Platforms for learning and exchange can engage and empower public, private and community stakeholders and help develop markets in line with good agricultural practices.
Insufficient public sector investments in agricultural research, combined with the shortcomings of massive public programs, has led to renewed interest in engaging with dynamic private sector actors and harnessing their capacity to innovate and capitalize on market trends. However, without the involvement of other stakeholders (including the most marginalized farming communities) and a long-term consideration of environmental health (including climate change), it is unlikely that a long-term agenda for sustainable development will be achieved.
WLE-supported research suggests that the creation of organizational and institutional spaces such as multi-stakeholder platforms (MSPs) can bring actors together. MSPs can provide a space for learning, action and change while stimulating private sector investments and partnerships. These could take the form of scaled-up partnerships to reach more target groups, innovation platforms to scale up innovation in the field, or learning alliances to influence policy at sub-national and national level. Rather than rely on the short term, structured public consultations typical of development programs, WLE favors a process-based, open and more fluid approach that derives from ‘action research’. Here, different sets of stakeholders are involved at different stages depending on relevance and need.
In Ghana, Mali and Ethiopia farmer-led irrigation, characterized by farmers’ own investments and direct engagement with the market, is a promising alternative to one-size-fits-all public infrastructure projects. MSPs were set up under the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Small Scale Irrigation, the Africa Research in Sustainable Intensification for the Next Generation initiative, and the Societal Development and Ecosystems Conservation in Sahelian Wetlands project. The aim was to create interactive platforms to support innovation, provide inputs into stakeholder plans, mobilize private sector investment, and inform public policies and programs. In Tanzania, the Tanzania Climate-Smart Agriculture Alliance (TCSAA) brings together policymakers, national and international research organizations, civil society, farmers, the private sector and the media to share knowledge about sustainable land management.
Though MSPs vary in function and form, important commonalities emerge:
- Stakeholder interests are often very diverse, as is their ability to articulate them. For MSPs to achieve tangible benefits, both individuals and institutions should be committed.
- MSPs are dynamic and may grow organically through the relationships formed among stakeholders, but they may also end at the close of programs.
- MSPs may be sustained through their embedment and entrenchment into institutions, both physically (so stakeholders have a space to meet in on a regular basis) and organizationally (so there is ownership). They can also be applied to a wider spectrum of agricultural and other natural resources issues.
- Co-hosting of the platform by core members with diverse organizational representation is key to creating shared ownership, maintaining institutional memory and diversifying funding sources.
Platforms should be appropriate to local contexts; integrating them into existing platforms is cost-effective and boosts sustainability.
The COVID-19 pandemic has posed unique challenges to stakeholder engagement, as customized training and knowledge-sharing activities that help ensure equitable participation are replaced by limited online interactions. There is often little institutional support for MSPs, and a lack of capacity to adopt innovations. The landscape approach is not embedded into many national contexts. Research and public institutions are siloed in their organization and thinking – while communities who manage natural resources and agriculture on the ground are not.
Physical spaces for stakeholders to meet do not guarantee sustainable and equitable MSPs. A conducive institutional environment is constructed through stakeholder engagement, dialogues, collective action and co-learning that aids the identification of priorities and intersecting interests. This allows collective actions to evolve and deepen over time in pursuit of a shared vision.
MSPs should help improve the coordination of agricultural interventions that draw on high-quality research through the deepened understanding of stakeholder interests and needs, by program managers and stakeholders themselves. WLE-supported research on land restoration that used the MSP approach, for example, recommends contextualizing and disaggregating this understanding into at least five dimensions:
- The multiple sectors involved.
- The discipline that shapes stakeholders’ relationship to the resources in question.
- The spatial scale within which they operate, from local to international.
- Stakeholder motivations to engage in the prescribed agricultural activities.
- The power dynamics that affect engagement with other stakeholders and in-program activities.