Using Joint Liability to Spur Sustainable Farming

Christopher Tang

Many kind souls have tried to train impoverished farmers in developing countries to become more productive, but the obstacles are formidable.


Inadequate and sometimes non-existent infrastructure is one major challenge. It can be very costly and time-consuming for companies, governments, or non-profits to send trainers to remote villages – especially when the villages often differ on everything from soil conditions to culture and language.

To deal with that, many aid organizations offer “train the trainer” programs. They train a select group of local farmers on techniques to increase yields, reduce costs and improve sustainability. Those farmers then train others in their villages and cooperatives.

The Rainforest Alliance, for example, offers a training program to improve both productivity and environmental sustainability by making better use of scarce natural resources. Thanks to higher productivity and better long-term stewardship, farmers who comply with the Rainforest Alliance’s Sustainable Agriculture Standard tend to earn more than those who do not.

Rainforest graphs                                 Source: Rainforest Alliance

But “training the trainer” only facilitates learning. How about the doing? How can one ensure that the farmers who seek the Rainforest certification actually follow through in practice?

Monitoring and auditing are costly, because small farmers are often on hard-to-reach plots sprawled across a wide territory. Rainforest Alliance developed a novel approach that calls for group certification process with joint liability.

The group trains a select number of local farmers for training, and those farmers are then responsible to training others in their cooperative. In each of the two subsequent years, Rainforest Alliance will audit the farmers in each cooperative to verify that the standards are being fulfilled and to identify corrective actions that may be needed.

The key to compliance lies in the joint liability – the joint responsibility – of all farmers in a cooperative to adhere to the Sustainable Agriculture Standard. If the percentage of complying farmers falls below a pre-specified threshold, the entire cooperative will lose its certification.

Joint liability has been successful in other anti-poverty contexts. Grameen Bank, the pioneer in micro-lending, has lent money to over one million groups of poor people who were held jointly responsible for the loans.

Each group member is responsible for the repayment of others. If individual borrowers fall behind on repayments, lending to the entire group can stop. That produces peer pressure on all members to make good on their loans, and it is a major reason that Grameen Bank has recovered 98% of its loans.

When people receive reward and punishment as a group, they have a strong incentive to monitor each other for compliance. Joint liability becomes a form of self-regulation.

Indeed, the basic idea proved effective more than 2000 years ago: During the Qin dynasty in China, from 221 BC to 207 BC, the emperor used collective punishment to unite China and enforce his laws.

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