Foresight for better futures, GFAR blog, Research in society

Shifting Down to the Human Scale: Lessons from the Territories approach

“Territories are spaces of coordination between actors in which new forms of governance are conceived that are conducive to development and to the strengthening of solidarity.” –from Living Territories to Transform the World, Editions Quae, 2017

DUegOuoXcAAHs0IThe Living Territories International Conference held in Montpellier, France from 22-24 January 2018 was a multi-partner event addressing a range of issues: What does territorial management of resources mean? What are the benefits of a territorial approach to agricultural production, agri-chain regulation, services provision? What is the role of community-based actions in the provision of new rules, norms and acts towards territorial development? Are they helpful in addressing conflict resolution and strengthening regulation? How to conceive and implement methods and tools to foster territorial development? Can territorial strategies contribute to renovate the framework for development?

The breakdown between communities and institutions has become a major problem around the world. The local level has been neglected in consideration of development needs. The concept of territories, as networks of actors working in nexus approaches—e.g. water, energy and food—may offer solutions. Territories are defined by consultation, local ownership and consensus, rather than by establishing formal boundaries. Territorial does not mean local, but is rather a way of understanding the interrelationship of different scales—local, national, regional.


The conference therefore addressed themes highly relevant to GFAR’s work on rural development, in particular our dialogues on rural futures in the Mediterranean region and work on participatory foresight around the world. The themes relate directly to the complex realities of mixed smallholder systems and the role of rural/small town interactions in creating economic opportunity for rural youth and women. Many of the organizations involved in the Conference are very active partners in GFAR, including CIRAD, IRD, FAO, Agropolis International and CIHEAM. GFAR was involved in the event Steering Committee.

Plenary presentations by leading speakers including Sarah Scherr, Saskia Sarsen, Martin Bwalya and Julio Berdegue explored the major issues involved, yet also showed the complexity of the issues and the need for a common terminology and understanding of the concepts used. They also recognized the inter-relationship between many issues and actors at territory level. Public, private and civil society sectors should be included and the local landscape managers would ideally take leadership roles.

Complex needs demand new institutional realities

The realities of modern rural development entail highly complex interactions between agricultural, ecological and socio-political factors, yet territories are also hugely interconnected. With globalization, the Internet and the advent of social media, old principles of governance and control are breaking down. Multiple individual behaviours are now themselves a driving force, not just institutions. Institutions have walls and boundaries to define issues and areas of work, yet these boundaries also constrain progress and need to be opened out and connected in new ways, re-wiring agri-food innovation systems for the future.

“People don’t live in sectors, they live in places.” – Petra Jacobi, GiZ

The transformational change in university education being pursued through GFAR is bringing enterprise into universities, linking students with farmers as both mentors and mentees, broadening student life-skills and the associated changes in value systems required. ICTs in particular are radically changing roles and opportunities, not just among students and practitioners, but also among farmers themselves. The Conference concluded that new skills sets are required to deal with territorial development realities, linking hard and soft skill sets and that young professionals must always have the capacity of learning.

DUUtkPDXcAAbA2S.jpgOther sessions covered the issue of migration, recognizing that of 763 million migrants worldwide in 2015, 506 million were internally displaced people. The societal implications of such massive relocations are enormous. Here there are complex linkages between migration and territory, including circulation of people and the need to recognize territory as a social, economic and political construct. Bruno Losch and Robin Bourgeois (formerly of GFAR Secretariat) of CIRAD analyzed migratory trends and highlighted how the weakness of structural transformation in Sub-Saharan Africa had meant difficulty for towns in absorbing migrants from rural areas, leading to tensions and conflicts. They illustrated the huge implications from the demographic transition in progress in Sub-Saharan Africa, with population projected to double by 2040, while populations in other regions were going down. 20 million additional youth will be entering the job market within the next 15 years. Such changes driven by demographics, environmental and socio-cultural factors require a diversity of solutions in source regions, not just in the cities.

Concluding panel sessions highlighted that food security is itself territorial. Patrick Herlant of the EU DG-DEV recognized that there were few territorial approaches in development assistance, as aid generally works with national authorities as the entry point rather than local authorities. Some questioned why the earlier integrated rural development approaches of the 1980s were not successful and what had been learnt?  Responses were around the move away from tailor-made projects that failed, towards processes that much more directly involve a grass-roots approach from the outset, with real local ownership by the communities concerned, and recognizing that each stakeholder has its limits of reach.

Territories demand downward shifts in power

Speakers also recognized that public policy needs to be formulated that recognizes the balance of power on the ground and the complex realities of territories. The power that governments have had over different territories within a country is often breaking down. Territories are complex entities created through specific processes and are inter-dependent – and in some cases are subject to huge external pressures such as land purchases by overseas countries. In such cases, the economic interests of a country may not be shared by the territory affected, leading to much instability.

Hon. Ousmane Sy, former Minister of Territories in Mali, made the important point that the national dimension has suffocated regional and local dimensions, yet all dimensions are vitally important. The paradox is that general policies are put together nationally, yet territories hold the resources required for success. The interaction between local, national and global is therefore critical for effective governance. Small towns were identified as a means to that end: they can be essential growth hubs, having a big capacity to provide services, markets and non-agricultural activities. Small towns can offer a way of linking urban and rural, to adopt a truly territorial approach.


Camille Toulmin, former CEO of IIED, powerfully emphasized that people are fed up with decisions being made by far-away governments. In Africa, human and geographic diversity is so present that any push towards uniformity leads to tensions and conflicts. As a consequence, the focus is heavily on construction of the nation state. Yet borders don’t correspond to geographic or cultural realities; people, culture and landscapes shape each other.

A downward shift in scale is vital to achieving the SDGs, as the modernist approach has led to disastrous inequalities. Toulmin also emphasized the critical need for multi-actor platforms at local level to manage conflicting interests and find peaceful solutions. The territorial approach can be a pragmatic way of shifting political power downward.

Patrick Caron, UN CFS Chair, emphasized that a territorial approach can forge commons and coherence among diverse people, with common goods and a common destiny that reshapes political action. This is particularly important in border regions where functional territories may not match political borders. The crises of today are largely territorial crises, where people are being administered but dissociated from governance. There is too much centralized control of valuable assets such as land. In the face of crises we are using military solutions, rather than elected representatives taking responsibility for rebuilding ownership of processes of change in the communities concerned.

Territory approaches in GFAR’s work

The Conference concluded that the complexity of real world systems justifies a territorial approach, but there is need to find a way to simplify the complexity to enable governments to react. There is a need to develop a momentum, yet the metrics are currently lacking agility for this. The territorial perspective does however provide a valuable way of questioning the future.

GFAR’s multi-stakeholder dialogues on the future of rural territories and the role of small towns in rural development and reducing out-migration such as those in the Mediterranean region, have never seemed more important.  Discussion of agricultural development and take up of innovations is heavily shaped by local power relationships and the access to resources and policies required.

GFAR’s work in fostering participatory foresight with communities, such as through the African Foresight Academy developed with FARA, is also proving an important tool for communities to shape their desired futures and determine the forms of agri-food innovation that they wish to see.  This work is vitally linked to democratic governance as a whole and avoiding the breakdown of the rule of law as countries develop. Helping and fostering rural communities to consider, articulate and shape their desired futures through engagements that build trust will always be far more effective than ‘pushing’ or ‘imposing’ a particular innovation or approach. Collective Action is key to overcoming power imbalances and equipping farmers and rural communities to shape their own futures.

Click here to listen to talks given during Living Territories 2018 International Conference.

Blog post by Mark Holderness, GFAR Executive Secretary

1 thought on “Shifting Down to the Human Scale: Lessons from the Territories approach”

  1. It seems that miss the gender perspective….it is also important to include the gender perspective if we want a real and inclusive territories approach.

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