Collaborative research needs more structure than just personal charisma

Felicity Proctor and Bart Doorneweert

The Federation of Farmers’ Associations, Andhra Pradesh (FFA-AP), was identified as the preferred organisation with whom to build a partnership between the ESFIM programme and India. This decision was taken based largely on the advice of the regional Asia representative of the now defunct International Federation of Agricultural Producers (IFAP). The FFA-AP is a unified and independent grassroots organisation aiming to support rural development. The organisation’s premise is to make agriculture a profitable occupation, imparting farmers with dignity and social equality. The FFA-AP was founded in 2000 and represents 1630 farmer associations operating at the local level in 19 of the 22 districts of Andhra Pradesh. The membership is estimated by FFA itself as 75,900 farmers.

FFA-AP is affiliated with the Consortium of Indian Farmers Association (CIFA) which is a national umbrella organisation of farmer federations and commodity associations as well as independent farmer organisations. The CIFA and FFA seek to lobby government by sharing knowledge on agriculture and farmer issues in part, but not exclusively, through the Parliament Members Farmers Forum. FFA-AP at the time of the ESFIM programme was also working in partnership with Agriterra on a programme entitled Linking farmers to business and enhancing livelihoods and establishing a women’s wing (2011-2012). The key contact persons within FFA-AP were P Chengal Reddy, Hon. Chairman of the FFA-AP and N. Vijay Kumar, Project Director. The AGRINATURA institutions involved in this collaborative programme with India were the Natural Resources Institute and the LEI Wageningen University and Research Centre.

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Development challenge

Overall both the state and national level farmer organisations in India are weak. They lack broad-based ownership in particular by the small-scale farmer and are often financially insecure. For the majority of small-scale farmers, representation is inadequate. Membership-owned structures able to both lobby and support economic organisation are severely limited in number and geographic coverage, with the exception of the cooperative movement, most notably in the dairy sector and commodity based associations where the membership includes large-scale producers and agribusiness. Farmer organisations are in many instances politicised and institutional arrangements at the grassroots level, which should hear the voice of the small-scale farmer, are structurally bereft. “Farmer organisations do not have sufficient resources because of the small farmers’ inability to contribute to membership” (FFA May 16, 2012).

In order to inform the farming agenda, the government put in place in 2004 a National Commission on Farmers, chaired by M. S. Swaminathan. This advocated for pro-farmer policy changes and created a sufficient basis for farmers to engage with the State. Furthermore, with media focus turning to the plight of the farmers and debate emerging on a range of humanitarian issues related to the sector such as an ever increasing number of farmers’ suicides, the public was also broadly supportive of this engagement. The major causes of the distress that has led farmers to commit suicide in recent years include the unfinished agenda on land reform, the availability and quality of water, technology fatigue, access to and adequacy of institutional credit, and a lack of opportunities for an assured and remunerative market. Whether the momentum of the Commission, which completed its work in 2007, has been able to be sustained was not reviewed through the ESFIM programme. The UPA Government of India Report to the People 2007 in their strategy for inclusive growth included “to increase credit availability to farmers and offer them remunerative prices for their crops” as one of the key planned actions.

Collaborative research process

The work programme for ESFIM was elaborated during the ESFIM programme launch conference held in India in 2009. An India country overview was undertaken by a joint team comprising an AGRINATURA researcher and an FFA-contracted consultant based in India. The methods used were a literature review and targeted key informant interviews. The report provided an overview of the policy background of small-scale farming in India, an assessment of key issues relating to market chain development in the context of small-scale farmer market participation, and an overview of the status of farmer-based organisations in India. It also highlighted some key areas as potential starting points for action for the ESFIM-India programme.

Lessons learnt

  • The India partner FFA-CIFA has operated an advocacy and lobby agenda since its inception and well in advance of the ESFIM partnership – although this might better be described as a pressure group. Whilst the extent to which their on-going advocacy and lobby agenda is evidence-based might be contested, their voices are heard.
  • FFA-CIFA recognised the value of evidence-based advocacy; however, the challenge was to get this realised within both the prevailing institutional structure of the FFA-CIFA and in partnership with national research institutions. There were no on-going and structured links between the FFA-CIFA and national institutions, although some ad hoc links had been forged with a CGIAR institution based in India.
  • FFA-CIFA had very limited internal staff and financial resources. This potentially hampered FFA’s capacity to partner with other institutions and programmes. In addition, staff changes took place in FFA between ESFIM 1 and ESFIM 11 whereby the lead policy officer took on a secondment with an ACDI-VOCA programme in 2010, thereby reducing significantly the level of senior FFA staff available to ensure the implementation of ESFIM programme both in terms of management of the research and the follow-through on advocacy.
  • FFA demonstrated its commitment to the ESFIM work through the mobilisation of participants to the 2009 conference and to the subsequent working meetings, the hiring of at least two local consultants (ESFIM 1 and 11) and the submission of a progress report and work plan. Despite this, the full ESFIM 11 contract was not secured for the work and the AGRINATURA team were forced to close the arrangement with FFA.
  • There can be no doubt that the need for the work to be done as identified in 2009 at the Conference still remains a priority for farmer organisations and their members in India. New ways should be found to build sustainable and longer term working relationships between key national and state level farmer organisations and national research institutions to address farmer organisation-led research agendas. Seeking to finance research via the farmer organisation may not have been appropriate in the case of India. Overall, the planned research was probably too ambitious for the FFA to manage, even though the outputs were clearly demanded and evidently needed.
  • Optimise on available information. Given the limited overall budget, more could have been done in India to learn from existing research and grey evidence, including donor-funded programmes. This material itself would have been useful for the preparation of relevant policy notes for advocacy.
  • There is a need to find mechanisms to keep administrative and financial management systems as straightforward as possible. The administrative demands, including financial accounting, may have been the key underlying reason for the discontinuation of the ECART-FFA partnership.