"Imagine what Danish Farmers could do with this land!"
A study of a top-down implemented project for bottom-up development in rural Russia

"Imagine what Danish Farmers could do with this land!" A study of a top-down implemented project for bottom-up development in rural Russia Sejerøe, Anders ENG 312 K

This thesis examines a Danish development project to Russia and how different actors involved react to both the resources and models transferred. It is based on a fieldwork amidst a Danish agricultural project in Smolensk, which has as goal to establish three agricultural institutions (an advisory centre, a grain store and a machinery station) to the benefit of the local agricultural producers.

The project was a product of its time and two factors were especially important in its shaping. Firstly, the political sentiments of the early 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, reflected a strong belief in the Western orientation towards the liberal market economy and democracy and a similar strong rejection of institutions and procedures associated with the socialist past. Secondly, the experience from development work in the Third World included a focus on bottom-up development, the active participation of the beneficiaries and strict accountability with the donated funds. The setup of the Danish project reflected these experiences in its aim of establishing agricultural institutions with a focus on farmers' participation in the form of the cooperative model known from Denmark, including only independent farmers and not the former collective and state farms.

However, the implementation of the bottom-up ideology was problematic. First of all, the project can never be truly bottom-up since it is initiated and funded by a foreign partner who always has the ultimate say in the use of the donated resources. Secondly, official Russian legislation on development aid entails that the project must have an official institution as counterpart. In this particular project the regional administration in Smolensk is the official receiver of the donations, the official owner of the project institutions, and also as 'equal' counterpart responsible for supplying half of the equipment for the project institutions and paying all local costs. In practice this means that there is top-down control with the donated funds on both a general level set by the external donor, and on a local level since the regional administration (and not the agricultural producers) is in charge of the local cooperation. The project is thereby a top-down implemented project for bottom-up development.

This contradiction between the bottom-up ideology and the top-down practice is overcome by the actors in the project using tactics similar to those used in the Soviet era to overcome the contradictions between official rhetoric and actual practice. I identify three different tactics:

  1. A distinction between 'paper reality' and 'real reality', where actors follow the top-down defined criteria of accountability and documentation, but are still able to act independently of these documents.
  2. An ambiguous status of the project institutions as neither truly private nor public, similar to the 'flex organization' described by Wedel (2001). This allows both the regional administration to support them as public institutions and the Danish ministry to support them as independent institutions.
  3. Tactical ignorance (cf. Quarles van Ufford 1993) by which the problematic elements in the project that are against the official ideology are disregarded or left outside the Danish side of the project work.

The use of the above tactics gives a room of manoeuvre for the different actors in the project who often have conflicting interests. By allowing the use of these tactics the Danish sponsor achieves a successful implementation of the project and are thereby able to reach the target group of local farmers and actors in the agricultural sector.

The aim of the Danish project is to help develop an approach to agricultural production that best can be described as bottom-up. This stands in opposition to the top-down management dominating the agricultural sector in Russia. Through three cases I show how these two approaches imply different understandings of knowledge, on how knowledge should be distributed and on how responsibility is placed. Within the top-down approach the different units can be seen as one integrated system, where the top centrally plans and controls units on lower levels. The top dictates what important and relevant knowledge is and distributes it in a way similar to how resources are distributed within the hierarchy. All units are here part of the same system and share responsibility. In comparison, within a bottom-up approach each unit stands alone, responsible only for its own production. Knowledge is here what the individual unit finds directly useable, and units with similar types of productions benefits from sharing of experience.

Although Danish agricultural production is extremely efficient in comparison with Russian, it has within the project been difficult to implement features known from a Danish setting such as field management by economic figures, a free sharing of knowledge and experience with colleagues and a clear separation of areas of work and responsibility between the different units. The difficulties in transferring these practices are not due to irrational Russians or inadequate Danish consultants, but rather that the rationality of the bottom-up practices are connected to certain socio-economic conditions, which do not exist locally. It is simply more rational to choose a top-down approach, if the social and economic setting is dominated by uncertainty and instability. Here vertical integration and long-lasting personal alliances would provide individual units with a minimum of stability and security.

But still, different elements in the project are a success and some local actors can relate to the bottom-up approach. This is because the local setting is not entirely dominated by an economy of vertical redistribution. Different economic relations exist simultaneously side-by-side in a complex and changing pattern. The same farm can simultaneously buy and sell on the market, be an active party in a system of redistribution, sustain direct reciprocal relations with other units over time, and provide its workers with basic resources that enable them to sustain a home production. This understanding of the local agricultural production as a complex system of overlapping economic relations and following rationalities helps answer why some of the elements in the project have been successful while others have failed.