Small towns in Zimbabwe are booming thanks to land reform

Small towns near resettlement areas are booming. New business opportunities generated by a change in rural production systems has transformed opportunities. In the past these were very sleepy service centres for the surrounding large-scale commercial farms. Somewhere where farm workers would come on days off to drink, or where people living on the farms would buy basic provisions.

But with wages low and food and other rations sometimes offered by farm owners, business was limited. Most such towns had a few general supplier and a bar at most. There were also usually a few farm suppliers, providing inputs such as seed and fertiliser; in some cases a formal marketing outlet run by a company or parastatal; and a few repair shops for farm vehicles. Transport connections were limited, as farm workers were largely resident on farms, and the owners had their own vehicles. In sum, they were rather depressing places.

But today they have changed. There are many more shops, bars, butcheries, and service providers of various sorts from tailors to hairdressers. Outlets from major chains are opening operations, and there is a general buzz of activity, especially at harvest season when people are selling produce. Transport connections have multiplied too, with buses and Kombis departing regularly to larger urban centres, as well as traversing the rural areas.

There have been many attempts over the years to encourage such growth. Rural and urban planners often designated such places as ‘growth points’ in the 1980s. But this was more an aspiration than a reality, and many failed to grow at all, surrounded as they were by rural areas that were the inheritance of the colonial ‘reserves’. The reorganisation of district administrations created Rural District Councils too, and these were supposed to link the large-scale farming areas, with the communal areas, and encourage economic activity, particularly in small towns. Again this failed as the two economies never integrated, with communal areas being largely domains of poverty, and the large-scale farming areas exporting profits in vertical value chains without local spin-off benefits.

So it was only with land reform that a major reconfiguration of the rural economy occurred. With new farmers on new land in need of output and input markets, as well as cash to spend on services and other consumption goods. The linkage and multiplier effects have been tangible. This did not emerge from municipal town planning, but from a reconfiguration of the whole rural economy. With value chains now more locally rooted, and linked to local businesses there was more money flowing in the economy, and profits to be made.

This has attracted external investors. From large supermarkets to small-scale entrepreneurs, people have been setting up businesses in such towns, as well as in the more conventional and larger towns nearby. Many beneficiaries of land reform have profited too. They have started stores, repair shops, transport businesses, and more. They have also started investing in real estate. The new landlords in these towns are the farmers with profits from farming to invest, and this has seen a growth in building on plots made available as part of long planned town growth by the municipal authorities.

This process was in many ways not expected, and took a time to emerge. When we started our work after the land reform in 2000, the economy was not in a good shape, and it only got worse in the following years. As hyperinflation struck, any business involve the exchange of cash was out, and there was simply no business finance available. So it was only after 2009, when the economy was stabilised, and the US dollar became the currency of choice, that business started. It took a while, but today, things are moving.

And this despite the wider economic woes of the country as a whole. Yes, there is still limited bank finance, and loans for anything are hard to come by. Yes, business is small-scale, mostly based on a limited array of goods and services. And yes some investment is perhaps only speculative, and not that productive, like building houses (although most are rented, so there is a demand). But all of this is happening without a sense of a plan. This is the market economy at work, generating a surprising economic momentum that over 46 years since Independence has failed to happen through plans and formal investment. But in order to make the most of it, more has to happen: plans are useful, when things are happening, and investment in roads, sanitation, electricity, health care, education and so is vital. Just as is financing for everything from the smallest market stall to a major business operation. But municipal authorities sitting on a tax base for the first time ever must not be greedy, and take advantage. Building sustained growth requires care, and corrupt political manoeuvres or over-zealous regulation can stifle everything. But the small towns of Zimbabwe, as the small towns of Africa more generally, are definitely places to watch.

In the coming weeks, I will explore these dynamics, and pose some questions for planning and policy. As the countryside has reconfigured following land reform, so have the towns that link to the new areas of rural production. But there has been vanishingly little thinking post land reform on the new dynamics of rural-urban economies, and the connections being forged. This short blog series is a first attempt to provoke some thinking in this area, based on our research.

In the 1980s there was much work, largely through the Department of Rural and Urban Planning at the University of Zimbabwe, which highlighted the importance of small towns and urban development, including some important Occasional Papers and an influential book. Researchers then asked what the changes of policy priorities that Independence brought would imply for urban development in rural areas. New thinking is urgently needed today that asks what land reform implies around the same issues.

In the forthcoming blogs I will profile two small towns in the heart of new resettlement areas – Chatsworth and Mvurwi – from our study areas in Masvingo and Mazowe areas. They are very different in origins and character, but illustrative of the dynamics. The final blog will return to some of the bigger policy issues, and ask what needs to be done.T

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland

 

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The political ecology of land and disease in the Zambezi valley

In addition to migration discussed in last week’s blog, the changing politics of land use in the Zambezi valley is another dimension that has affected the incidence of trypanosomiasis over time.

Over the last century, the people of Hurungwe have been subject to numerous external interventions. The Korekore were the original inhabitants of the area, prior to the waves of migration discussed last week. The reasons the Korekore are settled where they are today is a result of the massive engineering project of the Kariba dam, and the creation of the Mana Pools national park in the 1950s and 60s.

Colonial visions of modernity and the need for electricity to supply the growing industries and urban centres of Rhodesia resulted in a major eviction of people who had traditionally made a living along the Zambezi river. Colonial economic imperatives reshaped the landscape, and pushed people into new territories. In the subsequent decades, the Mana Pools area became a significant tourist attraction, generating revenues for the state and for elite ecotourism operators, as well as a symbolic site of ‘wild’ Africa for white residents of Rhodesia.

Surrounding the park a series of hunting/safari areas were established, and particularly after Independence, these became the location for high-end hunting operations. Some of these activities generated some employment for locals, but not much. Ecotourism and hunting was by and large the preserve of a white elite, and money did not find its way back into the local economy.

The Zambezi valley was a major front during Zimbabwe’s liberation war, with frequent incursions of fighters from Zambia and regular battles with the Rhodesian forces. In this period, tsetse control efforts were abandoned, and the fly encroached into once cleared areas. With peace and Independence in 1980, aid programmes supported clearance efforts once again, and the tsetse fly retreated. Combined with migration from other areas of the country (see last week’s blog), and the mid-1980s cotton boom, the habitat for tsetse flies also declined.

But there were countervailing drivers, encouraging an expansion of tsetse habitat too. From the late 1980s, Zimbabwe was at forefront of ‘community-based conservation’ and the CAMPFIRE programme became a world-famous experiment. Revenues from hunting were to go back to the community, and provide much needed support. But CAMPFIRE was premised on generating revenue from animals shot (or sometimes photographed) in the communal areas, where people lived. While providing an economic basis for conserving wildlife, it encouraged wild animals to be closer to people. And since such wildlife are significant hosts of trypanosomiasis, and their habitats the same as those of tsetse fly, the disease consequences of CAMPFIRE were potentially significant.

With the decline in hunting operations with the collapse of the economy and the failure of bankrupt Rural District Councils to share revenues, CAMPFIRE has declined in significance. But there is a new kid on the block, focused not on wildlife, but on carbon. A massively ambitious project – Kariba REDD – was established notionally over thousands of hectares, including in Hurungwe, and in our study area. Making use of international markets for carbon, and linking to the UN REDD programme (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries), the project aimed to put a value on carbon, and reverse the decline in forested area across the Zambezi valley.

Through protecting – and indeed expanding – forests against a notional baseline, other values could be marketed, including an expanded trade in ecotourism and wildlife hunting. Like the interventions that went before, carbon is restructuring disease landscapes too. As carbon has acquired value, the project is increasing incentives both the plant and protect trees. These may expand the habitat of tsetse flies, including into the formerly cleared areas.

Understanding disease incidence, spread and risk requires looking at the underlying structural drivers. These are not just the proximate ones of changing climate, habitat, demography and so on, but can be traced back to much deeper causes. Whether these are the factors that drive migration or incentivise investments in hunting or carbon, these can be linked to wider political economy processes. These may often reach to the global political economy; way beyond the confines of the fields and forests of the Zambezi valley.

A political ecology of disease must therefore take these factors into account. Any appraisal of intervention – whether for forest protection, carbon sequestration, wildlife protection or infrastructure development – must look at these wider webs of power and influence. Without looking at the political drivers of disease, we may never understand underlying causes, or define the most appropriate interventions. As the blogs in this series have shown, ‘control’ interventions may miss their target, if wider questions of land access, migration, economic opportunity and the politics of competing land values are not addressed.

The Dynamic Drivers of Disease in Africa work was supported by ESPA (Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation) programme funded by NERC, ESRC and DFID, and the Zimbabwe study was led by Professor Vupenyu Dzingirai (CASS, UZ), working with William Shereni (Ministry of Agriculture), Learnmore Nyakupinda (Ministry of Agriculture), Lindiwe Mangwanya (UZ), Amon Murwira (UZ), Farai Matawa (UZ), Neil Anderson (Edinburgh University) and Ewan McLeod (Edinburgh University), among others.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland.

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Migration and changing disease dynamics in the Zambezi valley

 In last week’s blog, we saw how ‘structural violence’ and deep patterns of inequality and marginalisation, affected by patterns of social difference – of gender, age and ethnicity – have influenced who gets exposed to trypanosomiasis (just as is the case with other diseases, such as Ebola).

This week, the theme is continued, by looking at how migration into the area has created both dramatic land use change and changing patterns of vulnerability to different social groups. Migration has radically changed landscapes in the Zambezi valley over the past 30 years, as large numbers of new people moved into what were once sparsely populated areas.

As people have moved into the valley to farm – first cotton, now increasingly tobacco – they have cleared land for fields and homes. Initially animals suffered badly from trypanosomiasis, but this declined after a while, as cleared areas were created through intensive control efforts. The work of the Tsetse Control Branch, and projects such as the RTCCP, funded by the European Union, helped. But such control was always partial, and risks increased as people settled in new areas.

In the 1980s and 1990s people moved from the overcrowded communal areas to the south. Unable to make a living on shrinking land sizes and in the context of the absence of a substantial land reform programme. From the 1990s, following a structural adjustment programme that shrunk the economy and reduced job opportunities, people had to find other means of making a living, and migration to new lands was one response.

In the late 1980s I was living in Zvishavane district in the central-south of the country in a communal area. From our sample, several people made the move to go and settle elsewhere (in Gokwe, Muzarabani and beyond). They were relatively young men with their families who had been granted very small fields, and had greater ambitions. As employment opportunities shrunk, carving out a new life on the land frontier to the north was increasingly appealing. As the boom in smallholder cotton growing occurred, news travelled back, and more left.

On arrival, it was a harsh existence. New fields had to be cleared from pristine bush, wildlife were a constant threat, and the tsetse fly was ever-present in the newly settled areas, constantly threatening the health of both people and animals. Today, the settlers from 20-30 years ago are now established, have cleared land (and so tsetse flies), and many are currently prospering from the tobacco boom. Well connected to political elites, these now 50-60 year olds are mostly no longer part of the vulnerable population that they once were.

But today, a new group of migrants has arrived, and they are especially vulnerable to disease, again being pushed to a new fly-infested frontier. With land reform in 2000, the Karoi farms to the south of our study area were taken over, and transformed into land reform settlements. In this area, many well positioned political figures took over the large, (mostly) tobacco farms, although there were also subdivisions to create A1 farms for many more people.

In both cases, farm workers who had lived on these farms for generations, often in appalling conditions, were expelled in numbers. Thousands had to seek other alternatives to farm wage labour. A few had connections elsewhere in Zimbabwe, but many were second or third generation ‘foreign’ migrants, originally from Malawi, Mozambique or Zambia, with nowhere to go. They had been isolated through the form of ‘domestic government’ so well described by Blair Rutherford in these very sites, and were almost completely reliant on the white farm owner.

With the economy nose-diving due to a complex combination of gross economic mismanagement, capital flight and economic sanctions from western governments, after land reform many fled north to our study sites in the valley in search of land for farming, or for hunting and gathering. The local chiefs had already accommodated huge numbers of others in the previous years, where were these new arrivals to go? Eager to expand their territory and increase numbers under their rule (and so acquire increased remuneration from the government), they placed them along the frontier of the national park, and even, illegally, into the buffer area. Acting as a human and livestock shield for others in the now cleared core areas, they provided political and economic benefits to local elites, while in the process taking the brunt of disease impacts.

Thus the disease landscape has over time been radically restructured by migration, and the demand for land. Understanding disease is not just a biological-epidemiological task, but one that must take account of wider political economic factors – such as the state of the economy, opportunities for employment, land reform impacts and more. Diseases such as trypanosomiasis are always inevitably political.

The Dynamic Drivers of Disease in Africa work was supported by ESPA (Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation) programme funded by NERC, ESRC and DFID, and the Zimbabwe study was led by Professor Vupenyu Dzingirai (CASS, UZ), working with William Shereni (Ministry of Agriculture), Learnmore Nyakupinda (Ministry of Agriculture), Lindiwe Mangwanya (UZ), Amon Murwira (UZ), Farai Matawa (UZ), Neil Anderson (Edinburgh University) and Ewan McLeod (Edinburgh University), among others.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland.

 

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Land, politics and tsetse flies: changing disease landscapes in Zimbabwe

What do land, politics and flies have to do with each other? If you live in the Zambezi valley quite a lot, as I will explain in a short series of blogs over the next few weeks.

As part of the Dynamic Drivers of Disease in Africa project, I have been working with a team from the University of Zimbabwe and the Tsetse Control Branch of the Ministry of Agriculture in Hurungwe district looking at trypanosomiasis (a disease affecting animals and humans, when it’s called sleeping sickness), and the vector that carries it, the tsetse fly. We have been trying to unravel the complex puzzle that connects changing ecologies, disease and livelihood impacts, working as a cross-disciplinary team (see earlier blog too).

Despite decades of control efforts – from clearance of vegetation to wildlife extermination to aerial spraying of chemicals to baited traps (see this paper), the tsetse fly and trypanosomiasis, affecting both animals and humans, persists. And indeed in the last few years we have seen peaks in both human and animal forms. Not high, but definitely worrying – and devastating for those who are affected.

In our work, we trapped flies along transects, took blood from animals to look for parasites, examined habitat change from satellite imagery and talked to people in the villages. The question we had – why did the disease persist? – was a difficult one to answer. The official maps showed the tsetse ‘belt’ being kept to the south, into the Highveld. Control measures continued to some extent, and official reporting of trypanosomiasis, both animal and human, was highlighting very few cases.

Our tsetse fly surveys showed a peak of fly populations along the valley escarpment, with declining numbers of flies caught in our traps as you travel south away from the valley. Cluster traps located near villages and dips also showed a variable pattern. But overall tsetse fly populations (of different species) were low and relatively few were trapped. Why, if people complain about both animal and human trypanosomiasis? The answer came through an analysis of habitat change.

Abandoning very coarse grained images in favour of LANDSAT images with a higher resolution, we found a major shift in vegetation patterns over time, and particularly a noticeable fragmentation of habitat. Maybe the flies were residing in these fragmented habitat patches, and were not being picked up by the standard belt transects? This indeed proved to be the case.

When villagers analysed the satellite image maps of their area with us, they quickly pointed to particular patches where they knew flies were. The Mushangishe gorge, the pools near the Chewore river, the villages along the edge of the hunting area, the Makuti area, and so on. Some more focused trapping, sampling not randomly but purposively according to what people had indicated, showed that flies do still persist, even in heavily populated areas, but just in small patches.

So what about the disease-causing trypanosomes themselves? Analysis of 209 tsetse flies showed that nearly half were carrying trypanosomes following molecular DNA analysis at Edinburgh University. The most prevalent species was T. vivax (in 32% of flies), followed by T. brucei. This pattern was consistent across fly species (G. m. mortisans and G. pallidipes) and sex. Blood sampling of 400 cattle and 222 goats across 19 villages again showed a very heterogeneous pattern of presence, with trypanosomes (T vivax and T. brucei) being found in only four village sites, with presence in cattle ranging from 2-10 per cent. The places where infected animals were found tallied almost exactly with the places where local people had identified tsetse infested habitat patches. Perhaps surprisingly, given the reports of human trypanosomiasis, we found no evidence of T. b. rhodesiense in either fly or livestock samples; although of course this does not mean it is not present.

The puzzle had been (partially) solved. Tsetse flies and so trypanosomiasis (although no human sleeping sickness causing trypanosmes found as yet) persist because of the maintenance of particular habitat patches. Who gets sick (and whose animals) depends on who goes to these sites. Those most likely to get the disease, and those whose animals are the most susceptible, are mostly poor and marginalised people who must make a living on the edge of wildlife areas. They are hired herders or children of school age moving with animals deep into forested areas; they are groups of men going on hunting trips harvesting wild animals as a source of protein; they are women who forage in the forests, or who collect water from streams and rivers; and they are the new in-migrants into the area, offered land to settle and farm in the frontier areas, sometimes in the buffer zones of the national park and hunting areas.

As people put it to us “we are now fighting a guerrilla war against the tsetse”. They don’t exist along a ‘front’, an identifiable belt on a map as in the past, but in particular sites, which only particular people go to. Gender, age, occupation all make a big difference as to who gets potentially exposed. This has important implications for both monitoring (coarse grained satellite imagery, broad transects and random sampling are no use) and response (by the same token, generic, area-wide approaches make little sense). A more targeted approach, identifying particular patches, and particular people at risk is vital.

In addition, disease risk has to be understood through an appreciation of history, politics and social relations. Such people and their animals do not become sick by chance. Disease is often caused by what Paul Farmer calls ‘structural violence’, with disease being “the biological reflection of social fault lines”. Inequality, poverty, dispossession, alienation, lack of rights, and deep neglect by states results in disease impacts that are often not even noticed or recorded.

The biological impacts of disease is reflected through politics, class, race and gender and, in the case of trypanosomiasis in the Zambezi valley, by the differential effects of changing landscapes. As discussed next week, migration into the valley is an important part of this wider story.

The Dynamic Drivers of Disease in Africa work was supported by ESPA (Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation) programme funded by NERC, ESRC and DFID, and the Zimbabwe study was led by Professor Vupenyu Dzingirai (CASS, UZ), working with William Shereni (Ministry of Agriculture), Learnmore Nyakupinda (Ministry of Agriculture), Lindiwe Mangwanya (UZ), Amon Murwira (UZ), Farai Matawa (UZ), Neil Anderson (Edinburgh University) and Ewan McLeod (Edinburgh University), among others.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland.

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Chinese engagement in African agriculture is not what it seems

president-xi-jinping

The reality of Chinese investment in African agriculture has yet to catch up with the hype. Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

On Zimbabweland this week, I want to share an article that appeared in The Conversation, and various other outlets, last week. It relates to our work on China and Brazil in African agriculture, mentioned before on this blog.

Chinese engagement in African agriculture is not what it seems…..

In December 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping flew into South Africa for the Forum on China-Africa Co-operation with great fanfare. There were lots of announcements about prospective investments across Africa. Agriculture featured prominently. But what is the real story of China in Africa on the ground, beyond the hype?

As Deborah Brautigam’s investigative research has so effectively shown, the assumptions about China’s role in Africa are often not borne out in reality. The level of investment and linked aid flows are much lower than the high numbers sometimes touted; the numbers of imported Chinese workers are much lower than often suggested; the areas of land “grabbed” for investment are small compared to the vast areas identified by some.

And, as Brautigam’s recent book shows, Africa will not be feeding China or China feeding Africa anytime soon.

Reality on the ground

We set about finding out what was happening on the ground. Working with African, Chinese and European colleagues, our team investigated Chinese engagements in agriculture in four countries – Ethiopia, Ghana, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. All have featured prominently as priorities for Chinese investment and aid.

Our just-completed project is reported in a new open access special issue of the journal World Development. So what exactly has been going on?

This proved surprisingly difficult to find out. The data on land acquisition, investment flows and aid projects is limited and confusing. It often doesn’t add up. Ghost projects are listed that never happened, and others are missed out.

Our original idea of doing a simple geomapping exercise based on available data was quickly abandoned. Instead, we had to triangulate between multiple sources to find out what was happening where.

Certainly there is a great deal going on, and the Chinese presence in Africa is important. The Chinese role in agriculture – in terms of business investment, technology transfer, demonstration efforts, training and more – is growing, and shaping perceptions.

We chose cases across the four countries to investigate in more detail. The studies aimed to explore the detail of investments, technology projects, training and development encounters more generally.

The central question we asked was: is China reshaping African agriculture?

No singular ‘Chinese model’

The Chinese Agricultural Technology Development Centres are flagship investments. There are now 23 across Africa, funded in their first phase by the Chinese Ministry of Commerce under their aid program. They are run mostly by companies, and are linked to a commercial model for training and technology demonstration and sale.

As Xiuli Xu and colleagues show, the centres’ performance very much depends on who is running them. Different provincial companies have very different characteristics, demonstrating that there is no singular “Chinese model” of development, or state-business partnership.

We also explored a number of cases of business investments in agriculture, primarily led by Chinese state-owned enterprises. Chinese development efforts mix aid with commerce, linking both provincial and central state involvement with different businesses.

For example, as Jing Gu and colleagues explain, in Xai Xai in Mozambique, the Wanbao agricultural development company from Hubei province took over 20,000 hectares on a state farm to farm rice, and develop a contract farming arrangement with surrounding farms.

It has not been easy. There have been a number of changes in company leads, disputes with local communities, and shifting alliances with local elites, as Kojo Amanor and Sergio Chichava set out.

The training of government officials is an important aspect of the Chinese engagement in Africa. More than 10,000 are trained in numerous courses in China each year, many in agriculture. This far exceeds any training initiative of any western aid programme.

Henry Tugendhat and Dawit Alemu explored the impacts of these courses, participating in training in China, and interviewing officials who had returned home to Ghana and Zimbabwe. While there have not been many immediate impacts, the longer-term building of relationships and the exertion of “soft power” diplomacy is important.

The role of informal Chinese migrants

Chinese migrants supply specialist Chinese foods to burgeoning expatriate populations.
Reuters/Noor Khamis

Perhaps the most far-reaching but least understood dimension of Chinese involvement in African agriculture is the growing number of informal migrants getting involved in the agri-food sector, from farming to processing to retail to restaurants.

Seth Cook and colleagues investigated this in Ethiopia and Ghana. They discovered a range of activities: relatively few farmers, but growing investment in supplying specialist Chinese foods to burgeoning expatriate Chinese populations.

Those involved are very often migrants who came as part of Chinese government contracts, and have since established business connections and stayed, encouraging others to join them from China.

Through our work, we were able to gain a snapshot of the early stages of Chinese engagement in African agriculture. Our results show successes as well as failures. But Chinese engagement is certainly not yet at the scale sometimes assumed.

In the longer term, activities may accelerate as more opportunities open up. But China is also changing. As its economy restructures to a “new normal”, there are different demands. Food will certainly remain one, but this is not likely to come from Africa.

As a new global power, China will want to maintain business, aid and diplomatic relations with Africa, and sustaining relationships will be important. China plays the long game, and our studies were observing just the opening stages.

The ConversationIan Scoones, Professorial Fellow, Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Back to normal service next week…..

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Research collaboration for global challenges: why it’s really hard

I spent much of last week at London zoo. It was the final conference of a project I have been involved in over the past four years on zoonoses, ecosystems and wellbeing in Africa. The conference highlighted the idea of ‘One Health’, a movement aimed at linking human, livestock and ecosystem health. The focus was on how to make this happen in the ‘real world’, so that both emerging and endemic zoonotic diseases can be tackled effectively.

Over the last few years, influenza, Ebola and now Zika have struck in different parts of the world, often with devastating consequences. The argument of those at the conference – and indeed of our project, the Dynamic Drivers or Disease in Africa Consortium (DDDAC) – was that better integration, and more interdisciplinary collaboration will make a big difference to the effectiveness of responses to disease, and a focus on ecosystems, poverty and wellbeing needs to be central.

There was certainly a great buzz at the conference, and beyond (#OneHealth2016 was one of the top trending topics on Twitter in the UK on the opening day!). We had some very high level speakers, from the head of the Wellcome Trust, Jeremy Farrar, to the Chief Scientist at the UK’s Department for International Development, Charlotte Watts, as well as excellent participation from a range of stellar researchers and students working on One Health issues.

One of the recurrent themes was that making a ‘One Health’ approach, rooted in interdisciplinary science, is really tough. And perhaps even more so, when we move to a transdisciplinary approach, working with practitioners and policy makers to ‘co-construct’ knowledge and action.

There is a lot of talk of inter- and transdisciplinary research these days. Everyone wants cutting edge research that makes a difference. So whether it’s the Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 programme, or the new UK research council strategy, or umbrella programmes such as Future Earth, all want such problem focused research to tackle the big global issues of our time. And the themes of our conference, and our project, linking environmental change with disease with policy impacts certainly fit into this category.

Our project was supported by the UK Ecosystem Services and Poverty Alleviation Programme, funded by DFID, the UK Natural Environmental Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council, and was hosted by the ESRC STEPS Centre based at Sussex University. It involved five countries in Africa (Zimbabwe, Zambia, Kenya, Sierra Leone and Ghana), four diseases (trypanosomiasis, Rift Valley Fever, Lassa Fever and Henipah). Each country study was focused on a puzzle, focusing on how diseases emerge, get transmitted, and who they affect different groups of people. The overall Consortium involved 19 institutions, ranging from diverse research groups in multiple universities in Africa, Europe and the US to veterinary, public health and wildlife departments in Africa. At last count there were more than 50 researchers involved in various ways. It was massively ambitious, and premised on a commitment to transdisciplinary working,

 Unpacking the process of transdisciplinary research

 Here I want to focus on the challenges and opportunities of the research process, rather than the results (more on those soon on this blog). The work has aimed to seek answers to on-the-ground problems, aiming at producing top-level research and generating an impact. But this is easier said (or written glibly into a proposal) than done. Building the ways of working in a transdisciplinary team is not easy. Much of it is about building trust, creating relationships, and finding new languages for interacting. These do not come easily. We had four all-team workshops during the project. Their tenor followed almost exactly the phases of group formation proposed by the psychologist, Bruce Tuckman.

The first was about ‘forming’ – finding out what the Consortium was about – which we held at ILRI in Nairobi. We didn’t know each other then. There was a nervousness, and not a little scepticism. The next workshop at Sussex focused on setting up the research and methodology. This was the ‘storming’ phase. Here we had to negotiate our roles, and define our stance – in a potentially threatening and confusing setting. There were a few arguments, and some misunderstandings – and some storming. We got through this, and got on with the work, but it took us a while to reach the ‘norming’ phase. This was already three years into the project at a workshop in Naivasha, Kenya. We had found a way of working, but we were only just beginning to build the relationships that really deliver transdisciplinary work. This really only happened in the final period, and at our last workshop – last week at London zoo – we could really say that we were ‘performing’. This final stage, where groups genuinely work together, came too late. We already had a nine-month no-cost extension ending next month, and the money had run out.

What lessons have we learned from this journey?

Central is the importance of time. It takes a while for any group to go through these stages. With a large, complex, international group, it takes longer. There are no real short-cuts.

Time is also important when studying dynamic complex systems, as there will be events that cannot be planned for that reframe the way we think, and the way we work. Ebola was the big one in our project, coming in 2014, right in the middle of the Sierra Leone fieldwork, which was in the epicentre of the outbreak. This made us rethink and restructure the work. But, despite the horrors, the experience helped us focus on new issues, and appreciate the value of cross-disciplinary working; something that of course proved to be vital to the Ebola response more generally.

Time is also important as the last pieces of the puzzle may be difficult to find. The whole story of the Zimbabwe work looking at trypanosomiasis only fell into place last week, when we were able to sit together and discuss the results of the livestock blood sampling. Mapped onto our GIS information from the geographers, and combined with the participatory analysis done in the field in Hurungwe the story became much clearer (more on this on this blog soon).

Linking different disciplinary approaches is not easy. There are different languages (from complex mathematics to complex words), and different styles of collecting, analysing and writing up data. Fieldwork means different things to different disciplines; as does paper writing, policy engagement, and so on. All these have to be negotiated. To work together we have to learn both new languages and cultures, and be patient and respectful.

But we also need frameworks that help make the connections that create the new insights. The DDDAC project had a simple framework that helped our earlier ‘forming’ and ‘norming’ stages, but we really got to ‘performing’ when we were able to link analytical approaches. This particularly focused on connecting different types of ‘modelling’. Everyone models the world – it’s just a framework for understanding expressed in different ways – but what the assumptions, frames and data requirements are will depend on who is modelling, and posing the questions.

We had various modelling efforts looking at diseases, emergence, spread and impact, from mechanistic Process based models, to statistical, macro ecological Pattern models to a diversity of Participatory modelling approaches, rooted in field analysis. Our 3P approach allowed conversations to happen and new results to begin to emerge, in this final period.

In other cross-disciplinary experiences – whether around the sustainable livelihoods framework or the STEPS pathways approach – my experience has been that, for all their limitations (there are many, for sure), these frameworks (‘models’) allow new conversations to happen, and new insights to emerge. So it has been in our integrative modelling, although only just touching the surface, due to our curtailed ‘performing’ phase. Four years in, new insights on disease emergence, transmission and effect were just beginning to emerge.

But it’s not just the frameworks that are important, it’s the people who are able to make the links – creating the basis for joint work. There are many different people with different roles in a successful team, as group psychologists, such as Meredith Belbin, have long known. We had very high-powered people in our team, many top researchers in their disciplines. But getting researchers and other project participants to work together required some unusual and new skills.

Research brokers, facilitators and leaders are rarely recognised, but are essential for cross-disciplinary work. We had a number of such people luckily, but I don’t think we knew enough about their importance at the beginning to give them well thought through roles, or even identify such skills in advance. Leadership in transdisciplinary working is a very special skill and a vital, usually unrecognised, and poorly rewarded, role.

Challenges faced

Our four team workshops moved the approach to working together forward incrementally. But between our four workshops, the team dispersed, fragmented, and often went back to silo working. Sustaining a continuous process of interaction is difficult, and expensive in an international project. Students can be key, as they are not subject to the same institutional strictures, and set professional behaviours and practices. Yet in our project, studentships were not encouraged, and we had only selective engagements, often from outside the project. This undermined coherence and continuity, and constrained genuine opportunities for transdisciplinary working.

As so many large projects, the temptation is to break things down into ‘work packages’; manageable units, associated with certain deliverables, with devolved leadership roles. This makes sense from an ease of management point of view, and indeed was encouraged in our project by the funding going to four separate Principal Investigators in four institutions. But integration then becomes incredibly difficult, as making links between activities, and making use of budgets to make this happen is impossible, as they are held multiply in protected silos.

Breaking out of existing institutional cultures, structured around disciplines and sectors, is incredibly difficult. And any project must know its limits. People have to be rewarded in their own systems, as well as gaining benefits from new collaborations. It’s not an easy balancing act. Ultimately people get promoted in their own institutions/disciplines, not in a project. And different people in such a project have very different reward systems, styles of publishing, forms of authorship and so on. Developing ways of working that take these into account, but move people to work in new ways is important, but not easy.

As so many projects formulated in a highly competitive funding environment, the earth was promised. But inevitably it could not be delivered in three  years. It would be absurd to expect it to have been despite the generous budget. The pressure was on from the beginning – high end, international science delivering impact. Anyone involved in research projects these days will know the routine. Impact, engagement, communications are central. This is all good, but forcing it may not make sense. Impacts emerge over time through relationships, and based on results that may not emerge easily. These are complex, difficult, challenging puzzles.

So the formulaic model of impact may not be appropriate, and we perhaps should be more sanguine about what is possible. Of course in our ‘pathways to impact’ assessments we over-promise (sometimes even lie), so the audit culture of project management kicks in to assess why we haven’t met the targets. And changing course, being flexible and reinventing projects to fit the moment is regarded with horror by research managers.

There is a dangerous culture of control in much research funding. Yes, linked to accountability, and assuring ‘value for money’, but pushing an inflexible audit approach can too often undermine creative, innovative research. There were moments in this project where overbearing centralised funder management constrained operations, and undermined partnerships.

Ways forward?

At the end of our project last week, we felt we’d only just started. We had done some good work, we had struck up excellent new transdisciplinary relationships, but we had only just started ‘performing’ when the money had run out.

All large group based projects (a common feature of funding modalities these days) go through the four group formation phases. So why not fund and manage in relation to this? Fund the forming, norming and storming, and performing separately in a phased approach.

There can be an expectation that some projects never get past forming, some never generate norms, and some fall apart during the storming (I have been in projects of all these types over the last 30 years!). But if you get to performing, often after quite a while, then you need proper funding for really generating the value from the funding. In our case much of the investment is sunk in a set of relationships that sadly will not be fully utilised as the funds have finished.

One route to this is through such a phased ‘challenge’ approach (Gates follows something similar, in the language of proof of concept to final project, although the argument is a bit different here). Another is to establish long-term, well-funded Centres around successful groups that have begun ‘performing’. This is the approach of UK research councils, Wellcome Trust and others. Centres with 10-20 years of funding can really make a difference. They can provide the home (real and virtual) for the type of interactions that are required to create real transdisciplinary work.

Only as part of Centres can the ‘constructive conflict’ between disciplines be generated and the type of frameworks that allow integrative, joint working encouraged. And only in such settings can the new norms and cultures that transdisciplinary work requires be fostered – and across generations of researchers and practitioners, this is a long-haul job.

Such efforts are of course not cheap, but the investment can be very worthwhile (and great value for money), as the sunk costs can genuinely be capitalised upon for really change-making work. Too often the money is pulled just as things get going, and exciting. The costs need to be focused on the relation-building that generate impact, rather than formulaic approaches, and invested in leadership, brokerage and facilitation that allow creative partnerships to be nurtured and allowed to work. This is difficult to programme and plan, and even more difficult to fit into the audit systems that dominate funding agencies’ obsessions.

Interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary collaboration is really hard, and involves a long slog that can be conflictual and challenging. But in the big issues that confront us today – whether climate change, sustainable development, zoonotic disease emergence, or indeed any area where multiple perspectives on a complex, dynamic problem are required – such approaches are imperative, and in my view a good investment. In our DDDAC project we made a creditable start, but are only at the beginning.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland.  The blog will be back on 28 March, after a short Easter break

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The changing face of global agricultural research

A few weeks back we hosted a conference on ‘Contested Agronomy’. I was asked to provide some comments in the final session. I first wondered how agronomy and the practice and politics of agricultural research had changed in recent decades. There were three things that struck me:

‘Projectisation’ – Much agronomy is done in the context of ‘projects’ these days – short-term, focused, and geared to deliverables. Generalisable, silver bullets are what is demanded. Projectisation is the consequence of the way funding is delivered (often via NGOs without research capacity); the short cycles of publication that are required in the context of the professional career tracks of scientists (impact, impact, impact); and the management, institutionalisation and governance of agronomic science in both the public and private sectors. And the result is we get obsessed with ‘fixes’ – whether conservation agriculture, the system of rice intensification or GM crops. Such iconic technologies end up being the focus for polarised debate, rather than the socio-technical and political challenges of wider change. All such approaches may be useful in the right circumstances, but taken out of context, the debates are often polarised and unhelpful.

Privatisation – Most agronomists don’t work in public institutions any more, but in private (or quasi private – like many universities or public institutions with commercial sponsorship) settings. The ratio has shifted radically since the Green Revolution days of the 1960s and 70s. Today Monsanto and Syngenta have between them 50,000 employees globally, while the CGIAR has 10,000. Agronomy has been privatised and commodified; often in the context of large, multinational companies. The focus is therefore on products, patents and profits. The neoliberalisation of agricultural research and agri-food systems more generally generates a normative ordering and framing of agriculture, linked to a concentration of capital in a particular style of modernised, industrialised, agribusiness-dominated, fossil-fuel dependent agri-food system. Contestations need to be less about the particular technology, but more about the wider political economy, and how this influences how agricultural systems are changed and controlled.

Globalisation – All this becomes more acute in the context of globalisation. Today there are more sources of knowledge-technology, from different contexts. Whether this is from the ‘rising powers’ (such as India, China, Brazil – as discussed last week) or from large philanthropic organisations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or from social movements such as La Via Campesina, the sources of contested knowledge-making are diverse – and not just located in Euro-North American circuits, and their mirror in the CGIAR (the international agricultural research centres). Knowledges and technologies spread faster, and there are new sources of power, located in relation to new hubs of capital and finance. Thus today the processes of mutually-constructing socio-technologies is different, and so requires deeper insight into the knowledge politics of the globalised landscape of knowledge production, across diverse sites and organisations.

Given these fundamental changes in the contexts for agricultural research over the past decades, where are the new areas of contestation? Where should we be challenging, unpacking, and reframing approaches? I identified four areas:

First, the idea of ‘transfer’. Technology transfer has long been part of the lexicon of agricultural development, and has long been critiqued, often in relation to the contrasts of ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ versions. But actually we have to understanding ‘transfer’ in terms of the journeys travelled, and the social, political and cultural contexts of this. And this means understanding technology – and its transfer – in relation capital, states, class and other dimensions of social difference. Agronomy is obviously about farmers and farming, but it’s also about labourers, traders, technology manufacturers and more. As we show in our research on China and Brazil in African agriculture highlighted last week, political economy – and the relations of and politics of production – really does matter.

Second, fundamental debates about ‘epistemology’ (how we know things). At the conference there were various sessions on data, methods, trials and experiments, and there has been a long debate on how to improve these – taking a ‘systems’ approach, incorporating ‘complexity’ and adding on ‘participation’, for example. This is well rehearsed. But are there fundamentally different ways of knowing relevant to agronomy, where radically different frames, processes of knowledge building, agency and practice and so politics of agronomy come into play? Here, perspectives from the field, from farmers, labourers, rural activists and others become highly relevant. A point long made in the context of the ‘Farmer First’ debates (and trio of books). Such groups, from different standpoints, may understand the idiom of experiment and evidence in very different ways – and it’s not just a question of adding participation… and stirring.

Third is the popular issue of scale. Everything these days has to be done ‘at scale’ and ‘rolled out’ to maximise reach. Science and technology must be generalizable, even universal. Scale neutrality is seen as the ultimate achievement. But what is being scaled up? Is ‘scaling up’ about the multiplication of technologies and their reach across geographic space, or the sharing of principles, processes and relations? Is it the nutrient-enriched sweet potato (the technology) or improved livelihoods and reduced malnutrition (through multiple, diverse pathways)? Is it about scaling ‘things’ or ‘ends’, ‘needs’ and ‘demands’. There are very different ways of thinking about scaleability, and what you do about it, from these perspectives.

Fourth is ‘impact’. This was a strong theme of the earlier Contested Agronomy book, which analysed the way ‘success’ in agriculture is constructed – and manipulated. But despite the critique, the pathology has not disappeared. Impact is perhaps the biggest buzzword of the moment, and success must be sought at all costs. Impact in the field of agriculture is very often seen in terms of adoption (of things), and often a simplistic assessment of who is using what (the widget view of the world). Instead, I’d argue, we need to understand complex system change not patterns of adoption (a lesson long learned in agriculture – from the Farming Systems Research efforts 40 years ago). But too often we see such change framed in terms of managerial transition, not more fundamental, transformational change.

The most fundamental contestations are linked to values and politics, and our diverse collective imaginings of a better world. This is not an either/or choice – of industrial agriculture or agroecology for example – but it requires a much more nuanced debate about directions for agricultural development and their consequences for different people in different places. This is where the real contestations need to happen, and where we need more effective institutional mechanisms for deliberation and debate about agricultural futures that take politics into account.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland. An earlier version appeared on the STEPS Centre blog.

 

 

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