Or, how to take the wicked problems of the world´s rural poor seriously
Aim blog Over the past few days I have been doing some soul-searching about the meaning of this blog and where it is supposed to lead? Or, if that is impossible to determine: in which direction it should evolve? A few ideas stood out with immediate clarity: (1) it should be about smallholder farming, especially in Africa. That’s because my own experience is mostly with African smallholders. Besides, there are quite a few of them, almost all of them poor; (2) it should be about value chains – local, regional, national, or international – because they are needed to drive change, hopefully for the better; and (3) it should involve systems thinking, because it is hard to see how else the two can be brought together for the benefit of both.
Value proposition Your typical agricultural development project involves some kind of value proposition to the beneficiaries, i.c. the smallholders and their families. Given the desperate situation they are in, the farm families are often quite willing to give the proposition a try, even if there are doubts about its “value”. Besides, trial-and-error is a very common method in any society, even in centrally planned ones. But what is often ignored or overlooked in these development projects is the central importance of the value proposition. For an example of what can happen if one pays due attention to the variaous aspects of a value proposition, go to this post about a simple piece of farming equipment.
Optimization and embedding Generally speaking it is quite easy to identify something as a value proposition: there is no shortage of approaches or technologies that are successfully applied in many places around the world and that are crying out loud for adoption, e.g. diesel pumps for irrigating rice or fertilizer for maize. The trouble is that decision-makers and practitioners alike are often sloppy when it comes to implementing these propositions and forget that they: (1) need to be optimized to attain their maximum value; (2) must be embedded in a wider, supportive context, which may include the presence of rural services; and (3) should fit well in the rural livelihoods of the beneficiaries to be really acceptable and successful.
A rural intervention model Playing around with the above ideas in a concept map resulted in the diagram to the right. Rural innovation optimizes the value proposition and makes sure it fits in the smallholding livelihood. The value proposition creates a market for rural services to enable the value proposition to become a reality. Ultimately the agricultural product needs to enter a food or some other product chain for realizing its monetary value and pay for the services. In many cases the rural services will not evolve on their own, but will need some form of strengthening. Some local governance structure (in the broadest possible sense: governmental, co-operative, research-related, a platform of some sort, etc.), which has poverty alleviation as one of its mandates, can play this role in conjunction with private sector players in the value chain.
Systems thinking Simple and straightforward as it may seem to you now, all this institutional change yet requires considerable co-ordination and organizational learning, which is best facilitated by an external agent, using systems thinking. A small number of possibly useful systems approaches have already been dealt with in this blog. In addition, there is a need to understand how best to fit suggested value propositions in at farming systems level. That, too, is a form of systems thinking, be it more of the hard-nosed variety. Next, and very importantly, the private sector has been taking systems thinking seriously ever since the development of operational research in the 1950s and 60s. This will make it all the more acceptable to the larger private sector actors in the various value chains. Finally, if systems concepts are applied properly, they will also show if there is no point in pushing a particular value proposition.
Agricultural and geographical focus In the future this blog will focus a bit more on three crops of which the author can claim to have some knowledge: (1) irrigated rice in the arid and semi-arid parts of West and central Africa; (2) rainfed maize in sub-humid East and southern Africa; and (3) cocoa in the humid parts of Africa. The hypothesis to be tested is that this generic rural intervention model is effective in improving the design of rural interventions and facilitates better knowledge exchange. Perhaps the proposed model looks somewhat familiar to some. To them I would like to point out the two novel aspects, viz. : (a) the central importance given to fully developing and enabling value proposition for family farming; and (b) the insistence on systems thinking (not just one concept or approach, but any form) as a broad tool to enable learning amongst the various parties involved.
Note to Mrs. Ploumen Contrary to your predecessor, Mr. Knapen, you have a massive experience in the world of international development. People from that world, like myself, appreciate the pressure from society’s development skeptics and right-leaning parties such as the VVD for more tangible results from the “international development sector”. But I seriously wonder whether you really want to make the long-anticipated dry-eyed defense of your new policy, which will mostly provide short-term benefits to the Dutch private sector only. There is nothing wrong with the Dutch or their private sector, but it is a very unsystemic reversal of past errors to suddenly start concentrating on the upper end of (international) agricultural product chains and just hope that smallholders in the South will somehow benefit, while they are mostly serving local, regional, and national markets. If your model is based on “trickle-down” or similar vague mechanisms, you are undoubtedly condemning whole generations of rural dwellers in the poorest countries in the South to lives of grinding poverty, without even the slightest hope afforded by mitigation attempts or development efforts. Remember, the predictions are that 3 billion poor (I know, I know, millions live in booming China and India …) will persist over the next 40 years or longer (see Club of Rome post): a wicked problem of truly cataclysmic proportions.
P.S. To the general reader: Mrs. Ploumen was sworn in as the Dutch Minister for (mostly) Foreign Trade and (perhaps a little) Development Cooperation on 5 November 2012.