Agricultural Research for Development: Are we moving in the right direction?

Returning from the second Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development, Barbara Adolph says that while the concepts and language of smallholder farmer inclusion is right, researchers are still struggling to include smallholder farmers and non-governmental organisations in setting research objectives and in making decisions.

Farmers and extension workers jointly assessing an okra field in Balkh Province, Northern Afghanistan

The first Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development (GCARD) held in 2010 aimed to address key challenges and opportunities facing agricultural research and how knowledge and agricultural technologies are generated and disseminated. The conference resulted in the development of the GCARD Road Map, and a consensus that ‘business as usual’ is not an option.

The Road Map proposed a six-point plan for transforming agricultural research for development (AR4D), setting out the need for:

  1. A collective focus on key priorities determined and shaped by science and society,
  2. A true and effective partnership between research and those it serves,
  3. Increased investments to meet the huge challenges ahead and to ensure the required development returns from AR4D,
  4. Greater capacity to generate, share and make use of agricultural knowledge for development change among all actors,
  5. Effective linkages that embed research in the wider development context and actions enabling developmental change, and a
  6. Better demonstration and awareness of the development impact on and returns from agricultural innovation.

Key to the plan was putting the needs and aims of resource-poor farmers and consumers at the centre of the AR4D system by focussing on civil society (including smallholder farmers and farmer cooperatives, community organisations and non-governmental organisations at all levels), and in particular in the new Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) research programmes which tackle cross-cutting agricultural development issues across the globe.

One can hardly disagree with the action points – but how far have we gone down the road that the map is pointing us to, and are we going in the right direction?

The second GCARD, which ended last week, brought together many of the same stakeholders who attended the first conference to review what progress has been made, and to see what participants are doing to turn the key principles of the GCARD Roadmap into practical change.

The focus was on practical actions in the three interrelated areas of:

  • predicting how to address tomorrow’s agricultural needs, referred to as Foresight,
  • working in Partnerships, especially with organisations from different geographical regions, and
  • developing smallholder capacity and investing in systems that generate, access and use agricultural knowledge in development.

Clearly a lot has been done since GCARD1. The CGIAR’s new organisational structure is now operational, the design of the research programmes is largely finalised and  implementation has started.

The different research programmes are developing partnerships with a range of stakeholders, and several have hired specific partnership ‘managers’ who could act as ‘honest brokers’ (albeit not fully neutral, as they are employed by the CGIAR) to draw in relevant partners, many of whom haven’t worked with the CGIAR centres before. There has also been progress on foresight with the development of the Global Foresight Hub (GFH), which aims to facilitate interactions and discussions between institutions on the future, and what this means for agricultural research.

But where in all these ‘G for Global’ initiatives were the smallholder farmers and civil society organisations at GCARD2? From the over 600 delegates, fewer than a dozen came from farmer organisations, and not all of these were representing smallholders. Participants representing civil society organisations or NGOs were somewhat more numerous, and were able to add a ‘grassroots perspective’ to most of the breakout sessions.

For example, Sonali Bisht from the Institute of Himalayan Environmental Research and Education in India, presented the perspectives and commitments of those NGOs present at GCARD2 (including IIED) at the closing session. The statement emphasised the commitment of NGOs to:

  • Focus research and projects on increasing the incomes and improving the livelihoods of farmers on a sustainable basis, while providing nutritional food to their family members, communities and other consumers through low-cost, sustainable, risk-resilient, environmentally, socially and culturally accepted production practices,
  • take part in more equitable partnerships and collaborations with ARD stakeholders at all levels – including the planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of projects, and
  • collaborate on building a data base of civil society organisations, institutional structures and best practices in order to involve civil society more effectively in agricultural research.

NGOs and farmer organisations clearly need to have more than a symbolic role in AR4D decision making. They are currently hindered by their small numbers, weak voices and lack of institutional structures necessary for true representation. Changes in research governance are slow to emerge. Large research centres, such as those of the CGIAR, aren’t accountable to their constituents (smallholder farmers and other research users), but to their donors, who do not always speak with one voice, and have to respond to pressures from their own constituencies.

Something that was not discussed during GCARD2 were the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This was surprising given that the CGIAR co-organised the 4th Agriculture and Rural Development Day in Rio+20, which demanded, in its Final Communiqué, that Rio+20 must establish a process to produce an SDG for sustainable food systems. It seems like the research community still has a long way to go before ‘sustainable food systems’ are not just a term, but a concept that drives partnerships and actions.

It seems that while we generally seem to have the concepts and language right in the various statements, presentations and documents, we are still struggling to make things work in practice. “We’re creating real partnerships not driven by money, but by the drive and need to work together to achieve zero hunger,” said the Executive Secretary of the Global Forum on Agricultural Research, Mark Holderness. “Without that we’re letting down the people we serve.” They’re noble words that we need to live up to.

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