Science - May 13, 2004

‘This institute should have been in Wageningen’

During the last few decades responsibilities in large-scale irrigation systems have shifted from governments to the water users themselves. Reforms tend not to run smoothly however, often because of the political interests involved. Dr Peter Mollinga, a Wageningen irrigation expert who has just taken a job at a research institute in Bonn, sees many similarities between the attempts to reform irrigation systems and what he regards as the difficult transformation of Wageningen UR.

Mollinga formally gave up his position as senior lecturer in the Irrigation and Water Management Group recently, although he has been working outside Wageningen for a number of years already. Most recently he has done research in India on the reform of irrigation systems. Now he has just started his new job at the interdisciplinary Center for Development Research (ZEF) in Bonn, Germany.

Mollinga: “I went to the institute that really should have been created in Wageningen.” According to Mollinga, Wageningen should have set up an institute for interdisciplinary research on development issues in the 1980s when the money was available. As far as he is concerned Wageningen’s strength has always been the collaboration between the technical and social sciences. In fact an institute was set up in Wageningen, the Technology and Agrarian Development Group. “But it’s far too small, and does not reach the whole organisation. That was when we lost the fight.” That’s why he went to Bonn: “While Wageningen had all the right cards to become the market leader in this field.”

Models

Mollinga sees similarities between the developments within the organisation of Wageningen UR and reforms of irrigation systems, his own research focus. An important reason behind the lack of success of irrigation reforms is that the approach adopted for reform in one country is copied by another country. That’s why there is a ‘Philippine model’ and a ‘Mexican model’ for example. It is very difficult to avoid thinking in models says Mollinga; after all, much of the money given by donors is based on previous success stories. In addition, bureaucrats and technologists feel comfortable with a plan-based approach that such a model offers. But applying what worked in one context to another case usually leads to the wrong approach, and this is also what happened in Wageningen when it adopted the professional ‘corporate’ model of the DLO institutes and other institutes. “The university is not a business,” declares Mollinga. Within the business culture an institute chooses a political leaning without admitting it. Mollinga feels it would be better to make political preferences explicit and not to hide behind a seemingly apolitical corporate identity. Not that researchers need a ‘corporate identity’ as far as he is concerned: researchers tend to be more interested in fellow researchers in other countries than in a ‘Wageningen UR feeling’.

Irrigation reforms teach us that it is very difficult to impose something on people if they are not in favour of it, says Mollinga. The big bureaucracies surrounding irrigation systems are capable of working against change. Changes that go against the vested interests tend to get bogged down in endless small failures, “Because people will always try to just keep doing their work and avoid unwanted changes.” According to Mollinga the resistance to management pressures from above is widely felt among the university workers here. “The management level is talked of in none too flattering terms. Of course people always tend to complain and things can never be good, but for many people job satisfaction has not increased.”

Joris Tielens

Re:act