Building up a Critical Mass
ICRA promotes institutional change in agricultural research
Agricultural research institutes need to change their approach. New research is often rejected by the very people who should be using it: the farmers. ICRA (International Centre for development-oriented Research in Agriculture) has been promoting a different research approach since 1981. This is a long process, as some participants in Wageningen's ICRA training programme discuss
In my institute, the traditional procedure is for researchers to draw up projects that interest them, fit them into our mandate and then develop innovations from there. I used to ask myself: for whom are we doing this research anyway? Ranjitha Puskur from the Indian Grassland and Fodder Research Institute (IGFRI) in northern India has had problems with her institute's research methods since starting there four years ago: So many expensive agricultural technologies have been developed that don't get any takers. By takers, Puskur is referring to the farmers who are ultimately the ones who implement agricultural innovations. Very often, however, they are the last to be consulted, if at all, when developing research. Many farmers don't even know that we exist, Puskur continues. It seems logical to me to ask them their needs. Why is this such a radical idea?
Habtamu Admassu has also noticed a similar trend in his institute, a research centre for the Ethiopian Agricultural Research Organisation (EARO). In the entire time that sedentary farming has been practised in the region - thirty years - farmers have never been consulted by agricultural researchers. Admassu first noticed that farmers were rejecting researchers' recommendations in 1995, and this prompted him to start looking into farmer-based research methods. The farmers had complex reasons for choosing their methods, based on changes in the climate and other factors, while we researchers were promoting simple solutions based on a single aspect like soil fertility.
This traditional approach to agricultural research is what ICRA intends to change through its six-month training programmes, offered annually to international agricultural researchers in Wageningen and Montpellier, France. ICRA teaches methods that take the complexities of agricultural problems into consideration: learning to work in consultation with farmers is one aspect of the programme
Stimulating a new approach is difficult, however. Admassu indicates several reasons: Some researchers are afraid of losing control. Asking farmers to collaborate undermines their own research agenda. Admassu's centre also attracts researchers from many different regions, who do not necessarily belong to the same ethnic or linguistic group as the farmers there. This poses serious challenges to getting people to work well together on a research problem, he remarks
ICRA is up to the challenge. Slowly it is building up long-term relationships with research institutes such as IGFRI and EARO. These partner institutes are visited each year by the ICRA programme participants during the second half of the course. Organised into small interdisciplinary teams, the participants test their learnings in a practical research assignment defined by the host institute. The institute is expected to follow up on recommendations made by the teams. Puskur, one of five researchers to come to Wageningen from IGFRI is optimistic: We can't expect the senior people to divert much from their traditional ways, but many of the younger scientists tend to be interested. We can then build up what ICRA calls a critical mass at the institute.
A critical mass takes time to build. Stephen Williams, one of last year's ICRA participants from the UK, works for a research institute in Belize: I left the course very enthusiastic about the new ideas I had learnt, but it's been hard being the only person in my institute introducing a new way of working. Williams is now trying to find a way to get more staff training. My employers support these ideas, but it will be a long process to influence how things work on a daily basis. Change doesn't happen overnight.
Each year, fifty researchers from various institutes in developing countries are trained in the European ICRA programmes. How can it be sure to attract people who will form a critical mass of researchers? Of course, it's difficult to get a complete picture of an applicant by mail, but we place a lot of demands on participants and their institutes, explains Juan Ceballos-Meller, ICRA programme coordinator in Wageningen. In the application, we ask candidates and their employers to tell how they plan to use the knowledge gained from the training. Employers are also asked about the applicant's potential to attain a top-level management position within the next five years. After completing the programme participants draw up an action plan for change, which is followed by a report a year or two later
Pushing for these changes is hard work, as Admassu has found in Ethiopia: For some institutes, using ICRA methods could get you fired. If you want a peaceful life, then you'll have to keep quiet.
This is the second of two articles on ICRA, following Wisp'r No. 9 on Team-Building