What are rural livelihoods?

June 16, 2020

What are rural livelihoods? We write about them. We talk about them. And we study them through an ever-increasing array of disciplines. But what are rural livelihoods? Back in 2017, Kirt Hainzer was a Crawford Fund conference scholar from Central Queensland University. Kirt’s pathway to agriculture development is arguably not the norm. He started with a Bachelor of Finance in Leeds, years as a management consultant in Scotland before 10 years in Asia, Europe and the Americas in agriculture development, agriculture research and as a farmer. Through that he completed an MSc in Agroecology from Wageningen University and finds himself now as a Senior Researcher with CQU working on an ACIAR funded project to develop market chains for sweet potato farmers in Papua New Guinea. In this blog he gets back to what is central to all our work – rural livelihoods.

In the context of international research and development, rural livelihoods are intrinsically linked to agriculture. This can mean farming directly, providing wage labour, processing, trading, marketing or working in one of the many small businesses and sectors along the agricultural value chain that support and drive the development of rural communities.

I came to agriculture development via the private sector, where I was a management consultant. In my first role in development with an NGO, I participated in an evaluation of a pineapple cash crop project in Laos. The international team included a male economist from the USA, a female participatory expert from Cambodia, and me. Through over 40 interviews with households, we were told, even with the best development intentions, of how the pineapples failed, leaving many communities in an even more vulnerable state. The three of us felt the gravitas of their words and hurriedly made notes on how it had impacted their households and livelihoods. But I hadn’t personally experienced what the farmers had and put my hope into a crop and watched it fail. I barely knew how pineapples grew.

I didn’t understand their livelihood, and this experience demonstrated clearly to me that it’s difficult to engage with an issue that you know, but don’t understand. And whilst we will never be able to walk any distance in another’s shoes and understand fully what it’s like for them, we can take the opportunity to gain greater insight about the topic. So, I went back to university to complete an MSc in Agroecology. Then I started my own farm, while working on other people’s farms, and made very little money doing both. Many people come to rural livelihoods from a number of different perspectives, which has only furthered understanding within rural development discourses. However, researching with rural communities should be a two-way process, and getting to know more about the diversity and realities of agricultural livelihoods through new skills and knowledge, can only deepen this understanding.

So, if you can, volunteer at a commercial farm for a season and take a few agricultural science classes. Not only will both of those experiences be incredibly challenging and rewarding, but it also means the next time you read or write the term “rural livelihood” you’ll remember coming home full of dirt from a hard day’s work or the intricacies of the nitrogen cycle, and will have a deeper and more personal understanding of rural livelihoods.