A Synthesis of DFID’S Renewable Natural Resources Research Strategy (RNRRS) Programmes, 1995-2006

Arthur E. Neiland
Elizabeth Bennett
Philip Townsley
Publication Date
January 1, 2005

(Neiland and Bennett) IDDRA Ltd, Portsmouth Technopole, UK; (Townsley) IMM Ltd, The Innovation Centre, University of Exeter, UK

This 27-page review of a sampling of the design and application of participatory research (PR) approaches of the Department for International Development (DFID), United Kingdom, Renewable Natural Resources Research Strategy (RNRRS) Programme intends to contribute to the debate, analysis, and subsequent refinement of PR approaches.

The document first lists opportunities of the PR approach, along with constraints, including:

  • accessing the knowledge base of rural people about production, though their situations may constrain their effective participation, particularly those living in nomadic or disjointed circumstances;
  • involving local people in development research to increase their participation and acceptance (buy-in), though their governance context may limit meaningful outcomes of their participation, for example, in circumstances where there are constraints on the degree of voice and variety of voices in decision making about natural resource use;
  • increasing simple, generalisable field research techniques to improve communication and knowledge sharing, though simple design and implementation may be at odds with conventional research rigour and practices and may compromise results.

Key messages from the document (also available in summary form in Learning from the Renewable Natural Resources Research Strategy: Participatory research approaches) are:

  1. "Participatory research (PR) can be very effective but is not appropriate to all situations." The document uses plant breeding trials as an example of the need for a high degree of scientific knowledge and control that might preclude local farmer participation. However, it cites advantages of parallel participation by local farmers who can also try new breeds both to apply customary farming techniques and to report local preferences for the new cultivars. Research on the mechanisms and capacity for co-management of projects - fisheries is the example used here - can be a key output of PR. When PR was added to projects without a clear purpose, the authors found that the participatory elements in the research were often inappropriate to the research objectives and may have detracted from the achievement of its scientific goals.

[PR] "encourage[s] end-users to articulate demands, and therefore raises their expectations." The document suggests that reminders of feasibility (including expense) and the need for field testing suggested interventions accompany solicitations of end-user ideas.

Conducting PR within an appropriate research and development (R&D) framework can considerably increase its effectiveness. The Farmer Field Schools (FFS) methodology, developed by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), is the chosen example of shifting from a top-down extension worker system to facilitation of and participation by farmers.

[PR] can "promote new forms of institutional arrangements and can help to change attitudes and build capacity to make new institutional arrangements effective". The authors found that, on completion of a PR project, an "appropriate institutional base" must remain to continue management of the newly shared knowledge, cooperation, and capacity. Forest User Groups (FUGs) in India and Nepal, Self Help Groups (SHGs), and Local Resource Users Groups (LRUGs) in Bangladesh are examples.

"PR originally tended to focus on the relationships between primary stakeholders (farmers, fishers) and researchers and sometimes ignored the linkages that were required in order to effectively inform and influence policy-makers regarding the new knowledge and innovations generated." For long-term uptake of research, engagement and participation in policy-making may be effective, especially if it can alleviate the power dynamics of a patron-client relationship between decision-makers and the economically poor.

"Wider application of participatory research approaches in development work will have important implications for how research relates to the development process – greater integration of the two will be essential with participation built into both." Here the authors address the maturing field of theory on knowledge generation, particularly the avenue taken by Friere, Guitierrez, and, subsequently, Chambers, in advocating for the economically poor and marginalised to generate their own knowledge, and, thus, their own empowerment. The authors recognise the increasing understanding in the field of development of stakeholder involvement and recommend:

  • "a detailed review (ongoing) of participatory research experiences and performance as a basis for the development of lesson-learning, best practice and decision-making frameworks (is participatory research appropriate in a particular situation?);
  • creating an effective interface between indigenous and formal knowledge systems in particular sectors (or multi-sectoral approaches);
  • capitalising on approaches and techniques (some of which have been identified within the RNRRS) which lead to an improvement in the balance and quality of participation at all stages of the research process (including design and implementation, data analysis and interpretation, communication and dissemination of findings and integration into policy processes)."

The paper concludes with the recommendations that the development field: build on its successful PR experiences; identify options for new types of research and initiatives, linking research and development more closely and linking the micro-level, where PR is most frequent, with the macro-level where participatory policy formation is still in need of exploration; and invest time and resources in building partnerships in developed and developing countries.


Email from Anton Immink to The Communication Initiative on July 27 2007 and the R4D Research for Development website.