New Paper: Applying a capitals approach to understand rural development traps

In an increasingly globalized world, rural areas are confronted with enormous development challenges. Agriculture, and in particular smallholder farming, often provides the backbone of rural livelihoods, but the future viability of this sector is threatened by a rising integration of rural areas into the global economy, and thus an increasing exposure of primary product markets to liberalized trade regimes. As a result, rural residents often need to diversify their incomes, specialize, or shift away from traditional farming activities – a set of changes that is closely linked with the notion of rural development. Several models of rural development have been proposed, but they do not always adequately explain why development stagnates in certain regions.

In our new paper we provide a possible explanation for such stagnation, illustrated by a case study from Central Romania. Based on qualitative interviews with over 350 inhabitants from 66 villages, our aim was to understand the barriers to rural development of this region or social-ecological system, respectively, and to suggest levers to move it into a more desirable state. To this end, we combined the concept of traps with the sustainable livelihoods approach. In short, the traps concept depicts the dynamics across spatial, organizational, and temporal scales in creating undesirable system states that are difficult to overcome. The sustainable livelihoods approach, in turn, analyzes at the household or community level how different combinations of livelihood assets correspond to alternative livelihood strategies. Livelihood assets or ‘capitals’ are typically built capital (e.g. infrastructure); natural capital (e.g. land, trees); human capital (e.g. education, health); financial capital (e.g. incomes, savings), and social capital (i.e. bonding and bridging ties within and between people, communities, or organizations). The notion of cultural capital is sometimes used in addition, referring to specific values, world views, and (ecological) knowledge transmitted within a community.

To our mind, the combination of the sustainable livelihoods approach with traps theory had a series of useful advantages. With the notion of capital assets, the sustainable livelihoods approach served to differentiate between different types of barriers to rural development, while the systems approach was useful to highlight interdependencies between various barriers. So what we did was to cluster potential development barriers, identified by rural inhabitants, into different kinds of livelihood capitals (see Table). We then looked at the interaction and feedbacks between these capitals, as well as the role of the institutional context.

Table.Key barriers

Our empirical findings suggest that Central Romania is subject to a multitude of rural development barriers, associated with a lack or endangerment of various different types of capital assets. Moreover, our findings indicate that development barriers are often interacting and mutually reinforcing, which in combination seem to keep Central Romania trapped in an undesirable state characterized by poverty, outmigration, and severe risks to farmland biodiversity. While the region’s natural and cultural capitals stand the best chances to foster rural development, they are likely to deteriorate, too, unless other capitals – financial, social, human, and physical capitals – are also developed at the same time. The development of capitals, in turn, is strongly influenced by the institutional context, which according to our results is in need of improvement. Given the interconnectedness of barriers, we doubt that big-push economic interventions alone would successfully ‘unlock’ the trap-like situation of Central Romania. To our mind, such measures could even be counterproductive. Instead, we recommend that policy interventions tackle various capitals at the same time, ideally leading to positive feedbacks across multiple types of capitals.

While this paper focused on Central Romania, we believe our approach could offer a fruitful, new way of framing rural development research, and to develop appropriate policy strategies.

Recommended citation:

Mikulcak, F., Haider, J.L., Abson, D.J., Newig, J. & J. Fischer (2015), Applying a capitals approach to understand rural development traps: A case study from post-socialist Romania, Land Use Policy 43: 248–258. ­

Resilience: From a theoretical concept towards a global paradigm? Critical reflections on the Resilience Conference 2014.

In 2009 I wrote my Master thesis at the Stockholm Resilience Center (SRC), based on field work in the Western African Republic of Niger. Being at the SRC, basically the ‘hub’ of current resilience research, it was quite impossible not to deal with this concept. Back then, resilience theory seemed quite complex to me, and having a human geography background, I wasn’t sure about its applicability to the ‘human dimension’. The adaptive cycle, panarchy, basins of attraction – how should these terms be of any use for a non-scientist?

Now, a few years later, I went to my first resilience conference, taking place every three years. Not sure on what to expect I must admit that I was seriously overwhelmed, in a very positive way. Spending a couple of days among a vast array of people (~900!) from all kinds of academic and NGO backgrounds made me feel like a bee in a massive beehive. Everybody was dealing with the concept in some way, working on a small piece in the multi-dimensional systems theory puzzle, all together pursuing the same goal: trying to make the world a slightly better place.

I don’t want to sound too pathetic, but I wish to share my insights with you on the notions of resilience I found most intriguing, and on the aspects that to my mind should be considered more meaningfully.

1. Planetary boundaries and the social floor

The planetary boundary session with Johan Rockström and Melissa Leach was summarized here, so I won’t repeat it. But I’d like to highlight the metaphors the speakers used. On the one hand, we have enough evidence that due to our unsustainable lifestyles, food and agricultural systems, and economic performance we are about to “hit the ceiling” of the Earth’s “safe operating space”, which to transgress will very likely lead us into an undesirable Earth system state or basin of attraction with self-accelerating, negative feedbacks in terms of global warming, biodiversity loss etc. (see graph). On the other hand, our institutions by now have failed to adequately tackle this global challenge. The reasons are manifold – be it different goals of each national government, different perceptions of urgency, or massive power differentials. According to Leach, we need to reinvent the “social floor” away from “environmental authoritarianism” and “Green Market fixes” towards Earth stewardship. Governance should be multi-scale, adaptive, networked, deliberative, and engaged with Science. But how can this governance transformation be achieved?


2. Reinventing governance

This leads us to the session entitled “reinventing governance” and headed by Victor Galaz (SRC). Several simulation tools such as the “Governance Futures Lab” were presented that tackle the question of how bottom-up innovations, adaptive learning and participation among the broad public can be improved, and how citizens can engage more powerfully in governance. As one speaker put it: “Politics is the one sport where the amateur is better for the nation than the professional” (Lawrence Lessig). Often, these simulations/ experiments rely on case studies, interviews and tests with various groups. The questions then are: How can we improve/ renew our governance mechanisms rapidly enough to get out of currently destructive pathways? And how can issues such as social justice, equity, and power differentials adequately be tackled?

3. Linking rights and resilience

The session “linking rights and resilience” focused on how to (better) incorporate the notions of power and agency into resilience thinking. Explicitly, the problem of different speeds was mentioned, which is one of the fundaments of resilience thinking (fast vs. slow variables). On the one hand, we have extremely powerful ‘players’ such as the media, multi-national corporations, governments or pressure groups. At the same time, political decisions often need to be made rapidly, and tend to focus on short-term impacts, for instance regarding extreme weather events. On the other hand there are millions of powerless, vulnerable people lacking access to financial and human capitals, among others. They have to make livelihood decisions spontaneously, but improving their livelihoods and making them more resilient against shocks and crises requires long-term, adaptive planning and a holistic governance approach. To this end, various speakers suggested that principles of associative, deliberative democracy should be incorporated into policy-making, and that governance innovations should have a ‘human rights-lens’. Graphically speaking, the mental planetary boundary vs. social floor model should be underpinned by a human rights foundation (see graphic).

4. Resilience and development

As it was pointed out elsewhere, resilience theory has not only been taken up by EU institutions, but also by various international development agencies. During the session “resilience and development” various speakers highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of incorporating resilience thinking into development cooperation. Resilience theory is a useful way to foster holistic/ systems thinking and to underline the interdependence and multi-scalar nature of human-environment interactions. Besides, it is a normative, intuitive concept to policy brokers. There is a growing recognition that improving the resilience of social-ecological systems is more effective and sustainable than providing humanitarian aid once a crisis has already hit a region. However, issues of power, agency and equity are hardly paid attention to. At the same time, resilience has no automatic link to poverty alleviation and can be good and bad. Some systems (such as dictatorships or the global food system) are remarkably resilient, with resilience being commonly understood as “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize…so as to still retain essentially the same functions” (Folke et al. 2010). More exchange between development practitioners, resilience theorists and policy makers is needed to improve the applicability of the concept in the development discourse.

5. Resilience at the margin

One of the main questions then is: resilience for whom to what?, as Melissa Leach had prominently reiterated (see Lebel et al. 2006). Resilience has different meanings according to the context, and according to the actor (policy maker, businessman, smallholder, etc.). Besides, the notion of development must be critically reflected as some people(s) ‘at the margin’ (of dominant societies) might opt against a different living standard (e.g. moving from rural to urban areas) because of positive place attachment, sense of community, or landscape aesthetics. This was shown by various case studies in the session “resilience at the margin”. Moreover, traditional social institutions can be sources of innovation, adaptive learning, and of resilience where scientists/ practitioners can learn from.

6. The role of scientists

So, after all, what should be the role of scientists in the light of resilience theory? Firstly, we should communicate our research and inform (development) practitioners and policy makers. At the same time, as a lot of research is still conducted place-based, it should be our task to ‘upscale’ (indigenous/ social) innovation capacity, for instance by setting up knowledge-sharing platforms or exchange mechanisms among communities. By cooperating with local groups and local policy makers, we can contribute to capacity building and community empowerment. We should not forget that there is a massive ‘middle class’ of well-educated, social media users, which to address should be of prior concern. Changing their behavior towards more sustainable lifestyles would help empower the most vulnerable, and curb ‘extreme power’ at the same time (see graph). Scientists need to be cautious not to be ‘coopted’ by the powerful. On the contrary, we should contribute to fostering transformative pathways (e.g. involving alliances with bottom-up initiatives and citizen groups) to challenge the current, unfortunately quite resilient socio-economic structures.


Folke, C., S. R. Carpenter, B. Walker, M. Scheffer, T. Chapin, and J. Rockström. 2010. Resilience thinking: integrating resilience, adaptability and transformability. Ecology and Society 15(4): 20. [online] URL:

Lebel, L., J. M. Anderies, B. Campbell, C. Folke, S. Hatfield-Dodds, T. P. Hughes. and J. Wilson. 2006. Governance and the capacity to manage resilience in regional social-ecological systems. Ecology and Society 11(1): 19. [online] URL:

Dealing with conflicts during the PhD period

This is the title of a workshop that I attended lately, which I considered very insightful and worth sharing with you. It was chaired by Dr. Silja Schoett, research associate at Leuphana university with training in mediating and coaching, and comprised a small group of 6 people. While the course was officially embedded in a mentoring program for PhD students at this university, it soon turned out to focus on conflict resolution tools that are useful in every stage of life.

Image (c) Chris Slane

To start with: What is a conflict? According to Oboth (2005), an individual can have a conflict with him/herself, for instance on how to develop personally (i.e. “what career should I enter?”). Besides, conflicts can occur between individuals and an organisation/institution, or in relation to another individual. In mediation, conflicts are clearly inter-personal and may result from the behaviour of one/several individual(s) that is perceived as impairing by another individual (Glasl 2004). They are the expression of unfulfilled needs (Rosenberg, cit. in Oboth 2005). Needs, overall, are the central aspect of conflict resolution. Needs and interests serve one’s personal life; for instance: “Because I wanted to have a secure job, I became a civil servant.” Needs, feelings, and the personal identity are thereby closely linked. If your personal needs are fulfilled/ respected, you’ll have a positive feeling. If not, this may lead to a negative feeling. In mediation it is argued that there are three basic necessities, namely security, relationship (partners, friends etc.), and autonomy. In the course we argued that we would add estimation/ appreciation. We did some exercises that supported this observation. Some participants felt they lacked the estimation of their supervisor for their PhD work, resulting in frustration and reduced productivity. I guess this link may be true for all kinds of jobs..


People express their feelings either directly or indirectly. To this end, we articulate our feelings and necessities usually through a position/ point of view (see fig.), which can be considered a shield. Usually we wouldn’t say “I’m hungry (i.e. I have the need for food), that’s why I’m aggressive at the moment (= feeling)”, but maybe rant at somebody who then doesn’t know what’s going on. Why do we rather rarely express our needs directly? We may not be as self-conscious/ reflected. Or we worry about being harmed. So often it seems easier just to let off steam, instead of explaining oneself or behaving proactively.

What can we do to uncover our needs, and find strategies to clarify our position, in order to avoid conflicts and articulate them ‘nicely’? Helpful in this respect are the ‘four steps of non-violent communication’ by Bähner et al. (2008), illustrated by one example from the workshop:
(1) My perception/observation of a situation; example: An important deadline is approaching rapidly.
(2) My feelings/ my mood, i.e. what do I feel about my observation?: I’m scared I won’t keep the deadline.
(3) My need (i.e. in general, without referring to a location/time/others): I need more appreciation/ support/ encouragement, etc.
(4) My specific and compliable request (i.e. specific, with time/ location/ support of others): appreciation/ support by person XY, friends, the partner, etc.

You can think of a conflict (personal/ interpersonal), and go through these stages- it’s quite eye-opening! Last but not least, how to behave to prevent or solve a conflict? For instance, a colleague is accusing you indirectly in front of the whole team (e.g. “somebody here always talks without being asked!”). Following this example: If you were to approach this colleague, firstly (try to) reflect the situation (‘what’s just going on?’), and don’t insult him/her or be aggressive (“I know you’re talking about me, stupid!”/ “Why on earth are you accusing me?”), but rather try to take his/her perspective (‘why is s/he annoyed’, ‘are there other reasons for her/him to behave like this?’). In general, it might be useful to ‘mirror’ your counterpart to prevent conflicts, thus to repeat/summarize the behaviour of your counterpart (“You said..- did I get that right?” or “did you want to express.. by stating…?“)

I am aware that everybody is different; some are more introverted or extroverted, some are more reflected/ open to critique/ whatsoever, and everybody (re)acts differently in various situations/ conflicts. Some just bury their heads in the sand when faced with conflicts (ostrich-like behaviour); others bristle (the hedgehog), bare their claws (the lion), or are totally serene (the snail). Anyway, I found the above mentioned tools very helpful to reflect on (internal/ inter-personal) conflicts, and to develop ways/strategies to tackle them. What do you think?


References (German)

Bähner, Christian/Oboth, Monika/Schmidt, Jörg: Konfliktklärung in Teams & Gruppen. Praktische Anleitung und Methoden zur Mediation in Gruppen. Praxisbox. Junfermann: Paderborn 2008.

Glasl, Friedrich: Konfliktmanagement. Ein Handbuch für Führungskräfte, Beraterinnen und Berater. 8. aktualisierte und erg. Aufl. Bern u. a.: Haupt u. a. 2004.

Oboth, Monika/Seils, Gabriele: Mediation in Gruppen und Teams. Praxis- und Methodenhandbuch. Konfliktklärung in Gruppen, inspiriert durch die Gewaltfreie Kommunikation. Junfermann: Paderborn 2005.

Who we are: Friederike Mikulcak

Hi everyone! Even though I am part of Joern’s Sustainable Land Use Group since October 2011, I obviously managed to hide pretty well from this blog – completely unintended and rather due to unpleasant developments in my personal life.


Anyway, being one of Joern’s PhD students in this project, I wish to briefly introduce myself to you. To start with – as my name is rather long, I’d suggest just calling me Frieda. Within the project, I am dealing with the impact of the EU common agricultural policy (CAP) on smallholder farming and biodiversity conservation in Romania (click here), with barriers to rural development, and overall with formal and informal institutions governing natural resource usage in the region. What made me join this project? I have long been interested in human-environment interactions, rural development, and in particular institutional aspects, but my (academic) career prior to this PhD position wasn’t perfectly straightforward.

My research activities started with a Bachelor in European Studies at Chemnitz Technical University, where I focused on European law and politics. Because the study program specialized on Eastern EU member states, I became quite familiar with this part of Europe and joined a student association organizing (political) seminars with students from Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). I wrote my Bachelor thesis about the EU’s human rights policy in non-EU countries, using the example of Russia. Besides, I did a four month internship at the European Parliament (MEP) in Brussels and Strasbourg.

I soon realized that the EU wasn’t the end of the story for me; I wanted to become familiar with other institutions and international (development) politics. I became a student research assistant with the “Business and Biodiversity Initiative” of the German organization for development cooperation (GIZ) and chose to study the Master program “Globalization, Environment and Social Change” at Stockholm University, focusing on human geography. As part of the research project “Human dimensions behind the greening of Sahel” in cooperation with the Stockholm Resilience Centre I conducted 2 months of field work in the West African Republic of Niger and wrote my Master thesis on “the implications of formal and informal institutions on the conservation of on-farm trees”.

During my time in Sweden I became acquainted with political ecology, resilience theory and systems thinking, which to me served as ‘eye-openers’ and useful approaches to understand and analyse social-ecological relations. I finally joined Joern’s project as it just fitted perfectly the way I had gone by then – combining my interest in the role of institutions in sustainable (rural) development, framed by systems thinking, and focusing on Eastern Europe.