HUMIDTROPICS / ILRI / Innovation Systems / Participation / Research / SLS

Challenges and opportunities in participatory agricultural research

This post was drafted by Terry Clayton based on contributions by Beth Cullen (ILRI) at the Participatory Agricultural Research: Approaches, Design and Evaluation (PARADE) workshop held in Oxford from 9-13 December 2013.

In his keynote address at the PARADE workshop, Professor Paul Sillitoe offered insights into how theory informs practice. Beth Cullen’s presentation on day 1 followed up with considerations of some of the day-to-day practical issues to be addressed by practitioners.

Beth’s presentation (with Katherine Snyder) was based on the results of a survey conducted prior to the workshop. High among the concerns of PAR practitioners are the dominance of a narrow scientific paradigm with its focus on research-driven technologies and solutions, the issue of ‘research’ versus ‘development, disciplinary boundaries, methodological concerns and how we communicate participatory research.

Dominance of narrow scientific paradigm
Within the mainstream of agricultural research, there is a preoccupation with objective scientific data. PAR is perceived as subjective, ‘soft’ or anecdotal. This raises the questions of “whose knowledge counts: that of the researcher or that of the farmer. There appears to be a lack of acknowledgement of social and political dynamics due to concerns with ‘objectivity’.

Research versus development
Participatory agricultural research looks at processes and behavioral and institutional change and is often not recognized as’ research’. Generally, the emphasis is on research outputs (data collection, analysis and publishing) rather than development outcomes, and a focus on short-term targets versus long-term goals. Within large research organizations, including the CGIAR, the reward/incentive system is based on scientific publications.

Dominance of research-driven technologies and solutions
There is perhaps an over-emphasis on development of technologies, with unchallenged assumptions regarding the adoption of scientific and technical solutions. Researcher is too often driven by a search for expert defined solutions rather than by farmer demand. Little consideration of socio, economic, political and environmental barriers to implementing technologies remains a challenge.

Disciplinary boundaries
Despite the rhetoric, there is little truly inter-disciplinary research. There remain disciplinary boundaries between scientists and lack of a common language (silos), mutual skepticism between biophysical and social scientists, and uncertainty regarding the added value or impact of participatory approaches and tools.

Methodological issues
As with any field of research, methodological issues are central to the practice of participatory research. Survey respondents identified the following concerns:

  • Lack of integration between PAR methods and difficulties integrating data and knowledge generated by different methods.
  • Lack of triangulation and validation of data.
  • A perception that participatory approaches lack methodological rigour.
  • Difficulties ensuring information from participatory approaches informs broader socio-economic/biophysical research.
  • Lack of clear conceptual framework and systematic use of participatory approaches and tools.
  • Multiple objectives (more effective research; co-production of knowledge, technology selection and validation; empowerment).
  • Heterogeneity of results generated by participatory research methods.
  • Difficulty in scaling results from participatory research methods.
  • PAR is time and resource intensive.
  • Lack of resources and funding for participatory approaches.
  • PAR requires good facilitation skills.
  • Few experts in participatory approaches, hence little staff training, skill, capacity or experience.
  • Lack of collaboration with partner organizations who specialize in participatory approaches.

Communication
Whilst spaces for publishing the results generated by participatory approaches are expanding, the field of participatory agricultural research suffers from poor communication of concrete evidence and examples, or proof of results from participatory methods and a lack of information and awareness among researchers about participatory agricultural research approaches.

Opportunities
These challenges present new opportunities for PAR researchers. The renewed emphasis on outcomes provides growing space for PAR research and a ‘second generation of tools is rapidly emerging. The potential for partnerships with agencies that specialize in PAR approaches and methods (e.g. NGOs and civil society organization) has yet to be fully tapped. Work within the CGIAR and many other organizations is leading to a wider recognition of the need for multi-stakeholder processes and to move beyond ‘technical fixes’ as narratives about food security, sustainability, livelihoods, equity and gender continue to evolve.

Ways forward
Some of the topics explored over the five days of the PARADE workshop included:

  • Better agenda setting: both research topic (demand driven) and the way research is done (iterative) and how outputs and outcomes are reported.
  • A research framework that makes PAR more central.
  • Mechanisms for better integration across centers and disciplines.
  • Integration of methods and scales.
  • Institutional reform.
  • Incentives for change.

On the final day of the workshop, participants set to work on drafting papers and action plans to address these issues. These include:

  1. A framework for integrated demand driven systems research (strategy paper and action plan)
  2. A community of practice Taskforce with a community of practice in each region actively monitored along with a community of practice annual meeting and use of social media.
  3. A training module on PAR that will include state of the art methods, R4D processes, management approaches, and ethics.
  4. A plan for communications and outreach focusing on how PAR contributes to achieving System Level Outcomes.
  5. An M&E checklist for monitoring and evaluating indicators, including common M&E frameworks and good practices and accountability mechanisms for PAR.
  6. A ‘state of the art’ review on how participatory agricultural research has been successful and how PAR contributes to the CGIAR System Level Outcomes.

Drafts of these products are posted on the PARADE Wiki.

More information

The PARADE expert meeting and writeshop aimed to identify more systematic ways of using methods and tools for Participatory Agricultural Research (PAR) to ensure that future research is more effectively targeted on development outcomes. The meeting was led by Katherine Snyder (CIAT) and Beth Cullen (ILRI) with support from Alan Duncan (ILRI), Peter Thorne (ILRI) and Peter Ballantyne (ILRI). It was funded by the CGIAR Research Program on Humid Tropics and Africa RISING.

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