David McGill (UoM)

David McGill (UoM)

By Arundhita Bhanjdeo

My first trip to Bhubhui, Jharkhand, India was three years ago. The first thing I came across was one of the women self-help groups sitting in a circle for their weekly meeting. Some farmers were sharing their experiences of removing weeds from rice paddies, discussing how with a weeding machine they found it so easy compared to the arduous process of doing it by hand. I was working on an agricultural research project funded by ACIAR in collaboration with an NGO in the Eastern India Plateau. It was apparently an unusual sight for someone to enter a village of small-scale farmers in those parts and find a meeting such as this. I later realised it was because of the persistent efforts of the NGO working with women, organising them into collectives and empowering them to drive the change they need.

The project that I was involved in was helping farmers improve their livelihood through implementing innovative cropping systems. It was a collaborative research project with researchers from diverse disciplines such as horticulture, water, soils, and social science, as well as development workers from the field. With women at its core, the project focused on working with farmers to develop crop system research that solved problems identified locally by the farmers. This research was carried out on-farm, by the farmers, with the support of the project team. The farmers “learnt by doing”. The project measured its impacts by assessing food security, farm productivity/income, the number of out-scaled farms/villages and the status of living of the farmers. The project was deemed successful and was applauded by neighbouring villages, district administration, the reviewers, and the funders. Needless to say, this project positively affected the agency of women, but this outcome was subtle and difficult to capture.

Economist, philosopher and author of “Development as Freedom”, Amartya Sen considers empowerment, agency, human capability, and learning important indicators of development. I will not delve into what is development and what are its indicators. The question I wish to delve into through my PhD is, how does one evaluate outcomes from these research for development projects?

  • Do we only map the outputs that are structured and described in project documents as goals?
  • Or should we also capture outputs that were not? Something that we didn’t anticipate resulting from the project?

Some of these unexpected outcomes may include the contribution to, or creation of knowledge, or learning and transformation of farmers. For instance, the indigenous women in the picture below, to be able to sit confidently in a village meeting with other men and women and plan crops is a transformation. It was a result of being actively involved in project activities and the process of learning they went through. This changed other farmer’s perception towards them (both men and women), the team member’s perception towards them, and most importantly their perception towards themselves. For these women farmers, increase in income and food security does matter, but this change in perception or the learnings received are something that they value equally, if not more so. This is something that will stay with them when they are participating in other agricultural projects and in other aspects of their life, holistically.

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Picture 1: Babli and Kalpana from Talaburu (village) are seen pointing to the farms in which different crops are grown on a locally made map. Picture credits: Ashok Kumar

Another story; because of increased production on-farm, a woman farmer from a different village now has some savings at her disposal. The farmer is now able to send her children to school, spend money on her children according to whim, or raise her voice for something she believed in or against, something which she thought was wrong in her family. Many other stories like these exist and indicate a change in the perception of people. These changes are intangible but permanent.

Change does not have to be one-way. As part of the same project, I observed the changing perceptions of the stakeholders involved in the project as well. Not limited to farmers, a change occurred in the partners, scientists, development workers and various support staff in the field. Being a collaborative project with people from multiple disciplines, each team member had something to learn from the others. An example; I come from a social science background, philosophy to be precise, and after this project I knew what aquifers were, the importance of groundwater management, and how could we graft two different vegetable stems to avoid certain diseases. The project changed my perception of looking at the natural resources and the farmer communities. It also enhanced my confidence in the farmers and myself. So, the next time I work with a similar community, I will work as a different person, with the learnings from the previous project embedded in me. Every individual has their respective capacity and drivers for learning, but learning is given. In my PhD, I intend to study the learning level and transformational changes of different participants in an agriculture for development project. It will emphasise learning and mapping transformational change as we believe that in the larger development context, in addition to attaining the quantitative indicators for sustainable or millennium development goals, the knowledge, learning, agency or transformation that is achieved in the whole process is also associated with growth, development and poverty reduction.

As romantic as it sounds to me (perhaps not to others), mapping and analysing subtle changes in human behaviour and personality can be difficult.  I have now come back from my first field study after spending two months in three villages of Eastern India collecting about 50 vignettes and narratives from the different stakeholders involved in the project. It was an enriching experience for me to talk to so many people and listen to their stories of learning, or stories of change as I like to call it. The fun yet onerous task for me now is to transcribe all the recorded data and start analysing them. Figuring out how to put them into a framework and how to extrapolate data into change stories will be done in the coming months. I look forward to sharing my ideas, receiving useful insights or feedback and having a candid and purposeful discussion with anyone interested in the topic.

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 Picture 2: Arundhita(right) trying to get some ‘transformational’ stories out of Babli by cracking silly jokes. Picture credits: Siddharth Patil

By Brendon Bangma

Sitting here in a small air conditioned office in provincial Laos I have put aside some work on upcoming field surveys to write this short blog. Here, the work and lifestyle are quite different to back home in Sydney.

These differences will not be that surprising to most readers. So, to offer my own perspective, I will share how I came to be here and three points of advice that have helped me on the way.

I majored in anthropology and Asian studies at University. Spending time as an exchange student in Thailand focused these interests and led me to completing a master’s thesis on nationalism and identity within different parts of the SEA region.

Through these studies I spent a lot of time in Phnom Penh, where I often travelled to the Cambodian countryside and started to understand the many layered connections between rural and urban lives. Business, family, politics, relationships, and development projects bridged this divide unlike anything I had experienced in Australia.

After graduating I returned to Sydney brimming with energy, yet despite this enthusiasm explaining an often-unrelated thesis to prospective employers proved to be quite a challenge. Not looking within any particular industry, I landed my first job as a production planner with a crop protection manufacturing and retailing business.

Although interested in my (clearly non-agriculture related) studies, the manager of this company seemed to make a hiring decision based on only two factors. The first was a test of whether I could quickly convert USD to AUD. This I passed easily. The second test, my ability to locate the town of Moree on the map of NSW. I was offered a job and only a week later I began a career in agriculture.

Let a few years pass and I am now beginning a volunteer position as a Rural Development Advisor in Savannakhet, Laos. My time is split between the provincial government office responsible for plant quarantine, and a government-affiliated research and seed breeding farm.

Although development work in Laos is connected to my academic studies through location and theme, I lack many of the important technical skills other colleagues have in agriculture.

Instead of letting this hold me back, I am utilising my education and its approach to qualitative studies as a means of connecting to my colleagues. This helps me to better understand the goals of the project within the local context and also helps me work effectively within a different work and life setting. Three short points on how I approach my work.

Firstly, the value of building good working relationships.

Getting to know my colleagues in these first few months has helped me learn the scope of my project and its local challenges. Building relationships takes time and has involved me taking every opportunity to join colleagues for fieldtrips, festivals and celebrations of all sorts. It is oftentimes easier for me to get information from a colleague socially than it is within a meeting where formalities can be prohibitive.

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Picture 1: Provincial Agricultural Officers Panya  (L) and Siikhansai (R) with Brendon at the border checkpoint to Vietnam where they carry out the inspections of goods being imported into Laos.

Secondly, taking the time to understand.

Long periods of work help with a deeper understanding of a project in ways that quantitative data and sporadic field visits would struggle to achieve. Through working in the field several days each week I have been able to carry out research according to weather and local time constraints. In periods of inactivity I will survey crops with staff who may normally never have the time. And likewise, when everyone is busy, i.e. during courses of farmer field training, I am able to observe local approaches and challenges, later using this information to better organise my own work.

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Picture 2: Removing weeds from a rice field with a sickle as they do not spray chemicals.

Lastly, the understanding and appreciation of differences.

Any researcher coming into a new location or social system will be making comparisons with their own set of experiences. Acknowledging this inherent bias is important as it helps us to be more neutral in approaching our individual work problems. We may get frustrated by some cultural barriers, yet sometimes, only a slightly different approach is all it takes to yield the same results.

This last point for me is most important and would sum up the circle that brought me here to Laos. While new working environments may be very different to back home, or, we do not have the exact skills required for a particular task, it is our willingness to embrace different opportunities that will eventually get us to our goals.

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Picture 3: Market holder at the morning organic vegetable market, Savannakhet

Renee’s blog from last week “Canaries of Climate change”, was a stark reminder of real and immediate challenges facing us in agriculture (and life) today! It made me reflect, not only on what we can do in our roles in R4D but also in our day-to-day activities that are in our sphere of control.

Two things I have come across recently touch on this topic (which also align with the topic of last year’s Crawford Conference, ‘Waste Not Want Not’):

1. A podcast where we hear the inspirational story of the incredible woman behind OzHarvest (you can listen to it here). This is from a few years ago, but it’s great to hear Ronni Khan’s story – and get you thinking about how you can get more involved

2. A book (Drawdown which I haven’t read yet) by Paul Hawken, which ranks the top 100 solutions to global warming. The idea of the book is to put together a list of things that we, as ordinary people, can understand and act upon rather than some of the high-end theoretical jargon. Towards the top of the list are three things that are close to my heart; refrigerant use, reducing food waste and (relating to our work overseas) educating girls.

The idea of this short little piece is not for me wax lyrically about climate change or any other topic that has been brought up in our Friday blog, but instead is to share any recent published articles, blogs, papers, podcasts or books that relate to it and may be of interest to our members. We (the RAID team) hope that this is a way for us to share interesting things to read or listen to.

Let us know what you think, and remember if you want to get more involved and write a blog or contribute in anyway, please feel free to get in touch with us by emailing us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017 00:00

RAID Newsletter June 2017