Why Grimm’s Fairy Tale No. 103 is essential reading for the CGIAR’s development outcomes

Grimm_BlogThis blog was contributed by Dr Ravi Prabhu, Deputy Director General – Research, World Agroforestry Centre.

There was a poor but pious little girl who lived alone with her mother, and they no longer had anything to eat. So the child went into the forest, and there an old woman met her. She knew of the girl’s sorrow, and presented her with a little pot, which when she said, “Little pot, cook,” would cook good, sweet millet porridge, and when she said, “Little pot, stop,” it stopped cooking. The girl took the pot home to her mother, and now they were freed from their poverty and hunger, and ate sweet porridge as often as they chose.


Impact. The word has a short, sharp forceful feel to it: like a jab from Mike Tyson to the solar plexus. Ooufff!

I could not find it in the reams of words strung across over 17 documents that I was reviewing on ‘Intermediate Development Outcomes’ of 15 CGIAR Research Programs. These IDOs were, metaphorically and cumulatively, supposed to be Iron Mike’s fist into the soft underbelly of hunger, poverty, malnutrition and a plethora of ecological problems. I could not see it: Impact.

I was worried because in two days I had to digest all this for a presentation to the Board of the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). Clearly well intentioned, clearly a work in progress, perhaps the best analogy was to Mike Tyson as a stripling? There was something else missing though.

Closing my eyes to concentrate, the vision of a pot on the table bubbling over with porridge popped up. Could that be it? Looking through the documents once more there it was, staring me right in the face: the focus on outcomes in all the documents was disconnected from the need for inputs. The availability, in plenty, of fertilisers, energy, water, labour was apparently assumed in almost every case. The IDOs seemed to be suggesting that all one needed was knowledge, technology and capacity development and there would be development outcomes and impact. Produce, produce, produce! The magic porridge pot, no inputs required.

An exaggeration of course, but clearly the emphasis on outcomes has distracted us from understanding that everything has to be underpinned by a sensible and sustainable use of resources, that by definition a system without feedback is out of control. That was the second point I made to my Board. There is no magic porridge pot, and the CGIAR must not mistake itself for the old lady that Dortchen told her husband Wilhelm Grimm about.

All good things come in threes, they say. There was a third message to ICRAF’s Board that day: without a change of diet there were no acceptable solutions to the mess we currently find ourselves in. A few weeks earlier, I had heard Michael Obersteiner of IIASA speak convincingly at the Climate Smart Agriculture conference at UC Davis on the results of his work on scenarios. His conclusion was that without a fundamental change in diet we would not be able to stay within the planetary boundaries that Johan Rockstroem has postulated. Thus inputs, outcomes and consumption need to be connected, before we can hope for the impact we want. Ooufff!

The fairy tale continues of course, with the magic porridge pot spinning out of control and covering the little girl’s village with porridge. The little girl does save the day, the good burghers ate their way back into their houses and the porridge pot was consigned to the dustbin. I dare say they lived happily ever after, but I doubt porridge was as big a part of their diets! Thank you Jacob and Wilhelm, your fairy tales never cease to teach! And may little girls rise to save the day again.

P.S. Reviewing this post before it went live on ICRAF’s web page, a senior Board member reminded me that I had forgotten the key role that ‘theories of change’ would play in helping to assure that the IDOs were reasonable, just as the pot ensured the porridge was properly cooked. He is right.


Paul Stapleton

Paul Stapleton is the Head of Communications at the World Agroforestry Centre.

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