Participatory Agricultural Research: Approaches, Design and Evaluation

Expert Meeting

Oxford, 9-13 December 2013


The CGIAR reform process aimed to ensure that research conducted by centres and their partners leads to outcomes that address the challenges of sustainably producing food and earning an income in rural developing country contexts. To fulfill its mandate, the CGIAR’s research programs must design and carry out research in new ways that account for the complex and dynamic environments in which its ultimate clients operate. To design research that will actually lead to better outcomes is not straightforward. We must start by understanding and addressing the constraints faced by smallholder farmers that are shaped by diverse biophysical and social-economic-political factors. As a recent FAO report declares:

Research that involves smallholders in the definition of research priorities and the design and execution of research according to participatory and empowering methodologies is crucial. This is the best way to ensure that research results respond to the complex social and economic, as well as ecological, contexts of smallholders (FAO, 2013: 82).

The use of participatory research approaches to elucidate issues in agriculture and natural resource management (NRM) is not new. Farming systems research (FSR), particularly in the 1970’s and 80’s, applied a variety of participatory tools and methods and several CGIAR centers have placed emphasis on farmer-researcher collaboration for quite some time. However, much of this work has been aimed at the household or farm scale and has been relatively specific in focus (e.g. on what kinds of crop varieties farmers wanted, how they managed their farm enterprises). More recently, the CGIAR and other research institutes have developed and implemented innovative methods, in two areas particularly, that we believe will help us strengthen the focus that our research can have on developmental outcomes:
• A number of stakeholder-focused methods for working at broader scales (e.g. landscape, watershed). These methods aim to identify challenges and constraints to livelihoods, land management, gender equity, and decision-making at these broader scales and to incorporate multiple and differing viewpoints as well as integrating biophysical and socio-economic issues.
• The implementation of multi-stakeholder platforms. Whilst these are not without their difficulties, there is growing evidence that they can help to develop an enabling environment in which research-driven or assisted innovation must function if developmental outcomes are to be realized.

The broad aim of the meeting is to identify more systematic ways of using new methods and tools (individually or in combination) to ensure that our research, in future, is more effectively targeted on development outcomes.

The meeting will critically examine the range of methods used and the issues to which they have been applied and initiate a community of practice for sharing information and experiences. In addition, the workshop will examine what else might be required, other than these tools, to truly achieve outcomes. Its broad aim is to identify more systematic ways of using them (individually or in combination) to ensure that our research, in future, is more effectively targeted on development outcomes.

A central focus of the meeting is to evaluate the methods and tools for how well they allow us to achieve better outcomes, not just achieving a better idea of the target populations and other stakeholders’ points of view.

Discussion points

We anticipate the emergence of a number of thorny issues during the meeting including the following:
1) Are these tools the best means to facilitate greater participation of a wide variety of stakeholders who have different interests and different statuses and power?
2) Are they effective in supporting action to achieve more equitable solutions to managing land and natural resources?
3) How can these methods be used to better connect multiple scales (household to landscape) and integrate biophysical and social-economic information?
4) Are these tools/methods too time consuming and cumbersome to address project objectives?
5) How important are skills in facilitation (or other skills) in the success of these tools?
6) Are these tools and methods best used by researchers or are they better suited to practitioners?
7) How do we manage the politics of participation when rolling out these tools?
8) How can we better design and carry out research to achieve outcomes through engaging new sorts of partners?

Meeting objectives

  1. Take stock of and review tools and approaches used in participatory agricultural research - strengths and weaknesses, capacity requirements, when to use them, etc.
  2. Produce an initial participatory methods inventory and toolbox to inform upcoming research in CGIAR and its partners.
  3. Produce a draft guide to apply such tools and approaches.
  4. Develop a community of practice to further develop, improve and advocate for these tools in CGIAR research.
  5. Evaluate the potential for using these tools in combination with other quantitative diagnostic and biophysical research approaches.
  6. Discuss potential methods to document and monitor the use of such tools, the data they produce and their impact on behavioral or attitudinal change.

Participants and process

The event convenes 40-50 experts and practitioners working with participatory research approaches. The group will include people with a mix of social and biophysical research expertise.

The first three days will be an expert consultation with all participants; we expect a smaller group to stay for two additional days to refine outputs of the meeting.