Systems thinking: an integrated response to production constraints in the dry areas of the developing world
The dry areas of the developing world confront a daunting range of severe physical, social and economic constraints – from degradation and water scarcity to weak governance, poor access to markets, and a limited capacity to deliver new innovations and technologies to farmers.
Although there have been many efforts to address these constraints in the past, previous interventions have tended to be based on individual components which have yielded only limited results or declining rates of impact. In other words, in the face of complex dryland agro-ecosystems, past research efforts have addressed only a component of the problem rather than an attempt to deal with all of its dimensions.
This restrictive sectoral approach tends to rely on narrow perspectives, unrealistic extrapolations, untested assumptions, misapplied narratives, and offers few lasting benefits to rural households.
These failings demonstrate the need for an alternative strategy that incorporates the constellation of social, economic, and institutional factors that control the adoption of new innovations and technologies. This integrated agro-ecosystem approach would better serve communities across the world’s dry areas, delivering interventions that are widely appropriate, applicable, and adaptable.
What are the components of this model, and how do we ensure its effective implementation across the dry areas of the developing world? Implementation requires a two-pronged approach: understanding, mapping, and addressing the drivers of adoption across a given field, farm, landscape, or region; and then applying expertise across various disciplines and sectors, including agriculture, rangelands, forestry, markets, environment, water and energy.
This integrated or ‘systems’ approach also requires innovative strategies to bring together all stakeholders – from primary producers to policy makers – and develop technologies, resource management strategies, and institutional arrangements that are capable of solving the many problems confronting dry area production systems.
Fortunately, development practitioners can learn from the efforts of ICARDA, the CGIAR, and partner organizations, who are incorporating this integrated or ‘systems’ approach into their research for development initiatives.
Take, for instance, an ICARDA-led initiative in the Mashreq/Maghreb region of North Africa where over-grazing, excessive ploughing, and fuelwood harvesting resulted in soil erosion, degradation, and falling productivity on lands which traditionally sustained the region’s rural communities.
The up-take of interventions with the potential to improve this situation was constrained by an ineffective enabling environment: inappropriate land-tenure policies, limited access to credit, poor linkages to markets, and policies that were not supportive of mechanization.
In response, multi-disciplinary research teams adopted a participatory methodology which worked alongside communities and other stakeholders to initiate constraint diagnoses, develop plans, establish institutions, implement solutions, and conduct effective monitoring and evaluation.
This strategy prioritized clear communication, negotiating a community development plan on an equal basis with stakeholders and thereby integrating local and introduced knowledge. This holistic approach produced an effective constraint analysis that identified potential interventions at the individual, household, regional, and national policy level.
The solutions – including improved crop management and complementary feed sources – successfully raised feed and forage productivity and eased pressure on the over-exploited resources that sustained communities dependent on rangeland production.
Elsewhere, in Kenya, an ILRI-led initiative extended an insurance scheme to pastoralists in arid and semi-arid parts of the country, who were increasingly exposed to extended drought periods and forced to depend on food aid and emergency relief efforts.
The benefits of the insurance scheme emerged during an initial integrated agro-ecosystem and livelihood approach to the study of local pastoral production systems, and once this intervention was identified, ILRI quickly established partnerships with commercial entities, regulatory bodies and other agencies to extend the scheme. The Institute also initiated extension and marketing efforts to educate target clientele on a previously alien concept and new product. Initial sales far exceeded the expectations of planners.
Although isolated, these projects demonstrate that an integrated approach can sustain and build on past gains. Both cases embrace a view of livelihoods that transcends a narrow focus on farming to consider how agriculture is embedded within a broader livelihood context. They also acknowledge that farmers in marginal environments are in reality dealing with multiple inputs and outputs, opportunities and constraints, and that this complexity can no longer be approached in a mostly reductionist way.
The dry areas of the developing world face serious environmental constraints that are likely to worsen as a result of climate change. Given the scale of this threat, innovative solutions must be found that mitigate the effects of shifting weather patterns and help countries to produce a sufficient amount of food for their growing populations. An integrated agro-ecosystems approach – implemented alongside rural communities - will ensure that this vision becomes a reality.
This blog is based on a paper recently published in the Journal Food Security, entitled ‘An integrated agro-ecosystem and livelihood systems approach for the poor and vulnerable in dry areas.’