Most people agree that there are no simple solutions to tackling rural poverty and marginalization. Increasingly, programs that wish to do so are grappling with how to effectively engage in complex systems where outcomes are emergent, resulting from the interactions between different actors in pursuit of their own agendas. The emergent nature of change makes the outcomes of such programs difficult, if not impossible, to predict.
A theoretically sound approach for programs to effectively engage in complex systems is to plan and begin implementation based on current information and then adjusting on the basis of critical reflection and learning about who is benefiting, and who is not. However, despite the theoretical attractions of building planning, action, critical reflection and sense making into program implementation, there are few practical examples of doing so within past and present agricultural research for development programs run by the CGIAR, FAO and the other organizations that set the international agricultural research for development agenda.
In a recent paper by Apgar et al., (2016), the authors share learning from a CGIAR-led agricultural research in development program that attempted to put critical reflection and learning at the centre of its implementation approach. Their innovation was to use participatory action research together with theory of change. Program staff facilitated stakeholders to build a broad theory of change to describe how they would tackle a development challenge facing their agricultural systems, taking a participatory and strengths-based approach to do so during the design phase. The program then supported action research on this basis. Then, based on learning from regular after action reviews, stakeholders and program staff (working together as co-researchers) were encouraged to critically reflect on the validity of key casual assumptions, learn and feed this in to subsequent phases of programming.
The authors, who form part of the program implementation team, found that opening up safe spaces were key to allowing stakeholders to build trust, confidence and motivation to act. The safe spaces, and learning how to reflect critically, allowed those involved to increasingly dig deeper into issues relating to power and equity in relation to their agricultural challenges. The creation and strengthening of safe spaces was helped by agreeing a common purpose at the beginning, followed by facilitated tangible interventions while simultaneously building skills for ongoing real-time reflection and learning. Developing and using a theory of change helped keep activities pointed towards the goal. However, the role of convening and facilitating safe spaces using PAR and ToC, was at times uncomfortable for program leaders. This was because while the program espoused a bottom-up approach, doing so in reality challenged leaders who felt responsible for achieving measurable change for upward accountability. They had to learn to embrace their role as facilitators to support development processes led by others. For many of us, research and development practitioners who have come (willingly or not) to embody the structures and systems of planned, and now results oriented, development programming, this requires significant unlearning in order to learn new ways of working.
One of the important points the Apgar et al paper makes is that the capacity to do such work is not to be underestimated. Program designers need to work together with implementers to learn how to make a complex idea work in context. It is worth doing so because the results are potentially transformative through surfacing and challenging existing mental models, norms and institutions. However, whether the potential of using PAR with theory of change is fully realized depends on donors becoming more comfortable in investing in proven ways of engaging in complex systems rather than in linear, and usually unrealistic, predictions of likely impact.
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