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Rural development from a territorial perspective:
lessons and potential in sub-Saharan Africa1

Julian Quan, Junior Davis and Felicity Proctor2


November 2006

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The paper analyzes the lessons and potential poverty impacts involved in the application of approaches for building socially inclusive, decentralized and spatially accented approaches to rural (and rural-urban) economic development in South Africa and other experiences making a preliminary assessment of the transferability of LED / RTD approaches to other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa such as Mozambique, Zambia and Ghana. In each case the role of the drivers of change, the rural-urban linkages and the livelihood strategies of rural households are emphasized and the kind of social networks and alliances are also considered.


Sub-Saharan Africa’s (SSA) poverty reduction and economic growth strategies and programs concentrate on consolidating economic growth at the macro level, through increased investment and productivity of key sectors including agriculture and enhanced employment. Such strategies and programs do not set out clear mechanisms whereby prosperity can be generated at the sub-national level so as to create tangible and accessible pathways towards the realization of poverty goals, nor do they recognize the different contributions that agriculture has to make to poverty goals in diverse locations, settings and territories.

The application of territorial and local economic development (LED) approaches have been pioneered primarily in Latin America and in Europe where territorial factors have been shown to play a significant role in determining economic growth, and in the reduction of poverty and of inequality. Territorial determinants are responsible for the large and growing gaps between richer and poorer territories. Macro and sectoral policies are not sufficient to stimulate territorially-balanced growth, just as targeted or broad-based but horizontal social policies by themselves cannot deal with some of the important dimensions of poverty and social inequality. There is growing recognition that aggregate levels of economic growth must also be reflected by growth in the productivity of regional and local economies, through more territorial approaches which have more direct linkages with employment and with livelihood and asset building strategies of the poor. Although there is good evidence that the impact of economic growth on poverty is negatively affected by income inequalities (Ravallion 2004) and that asset inequalities depress economic growth as a whole (Birdsall and Londono1997), there has been limited assessment of the potential poverty impacts of sub-national economic growth and the reduction of intra-regional disparities, and thereby the implications for local economic and territorial development.

Growth and equitable development cannot take place without an understanding of the territory and devising realistic sub-national strategies that can bring socially inclusive, sustainable economic development to poor and marginalized rural and urban areas of SSA. Given that SSA’s economic development and reduction of poverty will depend largely on its natural resource assets, these and agricultural productivity and economic opportunity are highly variable across sub-regions.

Following a brief review of the international experience in the adoption of territorial approaches, an analysis of the lessons and potential poverty impacts derived through the application of approaches for building socially inclusive, decentralized and spatially accented approaches to rural (and rural-urban) economic development in South Africa and of early local economic and territorial development experiences in selected countries in SSA, an assessment is made of the transferability of territorial and local economic development approaches to SSA.

The experiences in territorial and local economic development in SSA have been limited and fragmented. These experiences fall into three broad groups: urban centered Local Economic Development (LED) initiatives with focus on the investment climate and private sector development; cross sectoral planning initiatives notably in francophone west Africa and largely focused on spatial and infrastructure planning; and, negotiated frameworks addressing land and natural resources management and conflict mitigation.

Drawing on these experiences and the lessons from Latin America and the OECD countries, the following key experiences relevant to SSA are identified.

Harmonization of national/federal and provisional/state level rural including agricultural development policies and strategies. This includes the building up of sub-national capacity at intermediate regional and or provisional level to enable locally distinctive needs and opportunities to be met and to facilitate targeted public and private investment to meet these needs. A further challenge within the framework of territorial development and policy harmonization concerns cross-border cooperation (e.g. transport, market regulation, natural resource management).

Building local economic and territorial development as drivers of change. Sustained growth in productivity will only be achieved through building on household and community livelihoods and their asset building strategies at the territorial level including specifically understanding and responding to the local economic drivers and the linkages between rural and urban areas within a territory or sub-region. This requires effective spatial planning, supportive institutional arrangements, and targeted and aligned investments that support the required investment in infrastructure, services and market development, and entrepreneurial capacity building. Particular focus should be placed on: private sector investment including securing a positive territorial linkage from agricultural investments by bridging smallholder and private sector agriculture; facilitating access to land for investors that is also fairly negotiated with local communities and land users; securing a private sector role in technology innovation, input supply and market linkages, through e.g. contract farming and out-grower systems, so as to secure access to more demanding regional and global supply chains.

Strengthening effective engagement with and by local government. Building on the structures of local and municipal governments including strengthening inter-municipal agreement to offer a higher level of aggregation to define and meet territorial needs at the appropriate scale.

Build effective linkages at the territorial level with the private sector and civil society. The private sector (including farmer organizations) and civil society (including customary leaders) are essential actors within the planning and development process at the local and territorial levels.

Set within the above, there is a need to devise differential policies for the dynamic trajectories of higher and lower productivity territories with different combinations of development pathways according to their potential, centering on: (i) agricultural growth; (ii) off-farm income growth; and (iii) migration. This will involve:

Encouraging diversification, e.g. rural tourism, wildlife and natural resource management; investing in environmental services and new products which can be supplied by the poor: e.g. bio-fuels and carbon sequestration; recognizing and building on local level multiple livelihood strategies and recognizing the growing income share from non-agricultural (but often associated) activities including natural resource utilization and trade. Fostering greater entrepreneurship amongst the rural poor remains a priority.

Policies to facilitate migration, and capture its benefits for marginal rural areas by promoting the investment of remittances, and securing stable, but more subsistence oriented economies and stable communities for those left behind, frequently women, the young and the elderly, and developing the synergies between agriculture and social assistance programs or cash transfers.

Developing frameworks for resource management in competed and contested marginal areas regulating access to and allocation of grazing, water and forest resources, and establishing a shared basis for the development of and investment in the territory (for instance through Local Conventions for pastoralist areas, and post conflict territorial agreements, etc)

Strengthening rural producer organizations and collective action ensuring that social capital and organization is commensurate with the demands and opportunities. The weakness of civil society and tendency to be dominated by urban elites and co-opted by political parties, state and traditional rulers e.g. in defense of narrow ethnic identities, undermines voice and bargaining power of the poor vis-à-vis state and private sector especially in the marginalized areas of SSA.

Territorial and local economic development in SSA requires therefore a spatially accented but holistic approach, focusing on distinctive problems, and potentials of specific areas; locating agricultural development within a territorial context; a decentralized approach to economic development linking sectoral policy and investment to locally specific measures, and securing integration within wider regional economic networks; and ensuring mechanisms for deepening and broadening participation including building durable social capital.

  1. This document is part of a series of contributions by Rimisp-Latin American Center for Rural Development ( to the preparation of the World Development Report 2008 “Agriculture for Development”. This work was carried out with the aid of a grant from the International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, Canada ( The authors would particularly like to thank RIMISP for comments on the paper. Any remaining errors and omissions are solely the authors’ responsibility. The contents of this document are the exclusive responsibility of the authors.
  2. Natural Resources Institute, University of Greenwich.

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