Farmer participatory research (FPR) methods have been advocated as a means of increasing the client focus of agricultural research in developing countries. The National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS) in these countries have adopted them to varying extents—often as an implicit conditionality of donor supported research projects. This paper seeks to demonstrate that, despite the apparent acceptance of FPR in NARS, the fundamental nature of the relationship between scientists and farmers remains unchanged. FPR has largely failed in its attempts to improve the efficiency of agricultural research by restructuring science/production relations. This failure is the result of the ‘systems problem’ in agricultural research, whereby the complex interrelationship of actors, institutions and resources prevents FPR methods being compatible with NARS.
To illustrate the nature of these problems, this paper documents the experiences of participatory needs assessment and technology development research in Uganda. Five problem areas are identified which appear to be representative of the wider context of the research system: researcher/farmer power relationships; the professional identity of scientists; the skill base and available human resources; and perceptions concerning the validity of research methods. It is argued that the difficulties which these factors introduce—particularly in terms of the professional behaviour of scientists—are a result of the historical patterns of institutional development specific to Uganda, as well as the tendency of institutionalised science to perpetuate these problems.
The paper concludes by suggesting that these problems are more serious than problems associated with the introduction of a new method. The problems are systemic in nature and are the result of more fundamental issues relating to the structure of agricultural research. The advocacy of participation has been prescriptive and too coercive. Attention needs to be focused on the real impact of these methods and the receptiveness of the institutional settings in which they are advocated. The greatest policy challenge exists in devising structural change within agricultural research, to enable more client-focused activities. Policy should focus on creating sufficient flexibility in NARS and other service providers to allow new structures to evolve which can more efficiently supply ‘services’ to farmers.