Grounded in Reality

Ruth Meinzen-Dick

Ruth Meinzen-Dick. © IFPRI/M. Mitchell

Only by understanding the situation on the ground, holds Ruth Meinzen-Dick, can we help poor people get their share of land, water, and other resources.

One young witness to India’s Green Revolution was Ruth Meinzen-Dick, now an IFPRI senior research fellow. Growing up in Tamil Nadu with her American missionary parents, Meinzen-Dick was on the ground in the 1960s when a new rice variety, known as IR8, was introduced in the area. The huge gains in yields produced by IR8 are well known in development lore, but Meinzen-Dick got a different perspective: “Women in our village told my mother that their husbands had chosen to plant IR8 without consulting them—but were now complaining to them about the taste.”

Her untraditional childhood gave Meinzen-Dick a first-hand look at the crushing effects of rural poverty and a glimpse of how certain people, such as women, are marginalized when it comes to decisionmaking. It also laid the groundwork for the fundamental question that drives much of her research: how can the world’s marginalized and underprivileged people secure access to resources?

This question has been the launching point for a dizzying array of research interests. What affects the performance of different kinds of irrigation systems? How do policies influence water rights, and how do water rights affect people’s behavior? What factors lead people to act collectively to manage groundwater, forests, and rangelands? How do large-scale land deals affect local communities? How do women’s and men’s property rights differ? How does agricultural research contribute to poverty reduction?

Untangling Resource Struggles

These interests took time to develop. Returning to the United States for her advanced education, Meinzen-Dick knew she wanted to do applied research, and she saw opportunities in the field of development sociology. He r dissertation, on irrigation in South India, led her to an IFPRI dataset and, eventually, to a postdoctoral position in IFPRI’s Environment and Production Technology Division.

As IFPRI’s only sociologist, Meinzen-Dick brings a different perspective to research. Whereas economists often start with abstract models that incorporate assumptions about how humans behave, Meinzen-Dick begins her work by examining people’s lived experiences. “Theory is only useful when it helps explain behavior,” she says.

Early in her career, she set her sights on understanding how poor people gain access to and manage water. In the 1980s and 1990s governments in many developing countries were transferring authority for managing natural resources to local user groups, and this process of decentralization offered the chance to study how government water management compared with farmer-managed systems and water markets. She soon saw that the struggles over equitable and sustainable management went beyond water and affected other natural resources—like rangelands, fisheries, forests, and agricultural land. “Many resource specialists were grappling with the same themes, even if they went by different names,” she says.

A broader view of resource use, she realized, might provide deeper insight across sectors. In 1996 Meinzen-Dick helped launch the CGIAR program on Collective Action and Property Rights (CAPRi). CAPRi’s goal is to better understand the institutions that people set up locally to manage resources and how these relate to government policies and programs. It offers a way for researchers working in a wide range of locations and institutions to share what they know about, for example, how property rights and collective action affect people’s decisions to adopt agricultural technologies or to pursue different ways of managing natural resources.

Women Left Out

Even when control over resources shifts from central governments to local communities, certain groups—such as women—are often left out. Male community leaders and heads of household tend to get the attention of researchers, policymakers, and development practitioners, while women are underrepresented or even ignored completely.

Meinzen-Dick has worked with colleagues at IFPRI and elsewhere to quantify women’s empowerment so that development agencies can see how women’s rights and status compare with men’s in the areas of production, resources, income, leadership, and time. The resulting Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index should help the US Agency for International Development, which pushed for creation of the index, and other agencies understand how their agricultural development projects affect women.

In recent years, notes Meinzen-Dick, a few countries have passed laws proclaiming that women and men have equal rights to own and inherit land. Policy change, though, is only half the battle. “If customary law says that land belongs to the male lineage, a change in legislation won’t necessarily have an effect,” she says. “What’s key is whether land administrators and state judges down to the local level know about the law and will enforce it. Do women and men at the local level even know about the changes in the law? If so, are the land offices accessible to women? Do women have to travel far to the office, and do they feel they will be treated with respect?”

Now Meinzen-Dick and her colleagues are studying whether community-based legal assistance programs in Tanzania and Uganda—using paralegals from the villages being served—can help women exercise their rights and gain access to the land that is legally theirs.

Implementation—that is, how policy gets translated into action—is as important as policy change, says Meinzen-Dick: “It’s a complex process with many stakeholders, many of whom are at the local level. There isn’t just one set of concerns. It requires listening as well as talking. Reality is messy, but dealing with reality is the only way to be effective.”

Ruth Meinzen-Dick meets with water users in India to talk about the management of their local irrigation system.

Ruth Meinzen-Dick meets with water users in India to talk about the management of their local irrigation system.


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