Involving local people in figuring out how to improve their farming and fishing methods provides more lasting and widespread benefits than just introducing new technologies or methods, the researchers showed. The findings are described in the journal Agricultural Systems, in a paper by Boru Douthwaite of the research funding agency WorldFish, based in Malaysia, and Elizabeth Hoffecker, lead researcher at the International Development Innovation Network (IDIN), based at the MIT D-Lab.
Considerable research over the last few decades has shown that bringing about improvements in agricultural systems is a highly complex challenge, with many interrelationships and feedbacks determining how well new methods and devices take hold or provide a real improvement. Yet government agencies as well as research and nonprofit organizations still mostly evaluate the success of their programs using simple metrics that overlook much of this complexity, Hoffecker says.
For three decades, Douthwaite has been studying how these programs work in practice. He says he has often observed a disconnect between the measures agencies use to decide whether a program is working, versus the real effects he saw in some of the communities involved.
For this study, the researchers focused on two quite different examples that help to illustrate these disparities: fishing on lakes and rivers in Zambia, and growing a fiber crop called abaca in the Philippines.