Development in difficult places – how do we reach the billion people that have been left behind?

Stephen Hall -

Barotse floodplain, Zambia. Photo by Georgina Smith, 2012.

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Researchers, development practitioners and policy makers recognise that efforts during the 1970’s and 80’s to develop new high yielding hybrid seeds and transfer them to farmers played an important part in removing the spectre of widespread starvation, especially in Asia. This, combined with the introduction of fertiliser and efforts to develop markets, also ushered in a period of cheap and relatively stable prices for the world’s staple crops and brought millions of farmers out of poverty. Aptly named The Green Revolution this undoubted success deserves celebration.

But evidence tells us that developing technologies in research stations and working to get farmers to take them up – the backbone of the Green Revolution – has significant weaknesses. Attractive and logical as it seems, this innovation pipeline, or technology transfer approach has often failed, either because the technologies developed on research stations proved unsuitable for real world farmers’ fields, or because farmers failed to adopt them for other reasons. Arguably because of this, and certainly despite 40 years of effort, about a billion people remain in poverty, 870 million of whom live in rural areas that the Green Revolution hoped to reach.

Concern about the effectiveness of the innovation pipeline approach is not new. As early as the 1970’s some researchers were starting to survey farmers to learn more about their farming practices and the constraints they faced so that solutions from the field station could be better tailored. Building on this, in the following decades pioneering researchers went further and collaborated with farmers in joint research projects conducted on their farms. The 2000’s saw such approaches continue to evolve with partnerships widening beyond researcher and farmer to include actors, such as NGO’s and policy makers in multi-stakeholder networks. Networks that sought to co-develop innovations, not just concerning the production technologies and practices on farm, but also the wider institutional and value chain issues that affect farmers livelihoods [1].

From ‘things’ to ‘people’ and ‘complexity’

In an excellent essay Robert Chambers argues that, in essence, these developments represented a shift in mindset from an emphasis on ‘things’ (the supply of technologies) to one that recognises ‘people’ and ‘complexity’ [2]. People; because to achieve meaningful change we need to pay attention to what people believe, how they behave and the relationships between them. Complexity; because rural environments and societies are often highly diverse and behave in unpredictable ways.

Today, there is a growing conviction, which I share, that persistent pockets of rural poverty will probably only be tackled by adopting this people and complexity mindset. What is needed are highly networked, collaborative engagements that bring multiple actors and institutions together to co-develop solutions tailored for the particular circumstance of a given place.

It’s not just about fish

I’m interested in these approaches because they seem especially important for the communities living along freshwater floodplains, coastal deltas, and inshore marine waters. We call these areas aquatic agricultural systems (AAS) – an obvious focus for WorldFish because improving fisheries and aquaculture in these regions often has high potential for making a difference.

But fish are not the only game in town in these places. Instead, depending on season or circumstance, families also cultivate a range of crops, raise livestock, gather fruits and other tree crops, and harness natural resources such as timber, reeds, and wildlife. What characterises AAS then is the diversity of production systems and livelihood strategies that can be found, even within single households.

It is this complexity, and the diversity of ways in which people have to work to get by, that cautions us against simplistic linear approaches where we develop and provide technical solutions to fisheries and aquaculture problems and encourage uptake. Instead, we need to draw on the growing body of research and experience that seeks these alternative means for bringing the full panoply of stakeholders and expertise together to understand and work with communities to make a difference.

It’s a hard road

Unfortunately, although the arguments for adopting approaches consistent with a people and complexity mindset are compelling, one must also acknowledge that moving away from the technology transfer model often proves difficult. There appear to be several reasons for this:

First, the idea of technology transfer remains seductive and continues to dominate. Many funding agencies and policy makers, for example, continue to hove to the “things” mindset and are reluctant to support alternatives. I am sure this is in part a result of our inherent faith in technology (we all like to believe that magic bullets exist), but it is also probably because the potential pay-offs if the approach is successful are easy to model and measure as macro-economic impacts on national accounts. I also suspect it is because the policy model to support the approach – funding research and extensions services – is straightforward to understand and easy to administer.

Second, implementing collaborative multi-stakeholder approaches is complicated, unpredictable, and resource intensive. The outcomes are also context specific and can rarely be pre-determined at inception. (It could hardly be otherwise when bringing people with diverse beliefs, capabilities, interests and power relations together to arrive at creative solutions for problems they identify at scales ranging from individual farms through institutions to national policy). For these reasons, a question remains about the potential for such approaches to have rapid and cost effective impact over large areas.

This concern that complex participatory approaches will forever remain a provider of ’boutique’ local solutions is a genuine one. It is legitimised by the fact that, although there are many good examples of local success [3], we do not yet have a clear synthesis of what works where and why and how success might best be scaled-out.

It is for this reason that WorldFish, as part of the CGIAR, decided to bring together a group of experts from diverse backgrounds and institutions to discuss this topic. Entitled Re-imagining agricultural research in development, the primary purpose of this event is to help us in our work to improve the lives of people living in Aquatic Agricultural Systems. I am sure, however, that it will also be of considerable use to others.

So, if you are a donor interested to learn more about these approaches for achieving development outcomes, a policy maker concerned for areas that the Green Revolution left behind, a researcher who believes that people and complexity matter, or simply an interested citizen; I encourage you to reflect on the importance of embracing a people and complexity perspective. Better still, why not also explore the website describing our Global Dialogue on Re-imagining agricultural research in development and its outcomes [4].

Of course, despite this pressing need for these approaches, we should also bear in mind the 15th Century expression, ‘don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater’. In other words, there remains a need for improved varieties, improved extension services and inputs, and market development. For our part, WorldFish will continue to invest in developing and disseminating faster growing and more resilient strains of the tilapia’s, carps and other species that are suited for use by fish farmers in developing countries. I remain convinced, however, that, unless we balance this ‘things’ perspective with more challenging ‘people’ and ‘complexity’ perspectives we will do the world a disservice.

[1] For an excellent description of these approaches and their evolution in Africa see Röling N (2009) Chapter 2, pp 9–34 in Ref 3.

[2] Chambers R (2010) Paradigms, Poverty and Adaptive Pluralism. IDS Working Paper 344:57.

[3] Innovation Africa: Enriching Farmers’ Livelihoods., eds Sanginga P, Waters-Bayer A, Kaoria S, Njuki J, Wettasinha C (Earthscan, London).


Stephen Hall

Stephen Hall

Stephen Hall is the Director General at WorldFish, an international research organization headquartered in Malaysia focused on reducing poverty and hunger in developing countries through fisheries and aquaculture. His previous leadership roles include CEO of the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) and Professor of Marine Biology at Flinders University, Australia. Stephen has served on several international advisory panels and, in 2010, was a member of a global team overseeing the reform of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). Recognized as a leading scientist in his field, he has contributed more than 80 scientific publications on fisheries ecology and environmental issues as well as a highly cited book on the environmental effects of fishing. In 2004, Stephen was awarded a Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation and he continues to investigate and write on the roles and potential of fisheries and aquaculture for supporting international development objectives. In 2005, he was awarded the Australian Public Service Medal for leadership of AIMS. Stephen holds a Ph.D. in Marine Ecology from St. Andrews University and a B.S. in Marine Biology and Biochemistry from University of Wales, Bangor.

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