Partnership between PROLINNOVA and Global Development Studies programme of the University of Virginia, USA

Introduction by David Edmunds, Track Director, Global Development Studies Program

Can a Cambodian farmer be a teacher? Can a Senegalese farmer become a community organiser? Can an Ethiopian farmer become head of an Ethiopian NGO? Of course, the answer is yes, in principle. How does a student from an American University respond to such questions? Do their responses reflect the reality of a fast-changing, globalised world? Creating the conditions under which American university students can absorb lessons outside the classroom is more challenging in practice. Students have some assumptions, some mental frameworks to break down before they can listen and observe effectively. Students must listen well before they can work and learn with farmers and their supporters. Farmers, too, may not understand immediately what students do and don’t know, and where they can and can’t contribute to local initiatives. Critical self-reflection and mutual recognition are required all-round. 

We are fortunate at the University of Virginia’s Global Development Studies programme (UVA/GDS) to havethe Prolinnova (Promoting Local Innovation in ecologically oriented agriculture and natural resource management) international network to facilitate our learning. Prolinnova has worked for more than a decade to support farmers as they solve their problems themselves through their own innovations, farmer-led joint experimentation, community organising, and social and political networking. The farmers they have worked with are now used to sharing and learning with others about their needs and their strategies for addressing those needs. A growing number of government and university researchers, NGO development practitioners and donors, traders and politicians in the countries where Prolinnova is active now have begun to take serious note of farmers’ ideas about how to improve rural life and livelihoods.  

When our students encounter farmers and their Prolinnova supporters at annual meetings or at project sites or over the Internet, they meet people who know how to “push back” against “expert” cultures. Once that is done, a space for shared learning is created. It is a dynamic space that needs persistent maintenance to keep it working. Perfect mutual understanding is never fully realised. But our students are finding their encounters with the Prolinnova network enriching beyond all expectation. They bring back ideas, examples and ways of working that they share with their classmates. Their ideas of “development” are both more complicated and grounded in the lives people actually lead. They know better what they can and can’t do. After a few years now, the Prolinnova network is also learning how to mentor our students, and what they can get out of us that will serve their needs.

Our first visit to a Prolinnova International Partners Workshop (IPW) was in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in 2014, though the preparations had begun in 2013 with communications between me, my students, Chesha Wettasinha at the Prolinnova International Secretariat, and the Cambodian host CEDAC. Our students took part in the workshop in meaningful ways – taking notes, making short presentations – but were mostly there to learn and listen from the assemblage of dynamic, experienced Prolinnova partners from over a dozen countries across Africa and Asia. Afterwards, the students and I travelled with Chesha and our hosts – especially Sam Vitou from CEDAC – to take notes for a gender and climate change report that CEDAC was due to submit. Again, students had opportunities to observe and experience how community organisers and researchers engage in dialogue with farmers about complicated issues. It was an experience that profoundly enriched our classroom learning. We believe we also helped, in a small way, to fulfil CEDAC’s reporting obligations regarding a gender analysis. There were miscommunications and false steps in our collaboration, to be sure, and that is all useful for our students’ learning. But we believe there were also enough benefits to CEDAC – and perhaps a glimpse of what a long-term relationship might look like – that they have been willing to host other groups since then to investigate soil amendments and carbon sequestration, as well as communication strategies within CEDAC

A similar story emerges for Ethiopia in 2015. Two students and I participated in the IPW, learning a great deal and building relationships in the process. We then travelled to farms in Tigray in northern Ethiopia to observe Prolinnova’s partners (especially Hailu Araya and Best Practices Association, BPA) interact with farmers, focusing on questions of “scaling up” local innovations. As we spoke with the farmers and their network supporters, an idea for a follow-up study of irrigation and solar energy emerged. The following year, in 2016, another student team went back to Tigray to try to co-design with farmers solar-powered pumps. That experience led farmers and BPA to recommend a further study next year on solar applications for other purposes. 

The IPW in 2016 was held in Senegal, and we are now looking into possibilities that students could meaningfully contribute next year to the work of the IPW host, Agrecol Afrique. Nothing may emerge from these conversations, and that would be OK. But we have learned that, if we have enough opportunity to discuss with farmers and their networks, we can often find a collaborative effort that is meaningful to all involved.

Based on our previous experiences, we will now look to initiate an internship programme whereby farmer organisations, supportive professionals or country platform partner organisations of Prolinnova can invite students to learn and work with them either through or outside the IPW visits. Our intention is that the internship will be defined over the previous year through student visits, Internet communications and possibly Prolinnova visits to UVA/GDS. The projects described below are meant to be stand-alone contributions to Prolinnova and farmers, but also build the relationship in the years to come between the university and the network in a way that stimulates mutual learning between students of Global Development Studies, farmer innovators and their communities, and the Prolinnova network partners.