Engaging marginalized groups in the Greater Mekong region through action research
A new publication offers researchers guidelines on how best to engage with marginalized, ethnic-minority farming communities in the Greater Mekong region, so that research innovations reach and benefit their lives and livelihoods.
Titled “Guidelines to engage with marginalized ethnic minorities in agricultural research for development in the Greater Mekong, the book is published by the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) as an output of the CGIAR Research Program on Integrated Systems for the Humid Tropics.
The Greater Mekong region, made up of Cambodia, Laos, southwest China, Myanmar, Thailand, and Viet Nam, is characterized by rich ethnic diversity, but all too often, ethnic minority groups have found themselves left behind, or made worse off, by development initiatives in their countries.
For instance, even though Vietnam has seen rapid economic growth during that past two decades, certain sections of the society—overwhelmingly made up of ethnic minorities, small-scale farmers, migrant and informal workers, and women—remain poor and marginalized. According to a recent Oxfam briefing paper, Vietnam’s 53 ethnic minority groups make up less than 15 percent of the total population but disproportionately account for 70 percent of the extreme poor (Lam, 2017).
As such, the new volume speaks to researchers who want to engage with smallholder ethnic minority farmers for positive impacts of research and innovations on their livelihoods. The guidelines offered will also be useful to those already implementing projects and wishing to improve their current practice.
A key requirement when working with marginalized groups, as highlighted in the Guidelines, is building trust. The book describes how projects can work towards building relationships of trust with marginalized groups, right from the project conceptualization stage. This takes time and effort.
A transdisciplinary action research approach is also needed. Such an approach brings a broad range of disciplines and skills to bear on the research/development question: agricultural scientists, social scientists, farmers belonging to the marginalized ethnic minority groups, civil society workers, policy makers, and others all need to work together on the project. Such an approach makes it possible to analyze the interactions and overlap among the various systems—socio-cultural, economic and political systems; agro-ecological systems; and agricultural research for development system—embedded in the specific contexts where research takes place.
Transdisciplinary approaches, however, take longer, are more complex and need more resources than traditional research approaches. The project start-up phase, for instance, takes longer: researchers must gain access, engage, build trust and connections and identify research issues that motivate participation from a range of actors, in particular ethnic minorities. Given the importance of engagement and creating safe spaces to work on issues of mutual interest, the number and type of events organized under the project will be greater, and they will last longer.
The additional time and costs required to work with marginalized groups may not always fit with the prevailing orientation toward greater efficiency and short timeframes of projects. Thus, researchers are advised to discuss and negotiate with project funders and host institutions about this different dynamic.
Based on analysis of the internal and external factors that lead to the marginalization of ethnic minority groups in agricultural research for development, the Guidelines highlight three types of challenges that agricultural researchers can address:
(a) Those facing the agricultural research system as a whole;
(b) Those facing transdisciplinary teams; and
(c) Those of agricultural research projects.
For each set of challenges, the steps that can be taken according to different stages in the project cycle are outlined, with seven case studies from Vietnam and other countries in the Greater Mekong region serving as examples.
Evidence shows that the return on investment from using more holistic engagement approaches can last many years after the project finishes (Wettasinha et al., 2014).
We hope the new Guidelines will be widely used by researchers to design and conduct projects that meaningfully engage with ethnic minorities. Local practitioners and development workers who implement research-oriented development projects will also likely gain new insights from the information in the Guidelines, especially concerning challenges facing transdisciplinary teams.
—By Lisa Hiwasaki
Download: Hiwasaki L, Culas C, Minh TT, Senaratna Sellamuttu S, Douthwaite B, Elias M, Kawarazuka N, McDougall C, Pannier E. 2016. Guidelines to engage with marginalized ethnic minorities in agricultural research for development in the Greater Mekong. Hanoi, Viet Nam: World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) Southeast Asia Regional Program.
See here for a description of one of the workshops that contributed to the Guidelines.
See here for results of some research that contributed to the Guidelines.
For more information contact: Lisa Hiwasaki, Humidtropics Central Mekong Action Area Coordinator.
About the guidelines:
The publication is a result of literature reviews on ethnic minorities and agriculture in China and Viet Nam, a gender norms study in a village in Northwest Viet Nam, three experts’ workshops, and in-depth qualitative research in two villages in Northwest Viet Nam and one district in Northern Lao PDR. All aforementioned research was implemented between 2015 and 2016. Results of gender norms studies in five Northwest Viet Nam villages undertaken between 2014 and 2016 also contributed to the composition of this document.
Wettasinha C, Waters-Bayer A, van Veldhuizen L, Quiroga G, Swaans K. (2014) CGIAR Research Program on Aquatic Agricultural Systems. Penang, Malaysia. Working Paper: AAS-2014-40.
Blog edited by Daisy Ouya
See related blog: Lessons from an integrated systems research program in Central Mekong