In the workshop’s final plenary session moderated by Lida Anestidou, Senior Program Officer at the National Academies, Robert Bertram, Director of the Office of Agricultural Research Policy in Technology at the U.S. Agency for International Development, addressed the following questions:
- What is an example of an area where international research collaborations are changing?
- Which cultural issues have been reasonably well addressed?
- Which aspects of culture require additional attention?
- What motivates people to get together to do research?
Presenter: Robert Bertram, Director of the Office of Agricultural Research Policy in Technology at the U.S. Agency for International Development
A major challenge facing the world is to feed the almost one billion people who suffer from chronic hunger and to do so in the face of a rising global population that is expected to reach nine billion by 2050. To meet this demand, food production will have to increase by 70 percent. President Obama’s Feed the Future Initiative aims to foster the developments that are needed to enable that large of an increase in food production, particularly in the developing world. This initiative, explained Robert Bertram is led by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and it involves the State Department, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and other U.S. agencies, but he noted that while USAID is the lead U.S. agency, the initiative is in fact country-led. “We focus very much on country ownership, which means if our partner countries don’t think it’s worth investing in, we probably shouldn’t think it is worth investing in either.”
While characterizing this country-led focus as an important advance in international development aid, Bertram acknowledged that it comes with its own set of challenges, many of which are cultural and communications related. “There are plenty of countries that are committed to food security improvements that are not very committed to talking to their civil societies or their private sector, for example,” he explained. USAID’s approach is to develop technologies and policies that reflect those country priorities, but to also engage civil society and the private sector in as nonthreatening a way as possible. This approach received a major boost when President Obama hosted leaders from Africa and the G8 at Camp David in 2012 and convinced them to institutionalize the policy changes that governments could make to unleash private investment in African agriculture.
Feed the Future, Bertram explained, takes what USAID calls a value chain approach centered around farmers and households. In this model, the farmer is both a consumer of research and supplies and a producer that sends crops, livestock, and forage into the market. This approach also acknowledges that small landholders will continue to play an important if not dominant role in agriculture in Africa and Asia for the foreseeable future. “Our focus is to empower the small holders,” said Bertram. He added that this value chain forces researchers to understand some of the social and cultural factors that come into play when trying to get new technology adopted and to include research on post-harvest and market factors when planning a project for a specific country or region.
Considering all of these factors when creating a research initiative can lead to some innovative ways of working with communities to improve what they already know how to do, noted Bertram. In Mali, for example, researchers showed communities that if they put metal roofs on their already existing grain storage bins and used a tarp to keep the grain clean, they could double the value of that grain in the market just by keeping it dry and free from pests.
Regarding culture, it is important to understand the difference between farm practices that are passed on from generation to generation as part of a local culture and those that are passed along because they make agronomic or economic sense. Years ago, Bertram said, when Americans went overseas to help develop agriculture, they would find people who were intercropping corns and beans and bananas and other crops. The conclusion was that this was just an outmoded practice that was a hold-over of what anthropologists would call cultural practices, i.e., people did it just because their grandparents did it. It turns out, though, that this kind of intercropping in many environments can actually lead to both better management and higher productivity of the land. “We had this period where we were coming to grips with a system that is a different paradigm than our own,” said Bertram. “Our technical advisors now accept the fact that things such as intercropping are relevant.”
This type of mind shift is important, said Bertram, because it enables the application of technology to the farming practices of the small holder to increase production today, while the next generation of technologies and farming practices are developed and introduced to produce the bigger increases in food production that will be needed to double global food production over the next three to four decades. What will be needed is what Bertram called sustainable intensification, approaches that reflect local knowledge and practices while improving efficiency through technological advances that fit into local production systems and feed into local markets. The way he envisions this happening is that researchers will develop a large number of new technologies that will be tested in various communities. The most promising interventions will stabilize into a dominant innovation design that then interacts with the local cultures and markets to produce the kind of larger changes that will meet future food demands.
Conservation and environmental preservation also work into this model, and what is needed here is a fine-grained anthropological and ethnographic analysis to understand factors such as patronage networks, power and authority relationships, the ways in which market systems are linked to governance, and the whole issue of tenure, access to, and ownership of land and resources. “By and large, we think of land as a private good, but in most cases in the developing world the issue isn’t about ownership as it is about access to the land and tenure,” said Bertram. “When tenure is addressed, really great things can happen.” Tenure in this context refers to the rights associated with the trees and their products (Fortman, 1985). In many cases tree tenure is distinct from land rights and/or land ownership.
As an example, Bertram noted that in Niger, Senegal, Mali, and Burkina Faso, a change in tree tenure that moved away from the colonial system to one that recognized local authority over trees triggered a massive replanting of trees that transformed over six million acres of land that had been decimated by drought in the 1980s. Livestock and crop production have risen markedly in this region, as has biomass production, carbon sequestration, and biodiversity. “There were some improved technologies at work here, too, but it all traces back to the change in culture going back to tree tenure,” said Bertram. One unexpected result of this positive change was that as the land’s fertility returned, men tried to take the land back from women. “There was work through the existing authority structures in the villages to protect women’s assets and their rights to that land,” he added.
Gender is an important cultural issue that cuts across USAID’s programs, and one of the most important factors for success has been to improve the role of women as economic actors and leaders in communities. Women play such an important role in these programs that USAID has developed a Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index that looks at household decision making; ac-
cess to capital, credit, and land; having an adequate income to feed the family; access to leadership roles in the community; and the division of labor time between men and women. Bertram said that when scores on this index increase, productivity increases. “We know that in some cases, women are actually better recipients of agricultural information. They are more likely to follow practices and more likely to follow through and get better results,” he explained.
USAID also believes that women need to play a more prominent role in research as well as in the field and it has several programs aimed at getting women, as well as men, into U.S. research laboratories. Bertram believes this is one of the most important investments that the agency has made because these individuals go back to their home countries and become leaders. They also learn about the culture of research in the United States, which is much more democratic and less hierarchical than in most parts of the world, and then take those cultural lessons back to their home institutions.
Louise Fortman. 1985. The tree tenure factor in agroforestry with particular reference to Africa. Agroforestry Systems 2(4):229-251.