New research platform faces challenges
A Research for Development Platform can be a powerful mechanism to bring different people together to solve problems and produce more inclusive, demand-driven research. But experience in Thailand and Viet Nam reveals many challenges.
There are three Research for Development (R4D) Platforms in the Central Mekong Action Area of the CGIAR Research Program on Integrated Systems for the Humid Tropics (Humidtropics): Together Making Nan Better in Nan province, Thailand and Central Highlands and Northwest Vietnam. The platforms are intended to provide ideas on demand-driven research topics. The World Agroforestry Centre is a partner in the Humidtropics program.
Agricultural problems tend to be complex and not easily solved by working with one farmer or government agency alone. For example, it was found that mono-cultivation was causing soil degradation but innovations to deal with soil degradation, such as planting forests, will not work if farmers’ incomes are reduced, there are limited markets for timber product, poor access to credit or heavy subsidies and promotion of monocultural crops, such as maize.
Gender and cultural norms also play a role in adoption of agricultural innovations. For instance, the Bru-Van Kieu people of Viet Nam will not use animal or chemical fertilizers with rice because they consider rice grains are the ‘gems of God’ and must be kept free from contaminants.
The R4D Platform has been designed as a space where researchers and others can come together to exchange knowledge and experience. It can be seen as a powerful tool for bringing different people together to deal with complex agricultural issues. Ideally, researchers will focus on research that directly addresses farmers’ needs while farmers can express their interests and become involved in the research process, which, in turn, encourages their adoption of the results. The platform also helps enhance networks among different groups. By working with farmers, researchers have a chance to learn from local people’s knowledge.
But experience from the Central Mekong Action Area has revealed many challenges in establishing and maintaining the R4D Platforms.
First, it takes time to establish. There are four functions that need to be fulfilled: platform facilitation; logistics and organization of meetings; documentation of the process; and mobilization of resources, analysis of platform performance and support to the facilitators in thinking about what methodology and tools could be beneficial for the platform process. Identifying the people most relevant to be involved in the platform also needs to undergo an analysis. In Northwest Vietnam, it took more than six months to identify the four key positions to fulfill the functions and the many other people who should be involved.
Second, finding a platform facilitator is challenging. The facilitator’s role is not limited to managing the platform meetings but includes stimulating collective analyses of problems, implementing research projects and monitoring with multiple stakeholders. These tasks require a lot of time and effort. The facilitator also needs to have skills such as being able to identify potential partners, encourage ideas, mediation, conflict resolution and advocacy. In Northwest Vietnam, the development of the platform experienced a pause when the first appointed facilitator was reassigned. While in Nan, the role of the platform facilitator has been not clearly defined.
Third, there are power dynamics among the groups of people involved. Researchers or local authorities tend to dominate discussions about the platform. For some R4D platforms, only farmer leaders are invited but they do not necessarily represent the common interests of a larger number of farmers, especially marginalized ones, such as ethnic minorities and the poor. Sometimes, there has been representation of farmers at platform meetings but they were not well-informed or did not feel secure enough to fully participate. Capacity building for marginalized groups and good facilitation can help balance the power dynamics in a R4D platform and avoid more powerful members using it as a Trojan horse to push their own agendas.
Other debates are whether the Humidtropics should fund a platform’s activities and, if so, for how long? On one hand, there are arguments that CGIAR centres, such as the World Agroforestry Centre, should support a platform in its early stages so that it can start to function well and seek alternative funds. On the other hand, there are concerns that if farmers and local authorities participate only when they are paid or their costs are covered, a platform might not continue to function after its projects end.
Indeed, it is costly to cover all costs related to platform facilitation, documentation and research; and to bring more than 50 people together twice a year from throughout Southeast Asia and the world to discuss emerging issues in their region for three days.
The experience of the Humidtropics Central Mekong R4D Platforms shows that platforms do not function when there are no funds. For example, there have been no R4D Platform activities in the Central Highlands of Vietnam since it was launched in September 2014 because it has not secured funding.
In this context, it is necessary to have more research on the effectiveness of R4D Platforms and what the determinants are for a successful platform in the Central Mekong.
This work is part of the CGIAR Research Program on Integrated Systems for the Humid Tropics