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External support during the transition phase: Roles for humanitarian aid and development assistance from a village perspective

Trudy Owens1

University of Nottingham, UK


SARPN acknowledges the copyright of World Development for this article. It was published in World Development Vol 32 No 10, 2004.
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Current development orthodoxy, based on macroeconomic theory, stresses the importance of physical and human capital accumulation as necessary elements for economic growth. There is growing concern among development practitioners, however, that textbook economic theory and results from formal questionnaires may not converge with the perceptions of the recipients of aid. This increased sensitivity to the opinions expressed by the poor has lead to an increase in the use of participatory appraisals and related approaches. In contrast to the enormous macroeconomic literature on economic growth and a strand of that literature on the effectiveness of aid, work at the micro-level on the causes of growth and the impact of aid on poverty has been weak. Even less attention has been paid in the economics literature to the views of the poor on income growth and the role of aid. With declining per capita GDP throughout much of Africa, and the continuing debate on whether aid has been effective, many argue the gap between economic theory, formal questionnaire-based survey work and the perceptions of the poor must be bridged in order to improve the success of poverty alleviation programs (Adams, Evans, Mohammed, & Farnsworth, 1997; Chambers, 1994a, 1994b, 1994c; Mukherjee, 1992; Narayan, 2000).

The resettlement program on which this work is based was one of the major poverty alleviation efforts of the early 1980s in Zimbabwe, and resettlement is certain to command increasing attention in the region in the years ahead. Whether resettlement programs are successful is keenly debated. It has long been recognized that resettlement exercises, particularly in the early and transitional phases, increase the vulnerability of those resettled and may actually reduce welfare before households begin to benefit from their new setting (see Hulme, 1988; Nelson, 1973; Scudder & Colson, 1981). The question is how have these resettled households faired. Did initial development assistance in the form of access to assets such as land and farming inputs establish potential for growth? Did humanitarian aid in the form of drought relief or supplementary feeding protect households when they were most vulnerable? An important policy dimension of this analysis, therefore, is the extent to which timely external assistance may constructively support resettled populations during periods of stress and enhance the transition to self-reliance.

In June 1997, the author conducted a participatory rural appraisal (PRA) to explore these issues through villagers. perceptions of aid and its role in reducing poverty. Following the PRA literature, the approach focused on two techniques. The first is a wealth-ranking exercise to establish the correlation between income data collected through a formal household survey and villagers. own rankings of households; and to examine villagers. concepts of poverty and their ideas regarding the determinants of growth. This exercise involved having groups in a village classify households into wealth categories according to their own selection criteria, which they were then encouraged to discuss. The second is a semi-structured group discussion conducted in each village to explore villagers. thoughts on the role of aid. Villagers were prompted on: what they thought the government could do to reduce poverty both in drought and nondrought years; what types of aid they thought had protected them from poverty; and what type had assisted them in growing out of poverty. In conjunction with this fieldwork, in the 1997 formal household questionnaire administered under the Zimbabwe Rural Household Dynamics Study (ZRHDS), families were asked to compare their household to other households in the area and report whether they thought they were better-off, about-the-same or worse-off, and give reasons for their answer. Households were also asked to list possible policies that the government could implement to reduce poverty both in drought and nondrought years.

What is reassuring from this exercise is the convergence between villagers. perceptions of poverty and the role of aid, outcomes from the formal household questionnaire, and expectations from the current economic literature. Microeconometric research on the ZRHDS data set indicates that giving households access to assets in the form of land, capital and inputs has yielded rapid growth in rural incomes. Villagers' themselves acknowledge the significant increase in their incomes since being resettled. Evidence from the ZRHDS data set and villagers. discussions suggests that this growth in income is a function of the accumulation of assets, but perhaps more importantly learning to use the assets. Humanitarian aid, in the form of drought relief in particular, appears to have protected households from poverty rather than promoted them out of poverty. This finding fromboth the formal questionnaires and villagers. perceptions is in accordance with findings in the economic literature (see Buchanan-Smith & Maxwell, 1994; Ravallion, van de Walle, & Gautam, 1995).

The paper begins with a brief overview of current development thought on economic growth and the role of aid. Quantitative work on the growth in incomes of these resettled households and the role aid has played in this growth are summarized, and the interested reader is referred to the specific articles detailing the applied econometric work. Section 3 outlines the methods and data, in particular the participatory rural appraisal and wealthranking techniques used to explore the villagers' perceptions. Section 4 reports the results of the wealth-ranking exercise, which examines villagers' concepts of poverty and compares their perceptions with the income data collected from the ZRHDS. This section concludes with a summary of the key causes for growth among the resettled households as identified by the villagers themselves. Section 5 presents the findings on how villagers think the government could reduce poverty in their village; and what the government could do to protect households against poverty in the event of another drought. This section also gives an account of villagers. perceptions as to what type of aid has protected them from poverty—commonly referred to as humanitarian aid—and what type has promoted them out of poverty—namely development assistance. The conclusion draws together the three strands of thinking on the roles of humanitarian and development assistance during the transition phase.


  1. I would like to thank Belinda Musanhu and Michael Shambare for their expert and untiring assistance in collecting the participatory rural appraisal data.

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