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Producing policy change: Innovation in the agriculture sector

Time (GMT +01) 11:30 13:30


Andrew Barnett - Director, The Policy Practice

Karim Hussein - Regional Economist, International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)

Ann Waters-Bayer - Senior advisor with ETC EcoCulture in ETC Foundation, Netherlands and Member of the International Support Team, Prolinnova


Andy Sumner - Fellow, Vulnerability and Poverty Reduction Team, IDS

Jim Ellis-Jones - Tropical Agriculture Association


Nicola Jones - Research Fellow, Research and Policy in Development Group, ODI

As part of the series ‘The politics of policy-making: thinking cross-sectorally’, this event considered options and obstacles for fostering change (especially policy change) in the agriculture sector, in order to facilitate innovation for necessary, environmentally sustainable, growth in production. The event explored how knowledge, policy and practice interact during the policy-making process, with a focus on innovation systems and the agriculture sector.

Key questions under consideration were:

1. In what ways do available policy spaces differ across policy areas and shape research-policy-practice linkages?

2. How far does the influence stretch of constellations of governmental and civil society actors, who ‘champion’ certain issues and help to support the uptake of research in policy dialogue?

3. What type of research evidence is most compelling in different policy areas, in terms of hierarchies of knowledge? – To what extent do different sources of knowledge help to shape policy-influencing strategies?

The Politics of Policy-making: The case of agricultural innovation

Speaker: Andrew Barnett

In a broadly theoretical introduction to the topic, Andrew Barnet spoke about the nature of research and the influence of political economy on its input. Specifically he considered the debate over evidence of impacts in projects; and the ‘political economy of changing intellectual paradigms’.

First considering the Innovation Systems Approach, a standard definition of innovation was given: First significant commercial use of new ideas, new technologies and new ways of doing things.

Taking the assertion “Research converts money into knowledge and innovation converts knowledge into money”, Mr. Barnett noted that not all innovation is monetised, and that knowledge is not necessarily the ‘sufficient condition’ to innovation: scaling-up and scaling out are also important. This would later be reasserted by Ms. Waters-Bayer.

A challenge made to the apparently popular linear approach to research-policy-practice sequence, introduced the concept that though it is not always appropriate to look at the relationship of each as linear (even as it appears written it here: research-policy-practice), this very often happens anyway; for example: research conducted – sent to ‘external agents’ – sold to the poor. In fact the reality is of much more complex systems and is influenced by contextual systems, diversity, risk, culture, evolutionary change, learning-by-doing, the list goes on.

Looking at a diagram of simplified National Innovation Systems from Arnold and Bell (just one example of an innovation systems approach: see presentation file) Barnett argued that communication where innovation is concerned should not – and does not – happen in one direction only. Interaction should occur towards the upstream as well as the downstream; the sort of interaction that ODI has called engagement.

Considering a Renewable Natural Resources Research Strategy (RNRRS), Barnett considered the sway that existence of evidence of impact has on research: While there may not always be evidence of the impact of research, that doesn’t mean that there was no impact. This he noted as a paradox between macro evidence ‘vs.’ micro evidence. A paper in 2002, he said, concluded that while the impact of research on economic performance appeared significant at the macro level, it may not be possible (in principle) to establish impacts at the level of individual projects. This does not necessarily mean that there are no broader impacts.

Looking at DfID, it can be seen that where peer-review journals have been central to steering activities, this has been changed now so that poverty impact is key. This, then, caused a problem for researchers; from the perspective of establishing evidence of sought impact, as well as new research approaches. This, the new driver of M&E systems, was limited in reach.

A recent doubling in DfID’s budget, but with 50% of the central research budget going into “use”, i.e., enquiry into where the research actually goes and what it does, partly addressed this problem. Still, this does not change the fact that parameters and variables change over time, that systems that are simply not linear; it is extremely difficult to prove evidence or causation of impacts in systems as complex as these. How should an organisation plan, or invest, if it cannot predict impact before a project, or evaluate it afterwards?

Research is often considered the opposite of action, and this is sometimes not misplaced concern: Barnett noted that “by the Research Framework 2005-2007, June 2005, DfID was itself recognising that two thirds of deaths are from illnesses that we know how to cure. Most Kenyan farmers still use seed varieties that are twenty years old. We need much better links between researchers and users – not just discoveries, but innovations that are actually used.”

Barnett argued that the shift from research to innovation – from a perspective about research to a perspective of innovation – is a necessary one to move control over resources towards users of those resources. ‘Champions’ of innovation Barnett suggested are ‘deviants’ – those who produced evidence that is not what the mainstream was looking for. If there are plenty of these in Whitehall, he asked, where are they in DfID, and the agricultural community?

While it must be understood that those in control of research money, and research initiation, will protect their interests, incentives must change in order to promote innovation. The role of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) is to prove to the World Bank and others that there is high return on investment in agricultural research. Questions should be asked: Is this evidence likely to be accepted “whether or not it is methodologically sound”? Is DfID’s focus now on the use of research going to put it at the forefront of progress in agriculture policy research?

Scouting and Sharing Innovation (SSI) in Western and Central Africa: Fostering Innovation Processes and Partnerships.

Speaker: Karim Hussein

With focus more on the ‘country programme’ level than the theoretical, Karim Hussein, from the International Fund for Agricultural Development, supported the argument that Knowledge Management and Innovation development is essential to growth and progress in the agriculture sector; asserting that processes should be viewed from the perspective of poor rural people – in terms of power and policy dimensions (including knowledge hierarchy), and institutional/organisational goals.

IFAD has two relevant strategies here: The Knowledge Management (KM) strategy, and the Innovation strategy. The former has four pillars:
• Strengthening knowledge sharing and learning processes
• Developing a more supportive knowledge sharing and learning infrastructure
• Fostering partnerships for broader knowledge sharing and learning
• Promoting a supportive culture of knowledge sharing and learning
The key here is good communication: Among organisations and farmers; between farmers and government; across all levels of the structure. In justification of this Hussein later highlighted that useful innovations communication inward from outside West and Central Africa, and outward from inside WCA were insufficiently collected/received or disseminated, there were no systems or mechanisms in place to encourage or ensure it, and effort should be made to address this.

The Innovation strategy, importantly, identifies cultural / behavioural changes needed for implementation, and also the incentives and training needed to bring these changes about. This is all with a view to ensuring cost-effectiveness, integrating resources and efforts into a time-bound results framework.

From IFAD’s upstream perspective, Hussein reminded the discussion that the donor community has ‘a lot to think about’, not least the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, and the actual delivery of results. Development actors more broadly are constantly facing new challenges, including food prices, climate change issues, and population growth. Further, it is beneficial for IFAD and other donors to set examples and precedents among members of the donor community. These include the establishment of M&E systems at project level in order to ensure that results and impacts can be proven, to justify and encourage investment. (In terms of farmers’ organisations, the results required come in three areas: project design and implementation; improvement of effectiveness and efficiency of internal systems and processes; and supporting organisational structure within an organisation).

It was suggested that while research and its impact or use is fundamental in innovation, the capacity of farmers themselves and groups to constantly innovate is “vital to lasting impact on rural poverty”. Barnett’s presentation touched on the fact that most influence in WCA comes from Western/Northern peer review journals, when, as Hussein stated, local knowledge is an invaluable (and undervalued in many a hierarchy of knowledge) aspect of efficient and effective innovation.

The example of the Scouting and Sharing Innovation (SSI) initiative embodies IFAD’s aim to address these issues of knowledge input and communication of farmers in WCA. In particular, the idea is to promote and capitalise on innovative processes, technological innovations and promising practices as they develop in the region. Once identified, innovations that may be applicable elsewhere should be analysed and disseminated, using communication tools/mechanisms that have been set up especially for that purpose (particularly across IFAD-supported programmes) – in collaboration with programmes, regional partners, and diverse actors.

IFAD has three categories of innovation, each important to progress in agricultural development. The first is technological innovation, usually a result of research and development work outside this region, and adapted to fit the context. The second, institutional or organisational innovation, is a more internal and autonomous, and is ‘accepted’ and implemented by a particular group. Third is policy innovation: at a higher regional or national level, this involves the identification and adoption of new legal or policy procedures, to be applied with specific groups, areas or communities. SSI initiative aims to “identify, share and promote the uptake” of all three kinds of innovation in WCA.

The key message from this presentation was of the importance of communication. With the assertion that a follow-up to innovation projects required a core group of partners to take forward recommendations, as well as a joint communication strategy to increase access to information, Hussein gave the example of the established website www.fidafrique.net, as one way to facilitate a culture of innovation. The website itself acts as a database for innovation and a forum for discussion, as well as an e-survey host.

A Culture of innovation also calls for exploration of where trade-offs exist between supporting innovations to enhance productivity / absolute production levels and equity / equality of access – and how these trade-offs can be managed, and in a participatory way. The gender dimension, and equality of access to information, must not go unaddressed.

Concerns raised by Hussein were of planning and flexibility: With such attention made to planning and performance/impact-based results, what scope is left for creativity or deviation from plans? What possibility is there to respond to changes when results-based management requires particular pursuits and follows particular plans?

Farmers Call the Tune: Initial experiences with Local Innovation Support Funds

Speaker: Ann Waters-Bayer

With an initial suggestion that the Arnold and Bell diagram used by Barnett shows ‘business system’ and the ‘education and research system’ unnecessarily at either side of ‘intermediary organisations’, as their input/influence effectively comes from the same direction, Ms. Waters-Bayer’s presentation looked into local aspects of agricultural research and development (R&D), and the example of LISFs for farmers.

In an atmosphere of minimal ‘downward accountability’ (to farmers) and farmers’ questions falling on deaf ears, Local Innovation Support Funds aim to enhance the accountability of public agricultural R&D, offering support to farmers in terms of their own experimentation and research and their position in relation to research coming from external partners such as international donor-research bodies.

Promoting Local Innovation, or Prolinnova, aims to assist farmers in investing in and assessing their own research and innovation. It has several country and regional programmes at different stages of development. Prolinnova’s concern is that new funding mechanisms rarely include NGOs or farmers’ organisations, and are often managed (and accessed) by government agencies. This demonstrates the downward direction of communication, and the exclusion of local knowledge from the hierarchy mentioned by both earlier speakers.

Set up under the Farmer Access to Innovation Resources (FAIR) programme, LISFs seek to share and document lessons about appropriate mechanisms and conditions to establish sustainable area-based funding mechanisms for promoting farmer-led participatory innovation. Conscious of the necessity for thorough multi-stakeholder participation, activities have included stakeholder design workshops, country-level exploratory and identification studies, capacity building for local institutions, and monitoring and evaluation activities.

With a view to knowledge transfer and information sharing, farmer ‘exchange’ visits have been organised; and joint experimentation between individuals and groups facilitated. With a view to more balanced and accountable decision-making, the funding application process includes a more ‘centralised’ multistakeholder committee made up of key partner organisation representatives and farmer representatives, as well as a full ‘decentralised’ farmer-managed committee. As well as innovative (as per above definitions) ideas should be locally owned or locally driven, and apparently economically/environmentally/socially sound. A Memorandum of Understanding, either written or verbal, is usually agreed to for terms of funding.

One key issue brought up by Waters-Bayer is that farmers often are sceptical about external hands in their own business: they want to explore the limits of their own knowledge before turning elsewhere for help (sometimes, also, they fear hijacking of their processes by outsiders). This is arguably well founded as external research organisations do not always have the space or scope in their own plans for supporting farmers’ own initiatives or involving these initiatives in their own work. This raises yet more concerns about the scope for flexibility and creativity in research activities that, ‘in the event’, are somewhat ‘linear’.

Waters-Bayer asserted the need for more intensive impact monitoring in order to provide evidence in policy dialogue. The focus on innovation is a new approach that needs developing, including major work to embed and sustain it structurally within communities, organisations, and countries.


Jim Ellis-Jones

Mr. Ellis Jones first called for example upon Malawi, where at the end of 2007 relevant stakeholders were brought together including civil society, NGOs, and government extension service. The first question asked at this meeting was what is new about the innovation systems approach? Having tried mechanisms and systems for innovation in the past, obstacles had arisen in numerous places. To name just one: knowledge sharing is not in the best interests of a key player, the private sector – so it rarely gets involved in knowledge sharing activities. Even competing NGOs are reluctant to share information with one another.

There seemed, he suggested, to be some “warning lights” about innovation systems. The number one priority should be to strengthen farmers’ capacity to absorb new technology. A second high priority is to strengthen information and communications networks. While sometimes this may be attempted in more isolated areas, “there is never a forum for people to get together and share.”

A change of culture and a change of attitudes, he went on to say, are an insufficiently addressed imperative, which needs discussion, and while there may be talk on innovation approaches and platforms, farmers remain widely underrepresented, while the private sector is represented adequately as are other actors.

Andy Sumner

Mr Sumner’s discussion began with the insistence of policy-makers and research planners on struggling to ‘dump’ what are essentially linear approaches upon realities and systems which are incredibly complex. He concisely defined the problem as ‘complex systems vs. results-based management’. This tension, he noted, exists notwithstanding various types of spaces and policy approaches.

He returned to Barnett’s point of deviants being the instigators of change – and champions often therefore being deviants – asking whether there may be any deviants ‘among’ the champions. He argued that the role of intermediaries changes according to context and situation as well as self-perception: e.g. not all researchers see themselves as social action agents – some see themselves as objective. Others take a “convening role” in opening spaces for alternative voices – IFAD plays a significant role here. It is claimed spaces that are opened anew, rather than existing formal policy process spaces. The question is how these spaces increase in ‘credibility’ and influence. This question of knowledge hierarchy also concerns influence over elites to push for pro-poor bias into the policy process.

Sumner concluded his comments on the concepts of accountability and causation. The first concern is that with many subjects (he used the example of econometrics) there is the trap of “if you don’t follow it … you assume it’s true”. This is not conducive to effective accountability. Regarding causation, he raised the point that even determining micro level impacts, it is possible to mistake causation for correlation, and vice versa. Paraphrasing Howard White: “given enough time, and enough money, you can produce whatever result you want to find.”

Q & A

Three main themes came out in the Question and Answer session which were apparent throughout the whole event. These are the role/nature of research; the dichotomy of complex issues and results-based management; and communication.

On the role/nature of research, it there are several aspects that must be considered. Mr. Barnett noted that there is an issue of power relations and political economy: for example in India the research system is simply a successful industry, and a good one to work in. Mr. Sumner had previously noted that there are elements of research as-an-industry, for example the importance of peer review journals, that are inherently influenced by researchers’ aspirations – peer review journals are how their careers may be judged. Mr. Hussein, similarly, noted that there is pressure to be published, and this pressure can easily undermine partnership perspectives of different actors.

Barnett also suggested the possibility that researchers are “less important to innovation than they think they are”. Many other actors in the process are likely to have certain influence, not least local/community-based stakeholders and farmers. Having said this, of course, “a scholarly voice saying ‘it can’t be done’ is very powerful in the DfIDs of this world”.

The tension between complex issues and results-based management was looked at from a number of perspectives during the event. With the assertion that stakeholders are encouraged to design their own platforms below the national level with Prolinnova; the repeated assertion of the need to scale-out (through projects) and scale-up (through institutionalisation of a ‘culture of innovation’ and participation); and some discussion of the integrity of partners, it seemed that the initial point was agreed, that on a complex system actors insist on imposing essentially linear models and expectations, and that these were just some things in the process of addressing that. Yet the assertion that more should be done to measure impact at a micro or local level, through retaining the concept of ‘x – y – z – impact-measuring’ runs the risk of perpetuating linear models.

Better communication among actors was asserted by all participants. In terms of policy spaces, the inclusion of more stakeholders and the rethinking of knowledge hierarchies was considered important; especially looking at the evidence that while donors and research bodies wish to protect their interests, fears of ‘hijacking’ suggest farmers feel the need also to protect their own interests. In these policy spaces, Mr. Ellis-Jones suggested that the time has come to “weed out” certain partners who are not making a contribution.

Concerning communication between farmers and farmers’ organisations, Barnett stated that people not speaking to one another is a symptom of lacking innovation, not just a cause. The fostering of communication, across levels, without bias (and with appropriate incentive in organisations to reduce bias), and through newly claimed policy space, through new or adapted fora and media, was agreed to be fundamental to successful innovation in the agriculture sector.

Specific Questions brought up in Q&A

1. What happens to donors and government organisations below the national level – what is the spatial dimension?

2. Clarification please:
- NGO impact – integrity, quality of partnerships for promoting innovations
- What do we call ‘NGOs’
- How gradual are impacts?

a) 15 years ago, a lot of the innovative systems approach was ‘old hat’. – why are we struggling so much to changing the innovative system for scientists? Maybe farmer inclusion, eg Prolinnova would be good?

b) on scaling-up and scaling-out: do we need a farmer field school in every village? Or is there something that can be done a little broader – how much resources should be spent on i) fostering an environment and culture of innovation; and ii) dissemination and documenting?

a) Is innovation (as justification of budgets) about donor politics?
b) Is conducting field research going around in circles / cycles of research?

a) Surely there needs to be effort to build, strengthen civil society – farmers knowing where to go to get information in future...
b) Political power and influencing – what do you think about the Eisted Report? How can the UK start making a difference?

6. IFAD recently had quite a 'stiff' review. (How) is the information from this review influencing the (political context of) changes within IFAD?

a) What are the main priorities for donors to focus on short term?
b) What responses are there to the woman farmer?

8. There remains the problem of ‘identifying a problem and passing it on’. The West shouldn’t be too proud; it should be more realistic – e.g.: the Gini coefficient is getting worse in the west …


Innovation in the agriculture sector is critical to achieving the necessary growth in production in an environmentally sustainable way. But change does not come easily—especially policy change. This event explores how knowledge, policy and practice interact during the policy-making process with a focus on innovation systems and the agriculture sector. Bringing together academics, policy-makers and development practitioners, the event will be part presentation and part open discussion.

Andrew Barnett, Director of the Policy Practice will share lessons from his experience influencing policies for innovative systems. Karim Hussein of IFAD will speak on his work with the Scouting and Sharing Innovation initiative. Ann Waters-Bayer of Prolinnova will focus on her work with local innovation support fund activities. These presentations will be followed by a more general discussion of the complexities of agriculture sector policy-making and how they compare to other sectors.

This event is the first in the series, The politics of policy-making: Thinking cross-sectorally. This series, for which ODI has teamed up with RIU, EADI, DSA and IDS, explores the policy-making process in various sectors across the development field. The aim is to gain a better understanding of the unevenness of policy-making and knowledge use across sectors and how these differences can be best used to more effectively influence evidence-based policy.