Karen Brooks on generating knowledge to improve policies, institutions, and markets

The following post was originally published on CGIAR Consortium News.

Experience shows that sound policies have been fundamental to rapid agricultural growth in recent times. But policy, institutional and market constraints to agricultural growth are still significant in many parts of the developing world, especially in areas where growth is most urgently required. Projections indicate that even with recent increases in funding for agricultural research, the results will not be sufficient to achieve the growth impacts that are needed.

Working to see how agricultural research can be made to be more efficient, the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM) is exploring effective models for important areas such as extension, technology, trade policy and value chains.

PIM’s role is largely in creating knowledge about issues connected to agriculture for development issues. The Program also creates tool and metrics and delivers training. A key area of work lies in helping to draw up indicators for assessing progress in achieving CGIAR system level outcomes (SLOs), highlighting where investment is likely to be most effective.

Karen Brooks, the first woman director of a CGIAR Research Program (CRP), heads the Policies Institutions and Markets program, which was launched in January 2012.

In an interview, she talks about how seemingly abstract policy work can have concrete repercussions on the ground, and discusses some of the challenges of assessing impacts. She also talks about the special contribution that being a woman can make to her work – and expresses the hope that there will be more women heading CGIAR Research Programs in the future.

What need does Policies, Institutions and Markets (PIM) fulfill­?

PIM works in the area of policies, institutions and markets that are relevant to agricultural growth and poverty reduction, with a focus on the international food system. When we look at the growth of the agriculture sector and access to food, it is clear that policies, institutions and the functioning of markets create the conditions that either make successful agricultural growth and give access to large numbers of people, or impede growth and limit the access to people.

Can you give examples of where PIM’s work has concrete applications on the ground?

Value chains span the distance from production to the moment a product gets to the market. There are a number of different segments in a value chain where activities take place with different degrees of efficiency, and bottlenecks can come into the relationships at any point. When they occur, they either stifle any interest in producing a product, or they raise the prices that consumers face, because of inefficiencies. And then of course fewer people have access to food. Historically, there have been a lot of impediments to smallholders getting into significant value chains, and when they can’t do that they are either limited to eating what they produce, or just selling it to their neighbors for very low prices. So it is really important to understand those value chains, to see how poor producers can get access to them, and how each of the links in the value chain can be put together in an efficient way, so that incentives are good for producers, incomes go up, and prices are low for consumers. We are doing a whole body of work there, some of it relating to the value chains of milk and meat. These are especially important because of the nutritional implications, especially for children. This involves value chain work done by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in many African countries.

Any other examples?

Another body of work looks at how value chains can conserve really important biodiversity. You may have a neglected and under-utilized species. Some are trees and some are crops, for example quinoa, which at one point was under threat of extinction. Now it is so commercially in demand that there is no question of losing this biodiversity. We are doing some work on selected products that are in the neglected and under-utilized category but that, if developed, and if their value chains can be made efficient, have marketable value, in which case they will be preserved by producers. There is some very interesting work in Latin America, on the capsicum or hot pepper value chain, and on trees and agroforestry and the ways that under-utilized tree products can be commercialized, in which case the trees will be in higher demand.

What are your views on the importance of measuring impact and how can this process be moved forward?

The general issue of measuring the impact of policy reform is really important, it helps people understand why policy reform matters. If you can’t see the impact, then no one will pay much attention to it. So there have been some major efforts to document the effects of policy distortions, and then the benefits of removing those distortions. But it is very difficult, particularly given the timeframe. It takes a long time for the impact of policy distortions to be fully reflected in the economy, and the measurement questions are very difficult. The methodologies for the policy reform process in the spheres in which the CGIAR system is active, and over the timeframe over which the donors are asking for this – that’s where we face some real challenges. But we’ll figure it out.

What challenges do other CGIAR Research Programs face in measuring impact?

For the other CRPs, the challenge is more the time lag between the development of agricultural knowledge and the embedding of that knowledge in the release of new varieties, the complexity of the adoption process and then observing the performance. There is a long time lag there — sometimes ten years, sometimes 15, and the CRPs are being asked to develop impact indicators on a much shorter timeframe.

How important is it to produce impact results for donors?

It’s very important, because the donors have indicated that this is what they need. In the current, both political and economic environment, resources are very scarce, and a lot of countries that are donors to international agricultural research are facing major demands on their resources for domestic issues.  The terms of engagement with their constituencies have been set around this issue of metrics.

What role does gender play in the work of PIM?

A lot of work has to do with enhancing productivity growth, seeing how policies, institutions and the functioning of markets affect the pace of technical change and bringing new innovations into agricultural systems. Clearly, gender is central to that. So we are doing analyses that help us to understand both the impediments to integration of women into all these activities, and some interventions to remove those impediments. Regarding our work on access to food for the vulnerable, women are disproportionately represented in the households that are vulnerable, and if women have access to food, then more of it goes to children.

You are the first woman director of a CGIAR Research Program. Will that have any bearing on the way PIM develops?

All of us who are technically competent in the areas of agricultural development are familiar with issues of gender, so there is no real difference there. What I would say is that when I go on field visits and interact with agricultural producers in the field – when a woman shows up in a position of authority and responsibility – it really does make a difference. It’s fundamentally empowering for the women within the agricultural communities.

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More information
Policies, Institutions, and Markets
See CGIAR Research Program Engagement with Donors and External Stakeholders for more resources relating to the setting of targets and gauging impacts across the CGIAR Research Program portfolio. #LELP2013 #Ag4Dev (Listening Engaging Learning Progressing – LELP2013)