As most Newsletter readers will know, AgREN must find alternative sources of funding if it is to continue. The UK Department for International Development (DFID), which has generously supported AgREN and its predecessors, was unable to fund a proposal for a further three years of operation. This is a great disappointment, but it should not detract from the recognition that DFID has assumed the leadership in many activities for pro-poor rural development, and will certainly continue to do so. Donor priorities and management are always subject to change, and programmes and projects must accept this uncertainty.
Whether or not this is the last issue of AgREN will depend on our ability to identify alternative sources of funding. New support would have to be identified quite quickly if we are to maintain AgREN’s publication schedule. But failure to publish at the end of 2005 would not necessarily spell the end of AgREN. The list of AgREN members is compiled and distributed every two years and the most recent edition has recently been sent out. This will help maintain contacts within the network for the near future. In addition, the tradition and formats of AgREN’s papers and newsletter are widely recognised and it would be possible to revive them fairly quickly. However, we must be aware that even a brief pause will significantly affect the chances of AgREN’s ultimate survival.
It is worth reflecting on the special qualities of AgREN (which can trace its lineage to predecessor networks stretching back to 1976.) In a world of development fads and sound-bite prescriptions, where the challenges of natural resource-based rural development are increasingly discussed in theoretical rather than practical terms, AgREN provides an important channel of communication for rural development practitioners. AgREN papers are an outlet for information that is too detailed (and insufficiently ‘promotional’) for most magazines and websites on rural development; and too practical (and cautious of theoretical statements) to be acceptable in most academic publications. The only bias of AgREN papers is towards the value of field-level information; the papers represent an eclectic range of viewpoints and ideologies, but the AgREN ‘brand’ is associated with honest, objective reflection on rural development experience.
AgREN has continued to distribute papers in hardcopy because many rural development practitioners still do not have adequate access to electronic media. The papers are individually bound (rather than being in a journal format) to encourage sharing according to varying interests. The newsletter focuses on brief reports of work in progress and announcements of events, websites and publications. The AgREN e-mail discussions have provided opportunities for an exchange of viewpoints on important rural development issues and have allowed members to participate in synthesising this information.
We must also be aware that the future of AgREN depends not only on financial support for the network’s activities, but also on the contributions of its members. Rural development practitioners work under difficult conditions and face many pressures. There is often little time for writing, reading and reflection. When such opportunities arise, there are good arguments for devoting time to project reports, advocacy material for securing future funding, or academic journals, rather than writing for AgREN. For this reason, AgREN’s strategy has become increasingly proactive in helping members identify and develop contributions for the network. But this strategy is only worth supporting if a significant number of practitioners are willing to analyse their experiences and write about them, and if others find this type of analysis a useful contribution to making their own rural development activities more effective.
As this newsletter goes to press, AgREN comprises a group of dedicated practitioners and nearly 30 years of experience in applying independent and objective analysis to the conduct of rural development. But at this point there is no clear way for continuing this experience. AgREN requires a champion, and the search for new sources of support may well involve some rethinking of AgREN strategies. But the basic dedication of AgREN remains to foster an exchange of open-minded reflection on field experience among practitioners. Of course such exchange exists without AgREN, but the network has made a significant contribution to strengthening these lines of communication. Thus whether AgREN’s current funding situation represents a minor change of course or a significant impasse, it is inappropriate to make any farewells. As long as the type of dedication to responsible rural development practice evidenced by AgREN’s members continues, then AgREN can legitimately claim a continuing presence.