PROLINNOVA at international workshop on research communication

In November 2010, Ann Waters-Bayer brought Prolinnova perspectives into a 2-day international workshop in London on “Improving the impact of development research through better communication and uptake”. The workshop was organised by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) and the UK Collaborative on Development Sciences (UKCDS). The 80 participants were mainly research managers, science communicators, and research and development donors. The main aims were to share innovative approaches to research communication and uptake and to identify opportunities for collaboration. The focus was not limited to agriculture and natural resource management but looked rather at development research more widely. Much emphasis was given to communicating well-founded and well-analysed research evidence to high-level policymakers.

The workshop was facilitated at a fast pace. After two brief keynotes and two panel sessions, small groups of participants were constantly moving and ever-changing in composition, first in a “World Café” and then in “speed dating” at the marketplace. Numerous topics were touched upon, including: strengthening user demand for evidence from research, incorporating different types of knowledge into research communication activities, improving private-sector and civil-society engagement in research uptake, improving end-users’ access to research results, the role of ICTs and media in research communication, funding research communication and assessing its impact.

Ann spoke in the panel on different ways of linking research, policy and practice. Other panelists came from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Human Sciences Research Council in South Africa, TVEAP (currently making films on Prolinnova activities in Cambodia, Niger & South Africa) and African Institute for Development Policy in Kenya. Each panelist had 5 minutes to answer a different set of questions. The ones posed to Prolinnova were: 1) Whose knowledge counts? 2) How do you effectively incorporate different types of knowledge into policy and practice? and 3) Are you able to get your voice heard, or is research seen as an elitist area? See Ann’s responses below.

The final session of the workshop was devoted to discussing the roles of knowledge brokers or intermediaries between research and policy and practice, and trying to define indicators of the value and impacts of the brokers’ work.

Different ways of linking research, policy and practice: 5-minute input

My name is Ann Waters-Bayer and I work for a Dutch NGO called ETC. We facilitate networking and strategic collaboration for co-learning in action, and one of these networks is Prolinnova: PROmoting Local INNOVAtion. We’ve been asked:

1) Whose knowledge counts?

Everyone’s. That’s the whole meaning of participatory innovation: that everyone has something to bring into the process. Only through synergy between the different sources of knowledge – farmers, extension agents, scientists, private sector and so on – can innovation and development take place. In Prolinnova, we start with recognising local knowledge and innovation, as this was often ignored or undervalued in the past. But we also recognise that local knowledge has its limitations – just like the knowledge of others, if they don’t interact with all the knowledge holders needed to make innovation happen. Processes need to be started or enhanced that encourage people to value the knowledge of others and – especially in the case of small-scale farmers – to have confidence in their own knowledge and capacity to generate it.

2) How do you effectively incorporate different types of knowledge including local & community knowledge, as well as research & innovation, into policy & practice?

What’s interesting in this question is that local and community knowledge seem to be put on one side, and research and innovation on the other, whereas we see research and innovation also within local knowledge. It’s not static. Local people adapt to changing conditions, they have contact with other sources of knowledge, they try out new things – also when we (the outsiders) aren’t there. In Prolinnova, we look first at local people’s own informal research, and take it as an entry point to participatory research and development firmly based in local realities. We support local initiatives in such a way that farmers become better able to engage in joint research and to demand that their most urgent questions be addressed.

There’s been much enthusiasm among extension workers to recognise and promote local innovation. In some places, like in Takeo Province in Cambodia, the Department of Agriculture is adopting joint experimentation as an extension approach to scale up the System of Rice Intensification – as SRI requires local adaptation. Here, Prolinnova partners were able to convince policymakers: by targeting people they knew to be receptive, by inviting them to key events, by taking them to visit experimenting farmers, by including them in the national steering committee. As a result, forms of participatory innovation are being practised – even if not yet written into policy documents. In other places, such as Ethiopia, although there’s also enthusiasm among development agents on the ground, they are still under a regime of top-down research and mass extension, and it’s proving very difficult to change how this is done. This already partly answers the third question:

3) Are you able to get your voice heard, or is research seen as an elitist area?

Yes, there are some individuals in research centres who are listening, who are fascinated by what farmers are doing, who are willing to engage in farmer-led joint research. But they’re the exception. Most researchers indeed tend to be more elitist. The approach of participatory innovation is not yet accepted as an integral part of agricultural research in any country in the Prolinnova network.

But what we have found to be an effective eye-opener for everyone, including scientists, has been the piloting of Local Innovation Support Funds. These are funds managed by community groups to do the kind of research they regard as important. They can bring in other experts – also scientists – if they like, but community control over funds ensures that farmers take the lead in the participatory innovation process.

So: one challenge for the future will be to change the flow of at least some R&D funding so that small-scale farmers have a stronger say in co-generating knowledge – and so that community capacities are strengthened to use these funds in an effective way to promote a continuous process of local, participatory innovation.

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