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A ‘theory of change’ for agricultural research for development


Theory of change diagram produced in 2014 by the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS).

The following are highlights of a new CGIAR paper advancing ways to make agricultural science make a bigger difference to development outcomes.
• We describe a theory-of-change approach to an agricultural research for development program.
• The approach builds on understanding how engagement and learning can enable change.
• The approach has implications for resourcing and assessing outcomes and impacts.
• The approach has potential to better link knowledge generation and development outcomes.

The paper’s abstract
‘Agricultural research for development has made important contributions to poverty reduction and food security over the last 40 years. Nevertheless, it is likely that both the speed of global change and its impacts on natural and socio-economic systems are being under-estimated.

Coupled with the moral imperative to justify the use of public resources for which there are multiple, competing claims, research for development needs to become more effective and efficient in terms of contributing towards longer-term development goals.

‘Currently there is considerable debate about the ways in which this may be achieved. Here we describe an approach based on theory of change. This includes a monitoring, evaluation and learning system that combines indicators of progress in research along with indicators of change aimed at understanding the factors that enable or inhibit the behavioural changes that can bring about development impacts.

‘Theory of change represents our best understanding of how engagement and learning can enable change as well as how progress towards outcomes might be measured. We describe the application of this approach and highlight some key lessons learned.

‘Although robust evidence is currently lacking, a theory of change approach appears to have considerable potential to achieve impacts that balance the drive to generate new knowledge in agricultural research with the priorities and urgency of the users and beneficiaries of research results, helping to bridge the gap between knowledge generation and development outcomes.’

From the paper’s introduction

The last 25 years have seen substantial improvements in human wellbeing. Between 1990–92 and 2012–14, there was a 42% reduction in the prevalence of undernourished people in developing regions.

‘Considerable regional differences exist in the progress that has been made against poverty and hunger in the time span, however: in South Asia progress has been limited, and in sub-Saharan Africa the situation regarding poverty and hunger has become worse. There were still 805 million people who were chronically undernourished in 2012–2014, almost all in developing countries.

‘Clearly, there is much to be done to reach the targets for 2030 as articulated in the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly Goal 2 on ending hunger, achieving food security and improved nutrition and promoting sustainable agriculture.

With an expected extra 2–3 billion people to feed over the next 40 years, this will require targeted efforts to achieve making 70% more food available to keep up with rapidly rising demand.

At the same time, climate change is already affecting agriculture in many developing countries, and the effects will become increasingly challenging in the future.

‘Several approaches are being used to address poverty, and in developing countries agricultural development is one. The role of agriculture in reducing poverty is relatively well studied; enhancing agriculture is often seen as a critical entry-point in designing effective poverty reduction strategies, with agricultural research for development (AR4D) a key mechanism. The adoption of improved agricultural practices, technologies and policies, such as high-yielding rice and wheat varieties, fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation and enabling policies, has had strong and positive impacts relative to research investment.

‘Nevertheless, the world food system continues to face challenges of persistent food insecurity and rural poverty in places. The adoption of improved agricultural technologies and practices by farmers has often been less than expected, despite demonstrated benefits. . . .

Considerable behavioural shifts will be needed on the part of all stakeholders if food security is to be achieved for the more than 9 billion people on the planet by 2050.

‘AR4D has huge challenges ahead, and ways are needed to do it more effectively and efficiently. Here we outline one approach to AR4D that may have some potential for addressing issues of effectiveness and efficiency—an approach based on theory of change and impact pathway thinking. This approach is illustrated with reference to the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), a global partnership that unites organisations engaged in research and capacity development for a food secure future. This is among the first examples of a large AR4D program being orientated this way. . . .’

From the paper’s ‘Background’ section

Project implementation in CCAFS aspires to a ‘three-thirds principle’ in relation to engagement effort:
1 a third working with next-users to build relationships and define their needs from research,
2 a third on the research itself, and
3 a third on enhancing next-users’ capacity to improve the uptake of research outputs.

Read the whole science paper:
Phil Thornton, Tonya Schuetz, Wiebke Förch, Laura Cramer, David Abreu , Sonja Vermeulen and Bruce Campbell: Responding to global change: A theory of change approach to making agricultural research for development outcome-based. Agricultural Systems 152:145–153, 10 Jan 2017.

Lead author Phil Thornton is a senior scientist (sustainable livestock systems) at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and a flagship leader (policies and institutions) at the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS).

References in the text excerpted above from the science paper were omitted in the interests of readability; please go to the original paper to see the references.

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