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Review of ‘Cotton, Computers and Citizenship’

‘For students and practitioners of hands-on development efforts, this handsomely designed and clearly written book merits attention as an illustration of what is possible, indeed what may be better done, outside the foreign aid system and its exhausted orthodoxies,’ writes David Sogge.

Framed against Brazil’s developmentalist ambitions – the motto ‘order and progress’ has emblazoned the nation’s flag since 1889 – the impoverished people of its semi-arid Nordeste have often been portrayed as troublemakers and outlaws incapable and unworthy of development. In the 1890s, former slaves and poor farmers inspired by a messianic preacher resisted local authorities, bringing about a bloody conflict, immortalised in Mario Vargas Llosa’s ‘War at the End of the World’. In the 1950s, a peasant rebellion with leftist and radical Catholic inspiration brought on coercive counter-measures. Alarmed Brazilian elites called in massive support from Washington DC, which furnished ‘aid bombs’ to help buy off and eventually kill the political insurgency. That early version of today’s ‘securitized aid’ was later chronicled in a book, ‘The Revolution that Never Was’.

Collective action by Nordestinos is the topic of the book under review here, but the outcomes offer far more positive lessons than those of Brazil’s and Washington’s repressive pasts. It focuses on the Semi-Arid Communities Programme, locally termed The Cotton Project, initiated in the late 1990s by Brazilian public agencies for agrarian research and for rural infrastructure. At first glance a conventional scheme to recruit poor farmers into distant global supply chains, the programme is on closer inspection something rather different: A systematic yet open-ended, interactive experiment to revive and reinforce rural livelihoods, widen access to know-how and to galvanise collective action in ways respectful of local conditions and preferences.

The book covers the programme’s first eight years, and further offers thoughtful pointers about the future. Its first and longest section surveys the hardscrabble environment and the precarity of lives there, where average daily cash incomes in 2002 hovered around €2 per household (= 43 euro cents per capita). It recounts local residents’ initial scepticism, as they ‘had seen all too many development prophets, missionaries and hucksters come and go over the years’. The second and third sections chronicle the programme’s origins and evolution. Triggered by a food crisis following severe water stress in the late 1990s, it managed to escape the conventional traps of humanitarian and technical ‘fixes’ and their mono-cropping, de-skilling models of development. Officials came to respect the actual problems as residents saw and faced them, and therefore to take on as the key problematic not drought, but poverty.

The period 2002-2008 saw the programme spread beyond its original six communities to 46. It branched out beyond cotton growing into cotton processing, food self-reliance and provision of drinking water, bio-energy and telecommunications pivoting on broadband internet. Such diversification developed not by wheeling out old, discredited models such as Integrated Rural Development; rather it arose in response to new social constituencies beyond male farmers. As the programme’s appeal spread and participation grew among non-farmers, women and young people, a wider system of objectives evolved accordingly. Basic pocketbook issues remained central, but the programme approached them from various angles, such as in lowering household costs through joint purchasing and marketing and through collective work.

From the outset, crucial orchestration and leadership was the work of COEP, a ‘National Social Mobilization Network’. This is a vibrant exemplar of a kind of Brazilian civil organisation, led by intellectual and professionals with connections to the progressive camp in the political class and with skills in animating social change from the grassroots up. Founded in 1993 at a time of intense socio-political ferment (PT, the Workers Party, was then gaining momentum) COEP began as a network of 30 activist groups, mainly in southern Brazil; today it comprises over a 1100 non-governmental and governmental organisations across the country.

For the programme analysed in this book, COEP’s chief roles have been those of a go-between and animator. It brokered resources on offer from the national agrarian research body and many other technical agencies often lacking staff and traditions enabling them to operate successfully at community levels. The book successfully argues that despite COEP’s initial lack of experience in rural development, it made a crucial difference, time after time. Its success was thanks to its sophistication in community animation methods, to its savvy and patience in making vertical and horizontal institutional connections (often of dizzying complexity) and thanks to its inspired leadership. Without COEP, the programme might well have coasted by as little more than a technicist, market-focused approach, that would have done little more than subordinate some farmers to the unpredictable mercies of global markets, making a few of them winners and the rest mere losers.

Drawing on records of consultative processes, the book’s fourth and final section offers thoughtful pointers on what citizens and leaders must anticipate. For the programme’s future holds problems, including those generated by its very success. For it has today become a ‘sprawling and diverse undertaking’ comprising a much wider zone, multiple political jurisdictions, and a more diverse and much younger set of social constituencies. How are these to be managed? In addition, there are problems of looming climatic risks and the inevitable financial-technical issues of renewing equipment and infrastructure. The issue of COEP’s exit strategy presents itself, both for local communities (whose reliance on COEP is significant, though not to the point of outright dependence) and for the many technical agencies and public management bodies, whose forward motion in these communities has depended on COEP’s intermediation.

This programme represents a counter-current. Today’s development aid is still captive to dead precepts of market fundamentalism and related mantras like Results Based Management. In terms set by these orthodoxies, ‘development’ is often defined and designed from above, log-framed and scheduled within three-year funding cycles and dependent on public-private partnerships. By contrast, this book demonstrates that alternatives in all these respects are viable and can be made to succeed. It tells the story of how processes work thanks to longer-term commitments and of how solid results depend on avoiding blueprints and mechanical models. It demonstrates the efficacy of public-public partnerships.

For students and practitioners of hands-on development efforts, this handsomely designed and clearly written book merits attention as an illustration of what is possible, indeed what may be better done, outside the foreign aid system and its exhausted orthodoxies. Those pesky, rebellious people of Brazil’s impoverished Northeast in the past may have lost many battles, but today some of them are winning the war.


* ‘Cotton, Computers and Citizenship: a story of economic and social change among rural communities in Northeastern Brazil’, by John Saxby is published by Rio de Janeiro: COEP, 2011. 252 pp ISSN 1983-9421 (English and Portuguese versions available at:
* David Sogge is an independent researcher based in Amsterdam.
* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.