5 new rows to hoe in development research

Women use hoes to work in the field in Kenya. Development researchers need to create a new mindset to solve a fresh set of challenges. Photo by: P. Casier / Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research / CC BY-NC-SA

Researchers who specialize in development issues need to create a new mindset to confront a fresh set of challenges that include ever tighter purse strings and growing demands for tangible results, said Ann Tutwiler, director general of Bioversity International, a global think tank based in Rome.

“For a long time researchers have been able to just publish a paper and that was that,” she said. “That was their job. Now it’s also their job to think about who is going to use that information. Why am I doing this research? What problem am I trying to solve? What about communications? It’s a mindset change.”

While they’re busy adjusting their mindsets, researchers are finding that traditional sources of money are drying up, especially in the agricultural realm, Bioversity International’s forte. That’s forcing them to seek new partners, notably in the private sector and with environmental groups.

Tutwiler discussed this changing landscape and its implications with Devex during a recent interview in Paris, where she spoke at a conference on closing the gender gap in farming under climate change, which was sponsored by a coalition of groups spearheaded by CGIAR, an international consortium of agricultural research organizations, including Bioversity International.

1. As old school funds dwindle, new partnerships are emerging — notably with the private sector.

“Certainly the traditional sources are cutting back on agricultural investment and agricultural research. We’ve seen that across the board,” Tutwiler said.

Part of that slack is being taken up by private sector donors, such as Citibank, which according to the Bioversity International official recently launched a climate change and resilience fund. And Danone, a multinational food products corporation based in France, recently launched another big fund.

A growing number of companies are instituting robust sustainability reporting requirements — a trend that creates opportunities for researchers. These reports often include criteria about how a firm’s activities affect biodiversity in general, but they almost never specifically address agricultural biodiversity. Bioversity International has offered to help develop metrics to measure that.

“We’ve been talking to a number of private sector organizations,” Tutwiler said, adding that it may soon close a deal with “a company that’s concerned with the nutrition of the farmers in its supply chains.”

“They’re asking us if we do a nutritional assessment: what people are growing, what they are eating, their dietary deficiencies, and what other crops they could be growing,” the Bioversity official shared.

2. Environmental organizations are emerging as potential partners for agricultural research groups.

“We all get stuck in our worlds, and many agricultural research institutions have [just] been looking to traditional donors,” Tutwiler observed. “More and more there is overlap with environmental issues, for example. There are probably more resources going to those issues at the moment than to agriculture.”

Through Bioversity International’s work with land degradation, for example, it has developed expertise in helping ensure the sustainability of forests by encouraging or maintaining biodiversity — which it is leveraging to form partnerships with environmental groups.

“We’re talking with the World Resources Institute, Conservation International, and the World Wildlife Federation about those issues,” she said. “Those have not been traditional partners for Bioversity.”

As in any good partnership, each side brings something different to the table.

“They tend to have more access to these global funds,” Tutwiler shared. “We don’t have that entrée, but we can provide research input for their development or implementation programs.”

3. Some new partnerships seek to ensure that the research is put to good use.

Along the lines of those potential deals with big environmental groups, Bioversity International has inked an agreement with its neighbor in Rome, the International Fund for Agricultural Development.

“[It’s] not just to get small grants to do our work but to see where we can feed our research into their lending programs, so there’s uptake,” Tutwiler explained. Research organizations can thereby play bigger roles “and not just see ourselves as recipients of cash.”

“We in the research community haven’t been doing enough to leverage our research,” she noted.

4. Development research must prove its worth on a wider policy stage.

“There’s more and more emphasis on what’s called the impact pathway,” Tutwiler said. “You have to demonstrate how the results of your research are going to be transmitted to other people.”

Researchers often have a hard time envisioning the change they want to see and then working back to devise projects that would effectively help lead to that, she noted.

“If you want to see more investment at the national level in gender issues and women’s issues, you need to be talking to the finance minister,” she said. “You need to show them how addressing that issue is going to improve the economics.”

As a positive example, she cited a report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization on food waste. FAO put price tags on inputs like land, labor, water and chemicals that have been frittered away.

“All of a sudden it is becoming an economic issue,” she said. “To get change you had to almost change the conversation.”

Researchers need to think about their audiences and how to reach them.

“We researchers don’t think a lot about what a finance minister needs to hear or what a health minister needs to hear,” Tutwiler said. “We used to call it changing the face of an issue. You put it in economic terms, or environmental terms, or health terms, not necessarily in agricultural productivity terms. It does mean changing the language, sometimes adopting a more hard-hitting financial language.”

5. Well-rounded professionals have the edge in this new world.

Tutwiler believes that the emphasis on food security, driven by the 2008 price crisis, has died down.

“What the world is focusing on is the nexus of food security, climate change, water, etc.,” she said. “I think that people who can work where the circles overlap now have a better chance of a career than people who are narrowly focused on one area.”

For Bioversity International specifically, the director general shared that she is looking for “people who are multivalent, people who can connect the dots between different disciplines.”

What concrete steps does a researcher specializing in development issues need to take to confront new challenges facing the sector? Have your say by leaving a comment below.

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    Bill Hinchberger

    Bill Hinchberger is a global communications professional and educator. He studied at Berkeley and has taught at the Sorbonne. Based mostly in Paris, he spends quality time in Brazil and the United States, and works extensively in Africa and Latin America. He has served as an international correspondent for The Financial Times, Business Week, ARTnews, Variety, and others. One current focus of his work is content creation for foundations, NGOs and other organizations, especially those working on issues related to international affairs, the environment and development. He also runs training programs for professional journalists, notably in Africa, and is an associate of Rain Barrel Communications, a leading consultancy for social justice projects.