GFAR blog, Research in society

Together is Better – Designing a Collective Action to make research participatory and accountable

Bilbao workshop collage

  • What is participatory research? Who actually participates in what, and how?
  • Is it only happening in individual countries, in certain projects? If so, how can it be scaled up?
  • What kind of change is needed to make research processes participatory? Is it about attitudes, governance structures, policies, funding channels?
  • What kind of partners and partnerships are essential?

These were some of the questions participants came to grapple with during the two-day workshop, “Enhancing participatory processes between Family Farmers, Civil Society/Rural Communities, Research Institutes”, held in Derio, Bilbao, Spain, 20-21 February 2018. The workshop kicked off the GFAR Collective Action on empowering rural communities as drivers of agricultural innovation, and took a very novel approach at getting to the heart of the issues. The organizers from the Secretariats of GFAR and the World Rural Forum made sure all participants remained mindful that to embark on any action collectively, a solid grounding and common understanding of concepts and principles is essential.

Logo collage
The Partners in GFAR committed to this Collective Action

The Partners were there to develop a strategy, a design for a Collective Action, yes. But this was not enough. Preconceptions and attitudes had to change, starting with their own.

À la base du « système » alimentaire, il y a la réalité du paysan. Et lui, c’est le seul chef que nous pouvons élire. C’est lui qui devrait décider ou on va.

The reality of the farmer is the foundation of the food system. The farmer is the only boss we can elect. It is he who should decide where we go.

-Alessandro Meschinelli, GFAR Secretariat

Right from the start, with a preliminary discussion led by World Rural Forum on key ingredients for successful farmers’ organizations and cooperatives, the consensus was clear: Smallholder family farmers have to be at the heart of the desired transformations, driving the change they see as necessary for their farms. There was a strong emphasis on going away from the meeting with concrete actions – what the partners involved wanted governments, farmers’ and producer organizations, donor agencies, and their own organizations, actually to do. What would the Partners in GFAR tangibly commit to do to change the paradigm of research to make it include smallholder farmers? What mutual expectations are they willing to set out between themselves, and what is their plan to leverage the necessary support for the Collective Action?

Defining our terms

Drawing Participatory Research 001.jpg
Source: Participatory Research and Development for Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Management, A Sourcebook,  Volume 1, CIP-UPWARD/IDRC, 2005

Participatory research is not a new topic – there’s been much debate. Here, we will investigate what we really mean by “participatory” research.

– Thomas Price, GFAR Secretariat

But what is participatory research? And why, if the participatory approach has been talked about for over 20 years, have programs and projects not implemented it successfully?

Alessandro Meschinelli of the GFAR Secretariat, who specializes in farmers’ empowerment, presented a simple drawing of a continuum of research approaches to spark debate on the topic. On one end are scientists doing research while aiming to increase uptake of their research by farmers. But this most often does not include the voices of farmers and may produce research results and products that never reach farmers at all.

At global level, we see many examples of funding that goes to research that does not even respond to farmers’ needs. That is why we are taking this Collective Action!

– Esther Penunia of Asian Farmers’ Association

On the other end are farmers receiving recommendations from scientists and extensionists meant to increase their productivity, make them more resilient to environmental changes and shocks, etc. In the ideal scenario, farmers are actually carrying out their own research in the fields in direct collaboration with scientists.

In any case, the goal of all approaches to making research more participatory is to end up with fewer publications collecting dust on the shelves, and more farmers benefitting from the knowledge this research has to offer. More technologies effectively made available and usable by farmers. Importantly, though, it’s also about finding ways to integrate farmers’ own traditional knowledge and techniques with the findings of research institutions in the best possible way. It’s about empowering smallholder family farmers to innovate in agriculture themselves, rather than to just be occasional recipients in a research pipeline.

Not dissemination, but dialogue

Il y a des cas où les chercheurs et les agriculteurs ne se sont même pas parlés. Nous, on brise la glace entre les deux groups.

There are cases where researchers and farmers haven’t even spoken with one another. We are breaking the ice between them.

-Yoro Thioye, CNCR Senegal

“In true participatory approach, there is no dissemination.” –a comment that drifted out of a working group defining the activities that this GFAR Collective Action would feature. Dissemination implies a one-way relationship: the researcher performs his professional duty to produce findings, and then they are packaged and shared in a way that will hopefully lead to use by farmers and positive impacts. Instead, the participatory research approach, when done correctly, gives rise to outcomes by skipping the dissemination step entirely. Dissemination of materials is not necessary when farmers—and scientists—have already learned by participating in a process together.

breakout 3
A breakout group discussing strategy for the Collective Action

What is needed is dialogue between the various actors in agricultural research and innovation, not only in carrying out research, but also in deeming what is appropriate to be studied, and setting the research agenda accordingly beforehand.  But this cannot happen unless they are all in open communication, through direct pathways.

Mr Henning Knipschild of the Federal Office for Agriculture and Food (BLE) shed some light on the funding dynamics for agricultural research from a donor’s perspective. Most often, funds go directly to researchers and the researchers are supposed to know the needs of the farmers. An alternative, he went on, could be to give the funds to the farmers and have them approach the researchers for what they need. But experience has shown that this does not work. Typically, the donor agencies become the go-between for “researchers and farmers [who] live in two different worlds”.

What is needed is a new kind of relationship, a new way of interaction between researchers, donors and farmers. For that to happen, what kind of partnerships do we need to see taking shape? If at present the quantity of organizations in partnerships is ample, what can we say about the quality of these partnerships?

Quality control

“What we need to do is sell the idea of making [agricultural research] more participatory. Sell it to donors, sell it to governments. And it needs to become a philosophy that inspires us from the top down.”

-Afamasaga Toleafoa, Farmer and Chair of PIFON

In order to inspire confidence among donors and governments in a new model of participatory research, partners must adhere to certain quality standards in their partnerships, which will be consistently monitored and evaluated. GFAR Secretariat and the Partners in GFAR who have identified with the mission and principles of Collective Action of the Global Forum, must establish and follow a model of effective partnership, whenever they set out to work together.

During the workshop, participants discussed several characteristics of such partnerships which can serve as a basis for their monitoring and evaluation:

  • Agenda is set together, and determined jointly, involving different knowledge systems and stakeholders, world views and interests
  • Networks and communication platforms are set in a way to ensure transparent and easy access of information by all
  • Responsibilities are negotiated and shared effectively
  • Joint activities promote mutual learning
  • Collective research capacities are enhanced
  • Benefits and merits are pooled in an equitable manner
  • Results are disseminated broadly and applied involving users from the outset
  • Outcomes are secured and sustainability of the process is granted by ensuring that the financial and human resources needed do not rely on a single partner but are a collectively shared commitment and responsibility
Spider diagram
Source: Nour-Eddine Sellamna, adaptation of 11 Principles, KFPE, Switzerland

Looking Without and Looking Within

“We need to keep the lens of governance as we develop our strategy. If we want to change the policy and donor environment, we need to change the decision-making processes of stakeholders.”

– Thomas Price, GFAR Secretariat

By the end of day 2, workshop participants had come to an understanding of the need to consider the following three key features as pillars of the Collective Action:

Feature 1: Sustaining innovative research in favor of smallholder family farmer should have a dual participatory dimension, both at the level of the specific activities that support this type of research, grounded at local and country experience, and among the actors themselves, to constitute the initial working nucleus of GFAR partners designing the Collective Action. This nucleus will perform its own self-analysis to identify the room and potential for improvement of respective roles and contributions. This Working Group will be comprised of representatives from the Partners in GFAR participating in the Collective Action who have made commitments to drive it forward.

Feature 2: Existing cases where institutional and operational innovations in governance of research with/of family farmers are taking place will be put at the center of the activities. The Working Group will build on experiences of the Partners themselves in order to address the challenges to making research processes truly participatory: the way their decision-making processes work – or don’t work – in favor of smallholder family farms within their organizations and in partnership with others.

The Working Group – with the facilitation of WRF Secretariat – will elaborate the Concept Note to lay out the needed reforms to research governance.

Feature 3: Throughout the elaboration of the Concept Note design, partnership quality assessment criteria inspired by what was discussed at the workshop (see above) will be applied to monitor the process of partnership building and ensure it is coherent with the values of participatory research.

The Collective Action will be multi-actor, with at least 4 GFAR Constituencies in the Working Group including strong family farmer representation and multilevel scope (local/national, regional and global). To build on both experience and diversity, there will be at least 1-2 countries in each of the regions represented: Africa, Asia-Pacific and Latin America.

The final choice of the countries and of the activities will be ultimately determined by the financial support that the Partners in the Collective Action will be able to raise through their own channels/donors in order to find additional resources to their on-going initiatives/projects.

As the design of the Collective Action unfolds in the next couple of months, the Working Group will identify potential additional partners, likely country level opportunities and potential sources of support for the Collective Action, beginning with the partners’ existing donors , so that it can be scaled up. And, as is the case for quality of partnerships, the quality of the impacts achieved will be measured.

All participants in the Bilbao workshop

The Partners in GFAR who have committed to work on this Collective Action know that working together is better. The endeavor to make research truly participatory and driven by farmers also makes it a collective action by its very nature.

Thus, this new way of working together, exemplified by the Partners in GFAR involved, is itself a governance reform of agricultural research and innovation systems. It is the Partners in GFAR holding one other accountable for their actions so that greater impact can be achieved together. It’s not a prescriptive strategy for others to follow. It’s a call to take on a new attitude of inclusion, by first setting the example in our own work.

 “Farmers have the knowledge, farmers have the skills. Scientists can have knowledge, too. And when they are fused together, when they are connected together and integrated, the result will be much, much better for all of us.”

– Esther Penunia, Woman farmer and Chair of Asian Farmers’ Association

Blog post by Charles Plummer, GFAR Secretariat








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