Can farm women be rapidly appraised?
In a way it is comforting to learn that people in the North have problems as well," said MSc student James Okoth when extending a word of thanks to the participants of a workshop held in Haren in the Northern province of Groningen. The workshop concluded four days of fieldwork which was part of the RAAKS course. Divided into three teams of ten students each, most participants were from the MAKS programme, accompanied by a number of other MSc and PhD students.
Monique Salomon of the Department of Communication and Innovation Studies explains that RAAKS is different from other practical courses at WAU, since students have to tackle a real problem for a contracting organisation. Solomon continues: The workshop forms part of the methodology. During the workshop students have to present and discuss the results of their fieldwork with both the interviewees and representatives from the contracting organisation. The results of this feedback have to be incorporated in the final report."
The RAAKS study guide reads: Essential to RAAKS is the focus on target groups as sources of relevant knowledge and information and not, as is the case in traditional methodologies, just as receivers or users of knowledge and information. RAAKS supposes an active participation of all actors in a collective learning process, mobilizing and activating the local existing information network.
More concretely, the problem to be investigated this semester is the role played by farm women in innovation and sustainability in agricultural practice. Besides the Department of Communication and Innovation Studies, the contracting organisation is the Dutch Union of Rural Women (NBvP) and more specifically its local branch in Groningen. With 75,000 members, the union is the largest women's organisation in the Netherlands.
The Union's members are closely involved with the agricultural sector, which is under heavy pressure at the moment. An important challenge facing this sector is to adopt a more environmentally sound and sustainable form of agriculture. Besides innovations in agricultural production, new activities in the field of integration of agriculture with nature and recreation are being developed. The Union hopes the RAAKS research will stimulate cooperation between civil organisations, consumers and producers in general, and agrarian women in particular.
From the presentation of the research results by the three teams it appears that the Union does not play a prominent role in the present local agricultural information network. In the discussion following the presentations Ms. Van Eerden-Wigchering, a farmer in Groningen, stresses that open communication does not take place in the region. She discusses the lack of participation by women in agricultural organisations and study clubs. Among the participants there exists a general consensus that the management of the farmers' organisations has to be transformed in order to involve women. Positive discrimination towards women prepared to take on posts in the boards of these organisations was criticised, however. Women in the audience were of the opinion that women were not always qualified to take on these positions and that in those cases men should be given the job. Van Eerden-Wigchering reacted fiercely that that was exactly the problem. Women's position and perception ha
ve to be taken into account soon before it is too late. The position of women in agriculture has been subject of discussion for the past twenty years and is still far from satisfactory," says Ms Van Eerden-Wigchering. Apparently knowledge on the position of farm women is available, but the way it is dealt with in the agricultural network is, to say the least, problematic. So much for collective learning. Concrete results, with regard to the objectives set by the Union, were limited. In this case of RAAKS research no meaningful activities have been adopted by the actors.
MAKS student Marlon Imamshah finds the RAAKS course quite useful, and as far as he is concerned the educational purposes of the course are certainly fulfilled. Imamshah's main criticism is the fact that the Union selected the interviewees, and that choice will inevitably be biased one way or another. Imamshah continues: In the course of the fieldwork our group came to realize that other relevant parties in the agricultural network, like banks and consumer outlets for agricultural products, were not included in the list of interviewees." Imamshah has his doubts about the applicability of the RAAKS method in his home country Trinidad. He feels that the rapid aspect would cost far more time even just logistically, and wonders about the cost-effectiveness when applying this method in the rural areas of Trinidad. Imamshah concludes enthusiastically however, As a social activity this exercise was perfect. The team work was very instructive and we did not have any
argument. Our team was like a family."
Ortuno Fernando Salazar is less enthusiastic about RAAKS as a research method. He is a sociologist at a University in Bolivia and does social research on irrigation schemes in the Andes region. Salazar explains: I met Dutch development workers in Bolivia who were very much in favour of this method but Im not convinced now." He continues, Besides, I feel that one method alone cannot provide a solution for problems of a social nature." Salazar mentions the language difference as an important obstacle. Translation by his Dutch fellow team members was perfect, but direct interaction with the interviewees was not really possible. He concludes: In my own work in the Andes region, I often get to talk with people who speak Spanish, but I do not know for sure whether they are representative of the target group from which I need to obtain information. These persons might be the rich and powerful, and represent altogether different interests." Salazar admits that the
RAAKS method includes power relations in theory but does not offer useful tools to cope with these in practice.