Agricultural adjustment policies in sub Saharan Africa have not delivered substantial increases in agricultural growth. We examine alternative explanations for this and argue that transitions and thresholds in agricultural growth processes are not sufficiently recognised and understood in dominant policy discourses. This is a particular problem with market failures for goods and services with private good characteristics and we need a greater emphasis on and understanding of the causes and nature of coordination failures which lead to these market failures. This paper examines core features of poor rural areas, the nature of coordination problems faced by different potential economic actors, the impacts of these problems on markets and economic development, and the ways that these have been addressed or ignored in different policies and policy approaches in Asia and Africa in the last 40 years. We conclude by drawing out the implications for policies seeking to promote pro-poor economic growth in poor rural areas today.