Agricultural research and development - which way now?
Many working in agricultural research and development would agree absolutely with the statements, issued in the 2008 World Development Report, that the rural and agricultural sectors have suffered from underinvestment and neglect during the past two decades. But, if renewed donor interest and greater funding are to be directed towards agricultural development, how can they be put to greatest effect?
A wide range of researchers, practitioners, private sector and farmer representatives, and those from international and donor organisations met in December at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), UK, to reflect, review and propose ideas to improve research and development in agriculture.
Many of those present had been part of the 'Farmer First' and 'Beyond Farmer First' movements of the past two decades and have been involved in various forms of participatory farmer research. But there was a general consensus that farmers and farming systems are changing and that there is an urgent need for changes in approach if more effective agricultural development is to be achieved. A selection of viewpoints from some of those present at the workshop is presented in this Points of View.
To achieve greater progress we need to learn from what has worked and what has not worked in terms of farmer participatory research, and to mainstream involvement and give farmers, consumers and others more of a say in what research is undertaken. Researchers need to be asking themselves how they can be much more effective in working with farmers, national governments, consumers and the private sector to develop better technologies and better policies.
David Howlett, Central Research Department, UK Department for International Development (DFID)
I think one of the key elements is to come up with mechanisms that help to bring farmer knowledge and scientific knowledge together in such a way that it becomes accessible to a wide range of end-users and intermediary users or service providers.
Paul Van Mele, Africa Rice Center (WARDA)
Too much emphasis on methods and techniques, I believe, takes us away from the central principle: how do we learn from farmers? How do we enrich our understanding and build bridges between formal and informal science? I also think the time has come to move on from thinking of just farmers. Why not labourers, too? If the workers are better informed they can carry knowledge to many farms.
Anil Gupta, Indian Institute of Management
Do we want innovation or innovative people? One farmer in Sri Lanka trained 4000 other farmers at his own expense. What he did was more persuasive than ten published articles in journals. Many farmers are better educated and many have increased their commitment to farming. On the other hand, young people are deserting agriculture. Alongside these demographic and cultural changes we see a blurring of roles in agricultural research. It's no longer that farmers do this and researchers' role is to do that: I think extensionists, farmers and researchers can all become very good friends in the process and are more likely to be productive, and have impact if we break down the mental stereotypes of each other.
Norman Uphoff, Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development
A basic characteristic of man is that we tend to accept the status quo and what is familiar rather than go for the challenge of change. Take scientists, they dwell on talking about concepts without wanting to really get to grips with change itself. What I believe is that in order to bring about change we have to change ourselves so that we will be able to reflect on our methodology and respond to the challenges of poverty, climate change and so on.
Adewale Adekunde, Sub-Saharan African Challenge Program, Forum for Agricultural Research for Africa (FARA)
There are a lot of actors in this. Researchers are one part of it, so are national governments, civil society, donor governments and of course the private sector. We do not expect researchers to achieve everything on their own. That will not make sense.
David Howlett, DFID, UK
Farmers and researchers are just two groups within a wider network of players that are required to bring innovation about. And I think one of our challenges really is to take away some of the emphasis on researchers and indeed on farmers and to look at the wider set of players that are required to make change happen.
Andy Hall, Merit Centre, United Nations University (UNU-Merit)
I feel it is wrong to think that innovations belong to the research sector. I think innovations are more likely to be nurtured by the development sector because innovations are supposed to be solutions to problems and so they emerge from the experiences of users testing ideas. Innovation is not something that can be anticipated, researched into. Innovation emerges.
Michael Kibue, Kikasha, Livestock (Beef) Association, Kenya
How do we ensure that there is a level playing field for different kinds of knowledge? Where is the forum where farmers, NGOs and even formal scientists can talk on equal terms? Knowledge dialogue is what I would like to see more effort going towards because, unless we identify and address the different hierarchies of power, then we will just strengthen all the existing asymmetries or inequalities in the system.
Shambu Prasad, Xavier Institute of Management, India
I think one of the areas that we certainly need to strengthen as we look at innovation systems is the whole area of farmer organisations and what role these can play in defining the research agenda.
Jemima Njuki, International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT)
How is the farmer going to really be an initiator rather than just a passive participant in participatory research? I want to discover and share ways of how we have empowered farmers, emancipated farmers, involved farmers, who really can participate in the process.
Lucy Mwangi, Kenya National Federation of Agricultural Producers (KENFAP)
To address problems on-farm we also have to look beyond the farming systems. Farmers and farming are influenced by many factors in the wider economic and political environment. So we are looking for innovative systems that really can address the issues in their complexity, but it all boils down to bringing farmers benefits in the way they relate to the world and to the regional and local markets that they are dealing with.
Julieta Rao, UPWARD Network, Philippines
What I would like to see is people reflecting on themselves, being aware of their own mindsets, being aware of what they see, what they don't see, what they tend to prioritise and what they tend to push to one side. If that was a quality in the agricultural scientists and extensionists of the future, and if it was a quality in the managers and administrators and policymakers who are responsible for agricultural policy, then I think we could have a major transformation in the next 20 years.
Robert Chambers, Institute of Development Studies (IDS), University of Sussex, UK
There are hundreds or thousands of wonderful experiments going on at village level but that is not fully reflected in the mainstream of education, it is not reflected in the mainstream of institutions, of development agencies of DFID or FAO or World Bank. That is quite a challenge. Farmer champions have to speak up to convince policymakers and leaders, those who develop curricula in universities and ministers of agriculture who establish the policies within which research and development can work in a participatory way. But if we could get through to these I think we would be much happier. Maybe that could be the target for the next 20 years. John Dixon, International Wheat and Maize Improvement Center (CIMMYT)
We need to change our way of doing things, our attitudes. We have to give a chance to the pastoralists or to the people directly to talk about themselves. Instead of us directing and dictating to them what to do, they should tell us what they need us to do. That approach should be the way forward to help to improve their lives and living conditions.
Dawit Abebe, Feinstein International Center, Tufts University, USA
The real challenge is how do we scale this out? How do we get, for example, national research programmes to use some of these innovations systems approaches? In some countries we are still seeing very top down approaches that, although they can work for certain purposes, we know are not empowering enough in terms of getting farmers out of poverty. We really need strategies of how to scale out these processes and how to institutionalise them, especially national programmes.
Jemima Njuki, CIAT
I would like to see a consensus on how to modify our approaches so that we can multiply our impact. No single person can finish the work in Africa - we have to work together. But if we continue to talk theoretically we may not be able to achieve this.
Adewale Adekunde, FARA
Date published: January 2008
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