Africa / CIMMYT / Crop-Livestock / HUMIDTROPICS / ILRI / Intensification / Participation

Participatory research for development in Africa RISING – an email exchange

Over the last few days, in relation with an upcoming final workshop for the ‘farm scale research design‘ early win project, an interesting e-mail exchange took place between Prof. Ken Giller of Wageningen University and Dr. Jens Andersson on the proposed research for development (R4D) approach for the Africa RISING program in the Ethiopian Highlands.

This conversation is an excellent starter for the workshop taking place on 13-14 December in Addis Ababa.

This is the email exchange:

Ken Giller

“As you know I have been working on issues that you raise for many years and pushing for ‘systems based’ approaches. Sometimes we have tried to include active participatory methods in the projects we have run – with varying success…

Some issues that your document stimulates immediately – you mention that “farmers are the principal end users for any R4D process” and – given that it is research I wonder if we can claim that – we are the end users as researchers? Often we as researchers learn the most, and in doing so we often learn things that can improve the R4D process, can perhaps lead to innovations in farming (though rarely perhaps) and can influence policy. Research can influence policy – take our ‘heretics’ paper on conservation agriculture as an example – all the arguments we use come from a more ‘systems perspective’ on farming systems and have caused major ripples in the policy arena.

I am also concerned about the use of “livelihood typologies” and because they are derived from what the people tell you themselves. I wonder if this traps you into the current situation?

And the conceptualization of social capital is very limited – as it usually is when the five capitals are listed in terms of indicators – we are good on the natural and financial capitals and weak on the rest…

And as you note – all of this is time consuming and to do anything sensible in a participatory way takes years of interaction – exactly what “quick wins” do not allow. They force us to the quick and dirty…. So how generic and applicable this will be in practice I wonder. A friend of mine used to say that PRA should stand for Protracted Rural Appraisal, and that only after the tenth visit did he really start to learn what was going on.

Much of the above were the reasons we developed the “NUANCES framework” as an approach – it’s all a bit “etic” and natural sciency analytical – perhaps treating farmers as subjects rather than participants etc etc etc – we can criticise in many ways and I do all the time, but it is an earnest attempt to understand farming systems, how they function and where they could evolve to… in the face of changing environments. As I indicated we have tried to get into participatory approaches and discussions but not always with success. We have focused on the strategic timeline for decision making as opposed to the operational and tactical decisions (a la de Koeijer et al.)  whereas many projects in our field focus on the shorter term.

If participatory approaches are messy and time-consuming (which they are), they are probably not the best way of getting a quick and dirty targeting for interventions and projects that want to measure impact before they have started…”

Jens Andersson

“Thanks Ken for sharing your thoughts.

The more I work on this, the more it becomes clear that during the workshop, we need to work on some shared understandings of what we mean with the concepts we use! I share a lot of your concerns, regarding the making typologies, participation, and research for development, etc. That being said, development oriented research can take all kind of forms, ranging from ‘research for development’, ‘participatory research for development’, to ‘development to research’ (whatever that may mean! ;-)), etc.

The R4D as used here (after Ellis-Jones et al.2005) refers to participatory research with users/farmers. That is how this ‘quick win’ project was defined: trying to develop an approach that links participatory research to development at the farm/farming-system level. The R4D cycle, etc., it all refers to this participation of farmers in research.

Of course, research contributes to development policy in different ways, and those other ways may actually be much more important/influential, but… Your concerns regarding livelihood typologies I share, but we don’t have to be to overly ‘romantic’ about how these come about. We, researchers, are not participating in farmers’ exercises, but they in ours. Needless to say, the way you structure the participation structures your outcomes. USAID wants a focus on women and food, so this is how you structure your participatory exercises, and hence, your typologies are not simply farmer-based. Thus we split the groups based on gender (for instance).

Typologies may trap you in the current situation, you say. But one could as easily say, ‘it grounds your research for development in the current situation’. Researcher typologies may do so as well. The point is for what purpose you make typologies. I think the point about these participatory typologies is, is that it forces researchers and extensionists to reason more from the farmer perspective and develop an attitude of: what may fit where? (And obviously, I disagree that ‘we’ are are good at natural and financial capital and weak on the rest…!). It also is a great way to focus, and get away from these all-stakeholders-will-be-involved type of approaches.

I totally agree that ‘participatory approaches are messy and time-consuming and… probably not the best way of getting a quick and dirty targeting for interventions and projects that want to measure impact before they have started…’ So what do we do? Window-dress with participation-talk and continue to throw in technology packages (a la CA), or try to convince the donor that participation can improve targeting/self selection but requires a longer term commitment?

Indeed, there is no quick win. But I take this ‘quick win’ project as a means to try a different approach to link research to development in a larger, longer-term project”.

(By Diego Valbuena)

More ‘early win’ projects


The Africa RISING program comprises three linked research-for-development projects, funded by the USAID Feed the Future Initiative, and aiming to sustainably intensify mixed farming systems in West Africa (Southern Mali and Northern Ghana), the Ethiopian Highlands and East and Southern Africa (Tanzania, Zambia and Malawi).

To produce some short-term outputs and to support the longer term objectives of the projects, in 2012 Africa RISING funded several small, short-term projects in each of the regions. More information.

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