Seasonality is back in season

Agriculture, Climate Change

“Seasonality” has re-emerged as a topic in development after a long lull – but will it gain more traction this time round?

Seasonality is the observation that rural livelihoods in developing countries undergo regular, predictable, and often massive, changes according to the pattern of the seasons. In particular, the annual rains bring about – or bring to a peak – all sorts of effects – and most of them adverse if you are poor. These include starvation, energy depletion, increases in sickness, migration, shortage of money and going into debt.

It was a regular theme in development studies from the late 1970s – when it was pioneered by the great Robert Chambers at the UK’s Institute of Development Studies – to the 1990s. Then it rather fell from favour. Now a new book, the result of a conference at IDS in 2009, aims to revive the topic. 

Seasonality, Rural Livelihoods and Development is published by Earthscan, and I declare an interest, as the book opens with a scene setter of a chapter written by myself and Steve Jennings about the growing influence of climate change. It draws on Oxfam research to describe how farmers in many countries perceive their seasons are changing, throwing up new challenges.

Advocates for taking seasonality more seriously argue for its importance.  By showing how “normal” seasonal vulnerabilities underpin tip-overs into crisis when the weather is particularly bad, seasonality should be a powerful argument for proper planning to even out seasonal variations and enable people to have “a-seasonal” livelihoods.  Furthermore, seasonality affects every aspect of people’s lives, and understanding the complex and ratcheted (to use Robert Chambers’ favourite word) interactions enables one to intervene holistically, rather than
sectorally.

But seasonality has always been neglected by governments and by aid workers because they don’t tend to live in rural communities – especially not during the rains. There are urban, “tarmac” and  dry season travel biases in understanding. Then on top of those, in the 1990s interest faded away, largely because of the precipitate decline in public investment in agriculture generally.  With that went the abolition of many counter-seasonal measures that actually were in place (though not always effective), like grain reserves.

Many things have changed since the 70s: the growth of towns, communications that reduce isolation, the spread of social protection systems such as the employment guarantee schemes of India.  But the seasons have not gone away. 

Stephen Devereux, Rachel Sabates-Wheeler, Richard Longhurst and the other authors of the Earthscan book argue that understanding and building seasonality into policies is still relevant – in fact may be more relevant than ever as climate change bites. It is also still lacking; they say that disaggregated data on seasonal poverty is still hard to find, and one of their recommendations is that poverty statistics should reflect seasonal variation, instead of reporting a single poverty headcount for a given year.

They also make the point that seasonality isn’t, fundamentally, about the weather or “blaming the weather”; rather, the weather is what exposes fundamental inequalities in resource distribution – that is, social injustice. But maybe the fact that seasonality is triggered by weather has made campaigners for social justice wary of embracing the subject and contributes to its neglect. 

As I say, I declare an interest because I think that seasonality is one of those things that is staring us in the face so closely that we don’t see it properly; we take it for granted as “just another thing poor people have to put up with” when it could illuminate our understanding, analysis and practice. 

But am I right? Or do people working in development say a) we recognise seasonality but actually, we don’t see it as particularly important compared to other influences on poor people’s lives, or other ways into helping them tackle their problems? Or b), we think it is important but we think that it is already incorporated sufficiently into planning for long-term development, humanitarian response and, in particular, social protection initiatives?

Find out more

Seasonality, Rural Livelihoods and Development is available from the Earthscan website.

What Happened to the Seasons? by Steve Jennings can be downloaded from this website. 

Author: John Magrath
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.