Recent Publications

O’Brien, D. J., Defining Public Goods: An Institutional Approach to Community-Building and Negotiating Inter-Community Conflict (Edward Elgar, Expected Publication Date: July 2021).

Through the lens of an economist’s notion of public goods, the book analyzes the dual problems of declining communities and polarizing conflicts between metropolitan and rural communities. This macro-level Institutional approach identifies specific ways in which community-level challenges can negatively affect a larger voting public.

The book describes in detail how seemingly intractable community-level problems and inter-community conflicts have been substantially reduced by framing them in terms of the self-interest of a larger polity. Examples include the Federalist papers, written in defense of the U. S. Constitution, New Deal institutions created during the Great Depression, the post-World War II European Union, and more recent macro-level institutional changes that are assisting, in varying degrees, rural community sustainability in the U.S., Kenya, Rwanda and Russia.

O’Brien, D. J. and Meador, J. E. 2021. “Bringing Path Dependencies into Evaluations of Smallholder Cooperative Development Programs.” Pp. 115-150 in Donat Horvath (ed.), Opportunities and Challenges of Smallholders and Smallholding. New York: Nova Science Publishers.

The concept of “path dependencies” explains how societal- and regional-level economic and political institutions, both formal and informal, at one point in time create a “path” for future institutional evolution and/or inertia.  This article focuses on the importance of evaluating smallholder cooperative development programs within the constraints and opportunities of the national institutional paths in which they are set. Community development project designs and outcomes in Kenya and Rwanda are compared within this framework.

D. J. O’Brien and V. V. Patsiorkovsky (2020) “Regime Change in Post-Soviet Russia: A Bottom-Up View from the Countryside.” Pp. 41-64 in R. A. Remington and R. K. Evanson (eds.). Globalization and Regime Change: Lessons from the New Russia and the New Rowman and Littlefield.

This chapter, in a book dealing with post-communist transition governments, asks the question, why has Vladimir Putin continued to receive high levels of support from the Russian public, despite intense criticism from Western countries after his invasion of Eastern Ukraine as well as numerous examples of his authoritarian leadership in domestic affairs? The answer to this question is found in the authors’ panel and longitudinal surveys of Russian rural households and in nationwide public opinion surveys. The village-level panel and longitudinal household surveys began shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union and continued into the 21st Century.  The immediate post-Soviet period, under President Yeltsin and his “shock therapy” introduction of a market economy, was a horrific experience for most Russians, including those in rural villages.  The Putin regime introduced reforms that stabilized the national economy and this resulted in a vastly improved economic situation in the countryside, which was reflected in substantial increases in household incomes, improved mental health – a much reduced incidence of depressive symptoms – and a more positive outlook toward the country and its leadership.  The invasion of Ukraine  did not weaken Putin’s approval at home,  but did produce a substantial rise in negative attitudes toward Western countries, which had imposed sanctions on Russia. Over-time nation-wide public survey findings are consistent that the foundation of support for Putin rests on average citizens’ perceived experience of a better life under his leadership and the view that there is no other option at the present time.

Placing Rwanda’s Agriculture Boom: Trust, Women’s Empowerment and Policy Impact in Maize Agricultural Cooperatives

Rwanda has experienced significant economic growth following the 1994 Genocide. This growth is attributed to the expansion of its agricultural sector, specifically farming intensification and the government’s focus on creating strong agriculture cooperatives. While Rwanda’s economic development has been impressive, many academics have argued that Rwanda’s growth comes at the cost of an authoritarian governmental regime, whose policies have too heavy a hand in the daily activities of smallholder farming. This study measures smallholder maize farmer loyalty to their cooperatives using the net promoter scores of five different cooperatives. Results differ from much of the recent research on smallholder farmers in Rwanda in that most cooperative members have high levels of trust in their cooperative leaders. Cooperative members who have high levels of trust in their cooperative president, board and the Government of Rwanda are more likely to recommend their cooperative to friends and family. Furthermore, women cooperative members have higher levels of trust in cooperative leadership, the Government of Rwanda and almost all agricultural input providers mentioned in the study. Findings suggest that cooperative policy, most notably the mandatory inclusion of high numbers of women in cooperative decision-making, is helping to promote strong agricultural institutions as well as sustainable economic development.

An Overview of Smallholders in Communist and Post-Communist Countries

The primary contributions of smallholders during the communist and early postcommunist periods have been food production and labour for large farms. Those conditions are changing, however, as modern farms require less labour and food supply may be imported. For most smallholders in Central and Eastern European and former Soviet Union countries, the postcommunist neoliberal environment has not brought significant improvement, and strong arguments can be made that land grabbing, social and economic exclusion, and rural poverty are worse than regime bias during the communist period. Cooperatives, which have empowered smallholders in other parts of the world, have not been as well developed in postcommunist nations.

Institutional Adjustment to Globalization to Increase Religious Tolerance

This article examines formal and informal institutional arrangements that either encourage or discourage religious intolerance in response to rapid social and economic change. The initial premise, described in the first part of the article, is based on the work of Gordon Allport, which shows that those who identify themselves as most “religious” tend to be among the most and least tolerant; the former being the “devout” while the latter are “institutional.” The second part of the article examines the economic and social factors underlying the historical relationship, documented by Karen Armstrong, between major social change and the rise of intolerant fundamentalist religious movements. The last section of the article describes three specific ways in which institutional adjustments can reduce intolerance: (1) develop economic policy adjustments to increase household and community resilience; (2) develop institutional arrangements that create incentives for individuals to bargain with one another, rather than engage in zero-sum games; and (3) examine comparative community level studies that offer clues to building resilience and overcoming intolerance.

Household Social Organization & Income Generation in Russian Forest Resource Regions

This paper compares a 2009 survey of household social organization and income generation in villages in three forest resource dependent regions in northwest Russia with findings from a 2006 survey of households in nine Russian agricultural regions. Income generated from enterprises based on household social organization—household labor and social helping networks—is substantially greater in agriculturally dependent than in forest resource dependent regions. We discuss the implications of these findings for understanding intranational regional differences in the relationship between economic systems, household social organization, and rural household economies, as well as the obstacles facing policymakers and environmentalists who attempt to shift household income generation strategies away from an environmentally harmful lumber industry to less harmful income generation activities.

A Five-Year Study of Smallholder Cooperative Vertical Integration in Kenya

This paper reports on a five-year comparative study of two smallholder dairy cooperatives in Kenya, examining the question: what factors are conducive to producing sustainable smallholder cooperatives that can gain entry into the vertical value chain in liberalized post-colonial economies? The relative weight of income advantage; selective individual incentives and, social capital on maintaining member patronage are assessed within variable environmental constraints and opportunities facing different cooperatives. The methodology includes case study observation of the cooperatives during a five-year period, as well as sample surveys of members and non-members that include indicators of dairy income; reasons why farmers elect to join or not join the cooperative; and assessments of the importance of different services provided by the cooperative. The findings show how the relative weight of specific incentives for cooperative membership can vary from one environment to another within the same nation. The most important finding is that maintaining sustainable smallholder cooperatives within an increasingly competitive environment depends on the ability of managers to create business strategies that are compatible with the cooperative’s environmental constraints but, at the same time, incentivize members’ patronage.

The Underrepresentation of Women in Leadership Positions in Rural Russia

This paper reports on a survey that asked a sample of men and women why they thought that women were underrepresented in positions of leadership in large agricultural enterprises and management of small household farms in Russia.  Both men and women downplayed the role of outright discrimination and instead focused on traditional cultural definitions of household responsibilities of women and the supposed “natural” advantages of men in leadership positions.  Interestingly, male as well as female respondents supported increased training and more help from husbands at home as a way to promote more women in leadership positions.

Measuring the Benefits of Smallholder Farmer Membership in Producer Controlled Vertical Value Chains – Survey Findings from a Development Project in East Africa

This paper reports on a study that identifies reasons why some smallholder farmers become members of East African Dairy Cooperatives while other households elect not to join.  Although members receive a slight advantage over non-members in income, the primary reasons for membership involve trust that the cooperative will treat them fairly and reliability.  The cooperatives in the survey vary considerably in the other benefits that they provide to their members, such as credit for purchase of farm inputs. The study points to both the opportunities and challenges facing smallholder cooperatives in developing countries as they aspire to get further into the value chain and improve the lives of their members, and, in particular the importance of social capital.

Formal Institutional Solutions to the Development of Social Capital

There has been a great deal of interest by policy-makers, including economists at the World Bank, in the role of social capital in economic development.  The question  remains:  how can social capital itself be created where it is weak or non-existent? This paper focuses on the role of formal institutions in generating, strengthening or, alternatively, weakening or destroying social capital.  Three sources of resistance to recognizing the role of formal institutions in the creation or strengthening of social capital are discussed: (1) the implicit assumption that bridging ties must be “weak ties”; (2) the focus on “path dependencies” rather than “path alternatives”; and (3) the implicit assumption that informal institutions are causally prior to formal institutions.  An approach to generation and/or strengthening social capital is developed that draws upon the economist’s notion of competition in the marketplace and the role of formal institutions in ameliorating conditions that prevent fair competition.

A New Institutional Approach to Entrepreneurship and Inequality in Rural Russian Villages

New Institutional Economics (NIE) and New Institutional Sociology (NIS) provide complementary paradigms with which to understand the relationship between formal institutional changes in a reform period and informal institutional structures with which household economies adapt to reform policies. Survey data gathered from rural Russian households from 1991 to 2006 provide an empirical test of hypotheses drawn from NIE and NIS. The most important ␣nding is that in the absence of secure formal property rights informal institutional elements played the dominant role in entrepreneurship and inequality between households in the Russian countryside, but that as formal institutions became legitimized, and the overall economy stabilized, households that made use of these new institutional arrangements had signi␣cant advantages vis-à-vis other house- holds. At the same time, regions which have provided opportunities for households to develop a “mixed economy” that combines household enterprise production, which relies to a signi␣cant degree on informal institutional elements, and wages and salaries (i.e., working for others), which is based on the legitimization of formal institutional arrange- ments, have produced substantially higher mean household incomes than have other regions.

Entrepreneurial Attitudes in a Post-Socialist Transitional Rural Economy

A sample survey of small (< 10 ha) and medium (10-100 ha) sized farms in Moldova is used to examine the prevalence of different aspects of an “entrepreneurial outlook” in a post-communist transitional economy.  Operators of the middle size farms have greater technical knowledge of high value agriculture, as well as better understanding of marketing and willingness to deal with uncertainty and debt.

Poverty, Inequality and Subjective Quality of Life in Rural Russia during the Transition to a Market Economy: 1991-2006

Survey data is used to examine the relationship between changes in indicators of poverty and inequality in Russia and the subjective quality of life and mental health of rural residents in that country from 1991 to 2006. The effect of changes in incidences of poverty and inequality on the overall mental health of the rural population is straightforward, with a substantial lowering of symptoms of depression following the economic stabilization of Russia after 2000. The relationship between changing material conditions and average subjective assessments of quality of life during this same time period is more complex, with gains in material quality of life associated with gains in some life domains, not much change in others and in a loss in satisfaction with village life. Within the sample of households in the 2006 survey, incremental gains in income are associated with substantial gains in mental health outcomes. The effect of gains of income on subjective quality of life indicators also is positive but not as strong as in the case of mental health.

Sources of Income, Mental Health and Quality of Life in Rural Russia

This article reports on a survey examining sources of income and their effects on the mental health and subjective quality of life of residents in nine rural Russian regions. Using conventional measures of depressed mood and respondents’ assessments of the quality of their lives in different domains, the authors find that the emergence of a mixed economy, that generates income from salary and wages and household enterprises, as well as government transfers, has produced differentiation in the subjective psychological as well as material quality of rural residents’ lives.

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