The Green Revolution of the 1970s and 1980s has helped increase incomes and provide food security for many billions of people. Yet despite these successes some 1 billion have been left behind and continue to live on less than US$ 1.25 a day, many of them in rural areas. This persistent rural poverty has sparked debate about the relevance of the Green Revolution’s recipe of improved seeds, fertilizers and markets for the poorest and most vulnerable rural households. These farmers, fishers and herders live complex, highly adaptive lives and rely upon a diversity of crops and natural resources to overcome the constraints they face and reduce vulnerability in the face of external shocks.
Barotse floodplain, Zambia. Photo by Georgina Smith, 2012.
Recognition of this complexity has sparked a diversity of responses grounded in a range of innovative approaches such as the “Farmer First” movement, the Livelihoods framework, and Integrated Natural Resource Management theory.
Building upon these approaches and the philosophy of participatory action research, the concepts of Agricultural Research for Development, Integrated Research for Development (IAR4D) and more recently Research in Development (RinD) have grown in prominence within the CGIAR and among partners.
At a time when the CGIAR is engaged in organizational reform and launching a series of new CGIAR Research Programs (CRPs) that draw upon and seek to pursue these approaches, it is timely to take stock of recent learning about how participatory action research achieves impact for the poor who rely on these farming systems.
In considering this issue, we need to ask not only how these approaches can have impact, but also how can they do so at scale. Participatory approaches to agricultural research have often been judged to be slow and costly “boutique solutions” confined to the sites where they work directly. As a result their impact on poverty is considered by some to be marginal when compared with commodity research targeting many millions of people.