Transition Team Project: Transforming Rural Development in the Obama Administration
November 6th, 2008
The following is the first in a series of posts about potential policy recommendations for the Obama Administration to act upon during its first year. These policy recommendation ideas are born out of SAC members’ extensive on-the-ground experience with what is and is not working in American agriculture and federal farm policy. In December SAC members will discuss the potential policy recommendations and vote on a final set which will be included in a briefing book for the Obama Administration Transition Team.
Jim Worstell has helped farmer groups develop locally-owned, value-added enterprises in Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta and many other third world areas. He was a member of the President’s Council on Sustainable Development during the Clinton Administration and has been Director of SAC member group Delta Land & Community since 1995.
Tuesday’s election of Barack Obama provides an unprecedented opportunity to transform USDA/Rural Development. Never before have we been blessed with a President with a community organizing background.
A good dose of community organizing could transform USDA/Rural Development into an organization which actually accomplishes sustainable rural development in America.
The perfect way to start achieving that goal is revamping the hiring, training and evaluation of USDA/Rural Development staff.
After January 20, in every State, President Obama will appoint a new State Rural Development Director.
We (Delta Land and Community) hope President Obama makes explicit what is obvious to any community organizer: sustainable rural development is only achieved when rural communities are organized to achieve economic and environmentally sustainable futures.
We propose that the primary qualification for new hires (including State Directors) of USDA/Rural Development will be experience in organizing rural groups, especially for collaborative processing and marketing ventures.
The primary criterion for evaluation of USDA/Rural Development staff will be that they have helped facilitate/organize farmer groups for rural development and, especially, locally-owned, value-added enterprises.
The new President Barack Obama should issue an Executive Order which requires:
1. experience in facilitation/organizing to be a criteria for all new RD staff
2. all new staff to be trained in facilitation/organizing
3. all new staff to be evaluated based on their success in establishing successful farmer/rural groups.
4. hiring, training and evaluation as an integrated process.
5. that the training and evaluation incorporates outside NGOs experienced in organizing and facilitation.
The President’s background in community organizing will help him know that evaluation and training must be conducted by folks experienced in organizing and facilitation. Since most RD staff are loan officers, or at least have that mentality, outside input will be crucial to a successful training/evaluation process. Getting that into the internal evaluation process will be the trick.
1. The culture of the USDA-RD is remnant from the old Farmers Home Administration, whereby the majority of staff at the time were involved with loans and loan processing. Therefore, RD typically hires loan officers or people who come from that background. These people are trained in different skills sets than community developers or community organizers. One question is – could the culture of RD actually change, given the previous charge to employees?
2. One challenge – in order to do community development, one needs to work directly with people in a community, not just on a grant application, but also on other needs such as leadership development.
3. There are also questions as to whether the RD funds are applied properly -to the neediest – or are they going to those who have track records and can organize the best. We know that Value-Added Producer Grants (VAPG) and Section 9006 grants (the Rural Energy for America Program) are going to people in those states that can organize and apply for these grants.
4. We would suggest that RD staff be evaluated on how well they work with a community; also they should know something about every program they have available – it seems that some programs are offered locally and others the knowledge of those programs are in the state office. Staff should be evaluated on how well they facilitate grants and work within the community. The knowledge of programs should be across all employees – from the field to the state office.
5. Other USDA Rural Development funds (e.g. Rural Business Opportunity Grants “RBOG” and Rural Business Enterprise Grant Program “RBEG”) could be used to increase the knowledge base of USDA/RD programs in rural areas while developing networks and capacity of clientele.
6. Residents of underserved states never see USDA-RD host any type of community training event specifically for their programs. Instead, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been the voice crying in the wilderness in organizing and educating rural residents to access USDA-RD programs–especially Section 9006 and VAPG. Some underserved states would not even be participants in the program without NGO organizing of rural groups. In Arkansas one NGO has organized all the groups which have received VAPG grants for the past six years and six out of the eight grants received by Arkansas since the program began in 2001.
The lack of success of underserved states stands in stark contrast to similarly rural states. For example, in 2008, Iowa received 9 grants, in 2006 17 grants, and in 2005, 14. In such states with strong rural organizing traditions, organized groups receive as many grants in one year as Arkansas and other underserved states have received since the program began.
There is a dire need for RD staff with skills in rural organizing to insure that all rural states reap the benefits of rural organizing now enjoyed only by a few fortunate states.