Research & Policy: two peas in a pod?

A dialogue for food security impact

10 December 2017

The conference “Research & Policy: two peas in a pod? A dialogue for food security impact” was a major step in improving the link between research and policy. In particular between the (interim) results of the research projects funded within the Food & Business Applied Research Fund (ARF) and the Global Challenges Programme (GCP), and Dutch policy in the field of Food and Nutrition Security and private sector development. The conference was organised by NWO-WOTRO and the F&BKP in close collaboration with the Ministries of Forgein Affairs and Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality.

Keynote speakers elaborated on the role of research in development practices and the need to consider food systems within a wider policy and (local) political context to achieve changes. In the thematic sessions results from ARF research projects & GCP research projects were presented followed by lively dialogues on how to improve the policy-research link and which bottlenecks need to be addressed. In addition, the Agrofood Broker of the Year was announced and an ARF booklet presented on the unique approach of the ARF.

The conference was organised as one step in a broader process. It followed an intensive preparation trajectory in which researchers, practitioners and policy representatives were actively engaged in starting the dialogue on the different themes. In the coming period, the F&BKP and NWO-WOTRO together with the actors involved will identify and facilitate follow-up activities based on the session results.

System level

One of the messages of the plenary was the need for more research on system-level changes, both nationally and globally. This was underlined by Brave Ndisale, strategist for food security policy at FAO. She started her keynote by asking: “Why doesn’t undernourishment go down?” Ndisale pointed out that “policymakers have to address emerging global trends that contribute to complexity: population growth, huge urbanisation, climate change and competition for natural resources. This leads to changing food systems, with other stakeholders and players, like, for example, big corporations supplying processed food”. According to Ndisale, the ‘missing link’ for many policymakers and researchers is that “food security is not sectoral, but should be viewed within a wider political and policy context”. This challenge to work more comprehensively at a systems level was included in the GCP-3. Although many agreed with this ambition, some doubted whether this is possible with current research budgets.

The need for a broader “systems” vision was also brought forward by Cees Leeuwis: “We need systems innovations that combine technical and social transformation”. To achieve such an impact, researchers have to operate and communicate differently. Leeuwis pointed out that “Transformations are often prepared by citizens, media, and policymakers ‘starting to talk differently’”. This is what Leeuwis calls “discourse coalitions… researchers should engage in this, and help to strengthen discours.

Workshops by researchers and policymakers

The conference was conducted in two rounds, each consisting of four workshops covering several topics. The preparation for the workshops was a combined effort by researchers and policymakers. The sessions consisted of a dialogue between the two, reinforcing the point made by Ndisale that “researchers and policymakers are mutually accountable for the local effects of their work and should collaborate towards these changes”. In a statement made at the end of the day, Melle Leenstra, policy advisor at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, highlighted that research and policy should walk together: “We need to keep on talking and exchanging anecdotes; we need to be confronted with different views, learn from good practices, but also from failures”. The process followed in setting up the conference sessions was given as a good example of ‘walking together’.

The main take-away message from the workshops was that the ARF and GCP approach of demand steering and research uptake is working well. The research projects are transdisciplinary and place emphasis on co-creation and partnership brokering. During the workshops many examples of collaborations between researchers and policymakers – both from the Dutch ministries as well as African governments – came to the fore. Some issues with Dutch food security were also raised; for example, the need to improve conflict sensitivity in food security policies, which was the subject of workshop 8, and the fact that fisheries and aquaculture are “orphans” on the international and the Dutch food security and nutrition agenda, which was discussed in workshop 5.

A recurring question in many of the workshops was: Should food and nutrition security (FNS) policies focus on efficiency and upscaling entrepreneurship to expand food production, which might exclude the poorest, or should they try to involve vulnerable people, especially women and youth, to increase their food security? An example was provided in the debate in workshop 6 on “Urban Food Systems”, in which opposing views were presented about the need to professionalize food production (and to what extent), as this risks excluding the poorest and less educated. According to Donald Houessou of ACED, especially within cities, an adequate balance is needed: “Professionals have the opportunity to set up a farm outside the city, but small scale farmers should be supported within the city”.

Workshop blogs

Political context not favourable

Rob de Vos, who is currently advising the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on a new knowledge architecture, started his keynote speech with a positive appraisal of the midterm review report “The Gold Standard“, which shows the considerable progress that has been made by F&BKP and other knowledge platforms. However, De Vos added that “it is too early to call it a ‘gold standard’; I would say that it is some silver linings, which also means there are some clouds”. According to De Vos “international cooperation is not safe in the political arena, as there is much pressure to close the borders against migration and instability in Europe”. And, more specifically: “Research programmes are not safe either in this political climate. Why, with the limited financial room of the minister, should the Ministry of Foreign Affairs fund academic research?” Underlining the need for knowledge-based policy making, particularly in a public debate replete with false information, De Vos told the participants: “We need proof of the importance of knowledge and know-how for policy making”.

Risk taking

De Vos added that with the drastically changing global order, a new consensus is emerging about how policy and research should navigate this,  “accepting complexity and learning by doing”. According to De Vos: “Policy development is not a linear process, it is often messy. Researchers should ask themselves whether they are knowledge generators, knowledge synthesizers or knowledge brokers”.

Brokering is already an accepted feature of the ARF and GCP programmes, although an extra effort might be needed to strengthen the capacity of local knowledge brokering. This might contribute to more cross-sectoral collaboration, as well as institutional innovation. Although the ARF and GCP research projects do focus on innovation, it is mainly organisational and social innovation, with less attention to institutional innovation. But this is not only a task for researchers. Especially with regard to institutional change in African countries, it is mainly the embassies that could enter into dialogue with national counterparts, using research results from the community, value-chain, and sector levels.

In some of the sessions the debate about the different levels that research projects and policymakers sometimes work on led to new ideas. In workshop 2 “Nutrition and Consumption”, the idea was raised of writing a joint policy brief to the Dutch embassies on the value of integrating local food into their policies. Research groups in African countries could sit together and deliver integral advice to embassies and national policymakers, including aggregated data about (what is missing in) local diets. Djidjodo Joseph Hounhouigan from the University of Abomey-Calavi in Benin suggested advising national governments, with the support of the embassies, to intervene by labelling traditional foods to enable them to be sold in supermarkets, thus making them available to urban populations.

Research ‘IN’ development

Professor Cees Leeuwis from Wageningen University & Research made a plea for a drastic change in development-related research to allow for more flexibility. Leeuwis argued that we should not look to how research can lead to impact, but to what research is needed to address important questions of, for example,  farmers that should be the beneficiaries. There are several examples from ARF projects that actually do this, as discussed in the co-creation workshop, and that have resulted in farmer empowerment, changed perceptions among community members, and changes to policies.

Leeuwis made the case for  “Research ‘IN’ development”, instead of the current dominant “Research FOR development” approach. The latter essentially means ‘testing and disseminating options’, while the former gives equal importance to the research process itself, which serves as a vehicle for bringing parties together and strengthening local communities.

Demand driven research and co-creation are some of the lessons that have already been incorporated in the ARF and GCP research projects. However, the fact that the process itself is equally important as the final outcomes was one of the main take-away messages from the conference. Worlali Senyo (Farmerline United) called it an “aha feeling, that innovation is not only about outcomes, but instead is a process in which various actors are engaged”. Patricia Wagenmakers, who is responsible for research funding at the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs, stated that “we need to accept research with uncertain outcomes. We should focus more on the process”. But there is more to it: next to hard research results, process outcomes can and should be measured; for example, by validating the creation of coalitions, cooperation, new ideas, and dynamics set in motion beyond the research project itself.

The ARF and GCP research projects have already included many elements of this approach. Risk taking is accepted, although a case can be made for learning more from failures. NWO-WOTRO has adopted a flexible approach to the theories of change that research groups have written down in their research proposals, accepting, and even encouraging, changing impact pathways in response to the changing insights and priorities of beneficiaries during the research period.


This news item is based on an article by The Broker, published in the Conference Newsletter of the Food & Business Knowledge Platform.

Source: NWO