranging contributions of actor-oriented approach to the construction of other rural development approaches. The main contributions are the New Rurality in Latin America, livelihoods approach and process approaches. Scoones (2009) refers that “livelihoods perspectives start with how different people in different places live” (Scoones, 2009: pp.172). This approach to rural development tries to challenge the more usual approaches to looking at rural development which focus on defined activities like agriculture or wage employment. This approach assumes that people combine different activities in a portfolio of activities and to understand correctly the reality this diversity and complexity must be taken into account (Scoones, 2009). Theoretically, the evolution of sociology of development to a more actor-oriented paradigm has influenced the construction of this livelihoods approach. The process approaches (as referred in Ellis and Biggs, 2001) and more precisely the participatory approaches to rural development have been theoretically influenced by actor-oriented approach. Participatory approaches mainly focus on the inclusion of local people‟s knowledge into program planning and development process (Mosse, 2001). As Kothari (2001) refers, these participatory approaches aim to enable those excluded from the usual top-down processes to be included in decisions through the use of their knowledge (Kothari, 2001). The New Rurality was a rural studies approach developed in Latin America and it highlights for major transformations in rural development: “the shift to rural non-farm activities, the increasing flexibilization and feminization of rural work, the growing rural– urban interactions and the rising importance of international migration and remittances” (Kay, 2008 pp. 923). Kay (2008) also refers that, although the concept of New Rurality was developed in Latin America, it suffered influence of some European studies like the actor-oriented approach (Kay, 2008). The main merit of these three approaches is the inclusion in rural development of concepts and ideas previously ignored by the development community. They have all included aspects that are undoubtedly linked to actor-oriented approach like the interest and centrality in social actors and the conviction that “it is theoretically unsatisfactory to base one‟s analysis on the concept of external determination” (Long, 1992 pp. 20). 4. Conclusion As we have seen, it is clear the contribution of the actor-oriented approach to the process of understanding rural development policies and practices. Using the case of Vietnam we have seen some specific applications of this approach and how they have been used through time. We can also see with the case study that “issues of policy implementation should not be restricted to the study of top-down, planned interventions” and that this concept of intervention “needs deconstructing so that it is seen for what it is – an ongoing, socially-constructed, negotiated, experimental and meaning-creating process, not simply the execution of an already-specified plan of action with expected behavioural outcomes” (Long, 2001 pp. 25). Although, the valuable contributions of actor-oriented approach there are some critiques pointed out to this approach. Harriss (1998) refers that the main weakness of this approach is that it is “so „micro‟ that analysis of the wider and longer run patterns of social change” (Harriss, 1998 pp. 2) are not referred in this approach. The other critique referred by Harriss (1998) is the underestimation of the restrictions that usually rural people face when they are actively “negotiating and struggling over knowledge and meanings, and over the institutions in the context of which they operate” (Harriss, 1998 pp. 6). As Booth (1994) refers, although actor-oriented studies may provide “highly relevant ways in which the outcomes of development processes are open-ended and diverse”, they require to pay special attention to “the relationships between „actor‟ and „structure‟ at different levels” (Booth, 1994 pp. 39). In the late 1980s and early 1990s in Vietnam, besides the actor-oriented policies adopted referred previously there were structural priorities like the introduction of marketbased incentives through agricultural commodity trade liberalization and public investment in rural infrastructures (World Bank, 2005). Although significant challenges remain in Vietnam‟s rural development, the policy mixture between structural and actororiented policies and practices enabled the growth potential of rural Vietnam. Although there are critiques and issues to be addressed, the actor-oriented paradigm will continue to be a “source of powerful reinterpretations of otherwise mystifying development problems” (Booth, 1994 pp. 306) and more specifically rural development policies and practices. 5. Bibliography Arce, A. and Long, N. (1992) „The dynamics of knowledge: Interfaces between bureaucrats and peasants‟, Chapter 9 in edited Long, N. and Long, A. Battlefields of Knowledge: The Interlocking of Theory and Practice in Social Research and Development, pp. 211-246, London: Routledge. Arce, A., Villareal, M. and Vries P. (1994) „The social construction of rural development: discourses, practices and power‟, in edited Booth, D. 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