Involving smallholders in Agricultural Research for Development (ARD): Mind the gaps!

The GCARD-2 Foresight paper (F3), “The voice of smallholders in shaping priorities”, raises a number of questions about why the inclusion of farmers, particularly resource-poor farmers, in foresight (and in ARD processes generally) has so far been limited. This prompted us to think about how “the problem” of lack of inclusion is perceived, and how this affects the solutions proposed. We identified three differing sets of assumptions about the major cause(s) of the lack of inclusion of farmers in ARD. Each leads to an emphasis on a different, sometimes conflicting type of solution. Further, we see that focusing on national level processes would address one of the missing gaps in scaling up.

Gaps in perceptions of why smallholders have little engagement in ARD

Some established players in ARD see the problem as essentially one of lack of capacity (skills and resources) within CSOs (Farmer Organisations (FOs) and NGOs). The CSOs do not organise themselves sufficiently to convey common messages from farmers; they are not sufficiently representative of a wide enough number of farmers; they are not able to articulate farmers’ problems as researchable questions, and therefore struggle to design projects; their monitoring and evaluation is often lacking; they have little involvement in recognisable foresight studies etc.

The kinds of solutions proposed are therefore concerned with building capacity of CSOs to engage more effectively with formal researchers and other ARD stakeholders. This may include additional resources, stronger partnerships and shared projects – but overall, this approach retains the current form and processes of ARD, and tries to enable smallholder farmers and CSOs to fit better into the ARD mould. It fits with a project-driven research agenda where researchers and CSOs work together and need resources and skills to access funds and deliver acceptable results for donors.

Another view, often held by policy-oriented CSOs, is that the problem is primarily one of lack of democracy. Smallholder farmers are a diverse group with differing concerns; they also overlap with wider communities of rural populations and poor consumers (urban and rural) – all of which have legitimate interests in the future of agriculture and therefore of ARD. Current representation in ARD processes by a handful of CSOs or farmers is simply not sufficient to allow for real influence and equitable engagement.

There are also concerns that some FOs represent only a narrow constituency of larger-scale farmers. The corresponding solution therefore focuses less on capacity building and more on widening the numbers of different voices within the ARD processes. An example is the Civil Society Mechanism (CSM) of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) where the numbers of representatives has been widened to include different constituencies (for example, women farmers, pastoralists) and regions. It may change the balance of power between the ARD stakeholders, and deliberately seeks to bring the unheard voices of the more marginalised smallholder farmers and others into the discussion. This approach is less tied to individual field-level projects and more towards support for networks and research agenda setting.

More fundamentally, a third, alternative world view starts with food producers at the core, and the recognition that smallholder producers provide food to about 70% of the global population. Therefore the key question is not: “What role could smallholder farmers pay in meeting future needs in food & nutrition security,” but rather, “What role can research play in supporting and enabling smallholder farmers/producers to continue to provide nutritious food to a growing population into the future?”

The problem is perceived as a lack of accountability and awareness of researchers towards farmers, rural people and poor consumers. Rather than farmers and CSOs building their capacity to speak the language of researchers, the research organisations have a responsibility to consult and account for their work in ways that make sense for farmers. This means recognising that CSOs have legitimate interests in long term prioritisation of ARD as well as specific field-based projects. This means more openness to communicating, fostering innovative mechanisms for discussions with farmers (for example farmers’ juries), and recognising that formal research forms part of much wider agricultural innovation systems.

It also requires recognition that farmers do not tend to separate ARD out from other livelihood and development issues. Few African CSOs focus only on ARD; they tend to cover wider agricultural development and environmental issues. If researchers want to support farmers and CSOs, they need to be prepared to try new processes and to look for entry points on issues of concern to farmers.

Two way process

Of course, there can be overlaps between these views and the Foresight report refers to issues with capacity, democracy/representation and the need to see problems through multiple lenses.  Many researchers are actively searching for new ways to partner with farmers, but we sense that there is still a tendency to expect farmers/CSOs to engage within the existing ARD context, rather than for researchers and other private/public stakeholders to engage within farmers’ contexts. It does have to be a 2-way process with more flexibility and willingness on all sides to allow room  for farmers to influence how ARD agenda-setting processes are constructed.

Gaps in scaling up  

There are examples of good practice and productive partnerships between farmers and researchers at local field levels. At the regional and global levels, there are well-established ARD structures where the multiplicity of farmers’ voices struggle to be heard. But we see a huge gap between the local and the international levels. In order to scale up local successes and address the lack of democracy and accountability at the higher levels, we need to fill this gap.

National level processes are some of the key missing elements. The Foresight study noted that national level processes are generally more inclusive, multi-stakeholder oriented than the regional or global ones. However, studies for the INSARD project identified a lack of coordination between researchers, CSOs and other stakeholders at the national level. Both studies noted that farmers/CSOs are mainly involved at validation stage and in consultations rather than farmer organisations/CSO co-leading the process.

This is where more emphasis is needed, and where the INSARD project is focusing. By brokering processes that bring farmers/CSOs, researchers, public/private stakeholders together around tangible and priority concerns of farmers, there is potential to create spaces where a greater diversity of farmers’ voices can be included, research questions relevant to farmers’ concerns can be identified and stronger, more equitable partnerships forged for the future.

Blogpost by Hilary Warburton and Nicoliene Oudwater (ETC Foundation), on behalf of the INSARD (INcluding Smallholders in Agricultural Research for Development) consortium (www.repaoc.org/insard).

Photo: Pastoralists, Ethiopia by W. Bayer (2009)


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