GFAR blog, Research in society

Learning how agricultural research can be more relevant to the poor


Can agricultural research be more relevant and useful to women, the poor and marginalized? Researchers in the CGIAR have long been grappling with this question and have developed a number of methodologies in response, the best known of which are farming systems research in 1970s and integrated natural resource management in the 1990s.  The methodologies have all tried to do the same thing: make agricultural research more grounded in the context of its application and more driven by a problem solving approach. Gibbons et al., (1994) has described this as  Mode 2 research contrasting it with  Mode 1 academic, investigator-initiated and discipline-based knowledge production.  

Despite the protracted effort to develop and embed  Mode 2 research approaches in the CGIAR none have become mainstream. In 2011 the CGIAR funded the CGIAR Research Program on Aquatic Agricultural Systems (AAS) to change this as the authors of the programme proposal made clear:

“Pursuing our work … will challenge the CGIAR to move beyond traditional circles and change the way we do much of our research. By emphasizing approaches that call for research in development — rather than research and development or research for development — we will pursue a conscious change in emphasis and mindset, one that can help the CGIAR to conceive and deliver our research differently (AAS, 2011, p1).”

AAS developed the Research in Development (RinD) approach to carry out  Mode 2 research in five geographically-defined hubs in Bangladesh, Zambia, Cambodia, the Philippines and Solomon Islands. In March 2016 the program published a Working Paper that pulls together three and a half years of results and learning.

In the paper RinD emerges as a strengths-based engagement strategy based on participatory action research (PAR). In each hub, an AAS team engaged with communities and hub-level stakeholders to agree on a pressing development challenge facing key aquatic agricultural systems and the pathways to tackling it.  AAS facilitated PAR to tackle their respective challenges, linked to broader CGIAR research expertise.

The way the Working Paper describes RinD can best be understood with an example. In the Bangladesh hub parallel community and stakeholder engagement processes identified homestead ponds as a research area of real interest to both small-area farmers and researchers. Homestead ponds have multiple uses, including keeping fish and using the water for washing and growing vegetables. They are important: on small farms in the hub they make up on average one third of the farm area. They are generally shaded by trees and climbing crops. Conventional research and extension supports the use of larger unshaded ponds for single-use aquaculture. Homestead ponds require greater farmer adaptation to meet individual household needs and so are less amenable to conventional  Mode 1 research.

AAS formed a multi-disciplinary science team  that engaged with women in eight villages to form research groups, supported by a local facilitator. The science team and the research groups agreed to a PAR protocol to improve fish production in the ponds while continuing to use them for other purposes. They agreed on a set of treatments involving different species of fish at different stocking levels, drawing on WorldFish expertise.  Through carrying out PAR the farmer-researchers learned to analyze their results and chose what worked best for them. They started sharing successful stocking strategies with neighbours. They gained self-confidence and the respect of their families and peers. Some took on leadership roles and were able to gain better access to the market and information. In turn, the scientists learned to respect farmers’ ability to identify and solve research problems. The success of the work led to the project being funded to continue in several villages.  

In terms of the theory behind RinD, PAR creates ‘safe spaces’ for different stakeholder groups to learn with each other over a period of time. In the case of homestead ponds the stakeholders were women farmers, local facilitators, biophysical and social scientists including gender and PAR experts.

A number of outcomes flow from these spaces including the generation of new technology; increases in links between people; increases in self-confidence and motivation; better understanding of how research can support farmer innovation; and changes in norms that restrict women’s access to and control over family resources and decision-making.

Together these changes can be understood as increases in the capacity to innovate equitably for the people involved and their respective networks. RinD assumes that many of its outcomes come from having built such capacity to innovate. The Working Paper provides early evidence of these outcomes. For example, in Zambia PAR on salting fish led to better relationships between fishers, the Department of Fisheries and the traditional authority that in turn led to better enforcement of a fishing ban to protect a collapsing fish population. In terms of  Mode 2 research, the very work of problem solving in salting fish helped define a research agenda on fisheries protection and governance.

The Working Paper pulls together a number of lessons on how to carry out  Mode 2 research that will be useful for other research programs intervening in complex social-ecological systems. The learning includes the importance of safe spaces for reflection and learning, starting with a broad agenda of interest to a range of stakeholders, and the challenge of building and maintaining capacity to work differently.

Between 2014 and October 2015 the CGIAR received a 33% cut to core funding to its fifteen CGIAR Research Programs, including AAS. The CGIAR decided to channel the reduced funding to better established and more mainstream research. Two CGIAR Research Programs were closed down including AAS.

Despite its premature closure, AAS has had some influence on the CGIAR. Together with the other system CRPs, AAS successfully lobbied to have building “capacity for innovation” established as an outcome in the CGIAR Strategy and Results Framework 2016–30 (CGIAR 2015). This sends an important signal to researchers and should help create an enabling environment for  Mode 2 research.

The Working Paper suggests two preconditions for any future attempt to mainstream  Mode 2 research. Firstly, those funding the work must understand that research embedded in local development processes follows a different dynamic in which the main outcomes flow from building local capacity to innovate rather than from the adoption of researcher-developed technology, and these will be harder to identify and measure. Secondly, the way the work is to be evaluated should be agreed at the outset.


AAS, 2011. CGIAR Research Program Aquatic Agricultural Systems: Program Proposal. AAS-2012-07

CGIAR. 2015. CGIAR Strategy and Results Framework 2016–2030 (

Gibbons, M., Limoges, C., Nowotny, H., Schwartzman, S., Scott, P. and Trow, M., 1994. The new production of knowledge: The dynamics of science and research in contemporary societies. Sage.


This is a guest blog post by Boru Douthwaite on a recently-published Working Paper:

“Douthwaite B, Apgar JM, Schwarz A, McDougall C, Attwood S, Senaratna Sellamuttu S and Clayton T, eds. 2015. Research in development: Learning from the CGIAR Research Program on Aquatic Agricultural Systems. Penang, Malaysia: CGIAR Research Program on Aquatic Agricultural Systems. Working Paper: AAS-2015-16”

Boru photo Ireland[1] (1)Boru Douthwaite is an independent consultant and thinker interested in understanding how research output and process can be used to catalyze and bolster rural innovation processes, in particular, how the practice of doing research for development can be improved. To this end Boru has pioneered the use of theory of change in the CGIAR as a framework for communications, monitoring, evaluation, reflection, learning and impact assessment. Boru has worked for WorldFish as Principal Scientist on Innovation Systems and before that as the Innovation and Impact Directory of CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF) where he was responsible for the design and implementation of CPWF activities relating to generating and evaluating outcomes and impacts. Boru has published a book and over 30 articles in refereed journals. The book, called “Enabling Innovation: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Fostering Technological Innovation” develops a model for grassroots, user-led innovation applicable to agriculture, industry, economy and IT. When not working he enjoys his family and water sports, especially windsurfing.


Photo at top: Felix Clay/Duckrabbit. Creative Commons licence


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