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Gine Zwart, Senior Policy Advisor, Oxfam

Gine Zwart discusses some key aspects around partnership and foresight in the context of agricultural research (© GFAR)
Gine Zwart discusses some key aspects around partnership and foresight in the context of agricultural research

Equitable partnerships for improved foresight

Stakeholder participation is important in any field of work, but what does it mean in practice? Is the involvement of smallholder farmers restricted to obtaining information or for validating results? Are they listened to and seen as equal partners in shaping the future direction of long-term agricultural research? In a session at GCARD2 on equitable partnership for improved foresight, Oxfam's Gine Zwart shared her thoughts.

The number of hungry people has been stubbornly stagnant. Whether it is 1 billion or 950 million more or less, it remains a disgrace to humankind. Nobody wakes up in the morning and thinks, "Today I am going to make sure 'x' number of people will sink further into poverty and be hungry," but the reality is that many of our actions actually do have that result. So can research or foresight trigger real change? The chance of success will greatly increase if we manage to listen to those who are hungry, the women and men who make up this figure, the many producers in the global South. How to get this done is a challenge, yet it can also be surprisingly simple.

Smallholder participation

The phrase 'equitable partnership' is very close to my heart. Many people will agree and have positive connotations with these words. At the same time people wonder what it really means. There are hundreds of examples of multi-stakeholder models, partnerships and participatory research projects, some more equitable than others. There are millions of small-scale poor farmers, but who represents who and at what cost?

Foresight is dominated by western or northern views of the future, from scientists in developed and emerging countries, with limited inclusion of voices from other sectors and other regions. Boosting agricultural productivity seems to be seen as the solution, but yields are just one of the range of ecological, social and economic benefits delivered by farming systems. So why this preoccupation with yields and to what extent is this analysis based on an underlying world view that is dominated by individual ownership and capital accumulation?

Varied perspectives

If we were to take the world view of the vast majority of people, who are actually non-western, we might get different foresights: cyclical as opposed to linear; abundance and trust as opposed to scarcity and distrust; people as part of nature, not just being served by it. These are only a few fundamental differences that come to mind that would influence the outcome of any foresight or research dominated by non-western world views.

The GFAR Foresight working group has suggested a set of actions which would not require additional resources from stakeholders, but the willingness to use existing resources for greater inclusion of farmers' voices in on-going foresight activities. Many believe that inclusiveness is too expensive but how costly is it to sit under a tree? How expensive is it to listen? Money is not the issue here; it is the political will to make the effort to observe carefully and listen.

Desmond Tutu recently narrated an interesting story based on a Jewish folk tale of a man who wanted to understand Heaven and Hell. First, he travelled to Hell. Here, row after row of tables were piled high with platters of food yet the people seated around the tables were starving to death. Each person held a full spoon but the spoon was very long, so they could not bring the food to their mouths. In Heaven, he found the same thing: row after row of food-laden tables and everyone with long spoons. However, the people were happy and well fed. He couldn't work out why things were so different so he watched to see a man pick up his spoon and dig it into the dish before him. Then he stretched and fed the person across from him. The recipient thanked him and returned the gesture. It is as simple as that.

Changing behaviour

I have the chance to be a member of a community (agrobiodiversity@knowledged), which might be called an equitable partnership; a knowledge programme with 70 organisations working with millions of farmers, producing healthy food and valuable knowledge. The work of these organisations is labour intensive but extremely cost effective. Interventions begin with the restoration of community management, emphasising local knowledge generated and refined over generations with no costs except for people talking.

Key words for partnerships are respect, trust and mutual empowerment. For any knowledge intensive process trust is essential, if it is not empowering there is no reason to be in a partnership. At the root of many problems we face lies a power imbalance. It is both common sense and common economic knowledge that money is power. So in order to make any relationship more equitable we need to follow the money, understand how it defines our partnerships and relationships and see where the changes can be made. Sometimes foresight can help us see that we don't need longer or shorter spoons; we simply need to change our behaviour and connect.

Date published: January 2013


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