Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Comparing research and oranges II: do communities want oranges or flowers?

By Simon Batchelor

In her blog, Comparing research and oranges: what can we learn from value chain analysis?, my colleague Elise Wach asks whether “producing research first and then deciding how to communicate it afterwards the same as growing an orange and then deciding how and where it will be sold?” She went on to speculate whether value chain analysis can add something to our own analyses of how to strengthen the knowledge value chain.

Her piece reminded me of a video we used at a team retreats, entitled Whose Reality Counts. Produced by Praxis, based in India, it also caused us to wonder about the comparison with research production, and the processes of setting a research agenda.

In case you don’t have the time to watch the 7 minute video (but please do – it's so well done!) here's a quick synopsis:

A senior office-based person sits and has a bright idea: giving flowers to a poor community. The idea is passed down the decision-making chain to farmers in the poor community, who, initially pleased, begin to plant flowers.

However, still sat in his office, the official continues to pass flowers down the line, and we see the farmer becoming frustrated with too many flowers and not enough diversity of food, which is what the community really wants. The community cannot make their voices heard, until the official goes to the community himself expecting to see grateful villagers and a thousand flowers. That’s not what he finds on his arrival, and it's only after listening the villagers and their needs that he gains an understanding what they really need - their reality as described by them.

For me, the parallels are obvious. Research conducted in isolation from the realities in the field may produce insights, and these initial insights may even be appreciated by the community. However, communities have priorities and there needs to be a feedback loop to find out what those priorities are and whether our research needs to be redirected.

As Elise says in her blog “When is audience research necessary, and when does the ‘if we build it, they will come’ assumption apply? Where is the line between research communication and advocacy? How can we create demand and to what extent should we do so?

So, whose responsibility is it to set the research agenda?

In a recent review of plans from leading research centres, we had to ask ‘where are the boundaries for a researcher’. If the research centres are intending to change the world in some way (their stated intention) then there needs to be engagement with the outside world during the research.

We ended up noting two type of engagement:
  • ‘A need to engage with a representative sample of the end users to ensure that new hybrids or practices fit the ‘real world’ farming systems’. 
  • And ‘there are the actors at the boundary of the research who might take the research forward. At some point, research that has led to successful product development will need to go to scale’.
Isolated research may change the world slightly, but may also rapidly become too many flowers when the community needs food. However you frame it – as Value chains with Customer feedback and monitoring market demand, or as participatory development with consultation and ‘mainstreaming the voices of the poor’, research that changes the world is going to require tight feedback loops and a view that is much wider than an agenda set by sitting in an office.