Laos – A story of change on agricultural innovation
Nurturing agents of change in agricultural innovation
“Donor funded projects usually work separately from the government,” says Oudong Keomipheth, Deputy Director of the Planning and Cooperation Division, NAFRI and CDAIS Country Project Manager . “But instead of setting up their own office or partnering with a national NGO, CDAIS has partnered with us, the government.”
Good planning skills, good listening skills and an open mind. These are some of the characteristics needed to work with smallholder farmers in Lao PDR according to the nine national innovation facilitators working with CDAIS. Facilitators come from diverse backgrounds and have widely different interests but have one thing in common: they are all full-time government staff. Working with CDAIS is part of their job description under formal agreements with each partner approved at the ministry level.
The Lao government has had decades of experience with official development assistance projects (ODA) since the country opened its borders in the early 1990s. ODA to Laos accounts for approximately 4% of its GDP and 15% of total government expenditures. There are distinct advantages to working this way say the CDAIS facilitators. For one, it allows CDAIS to build relationships with people who are in positions to directly influence policies and procedures. “Projects come and go but the government will always be here,” says Lampheuy Keansombath, CDAIS national coordinator.
“NAFRI was always a policy research center for the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry but over the last few years it is shifting more towards rural development and becoming less top-down than before.” Khamla Sengphaxaiyalath, Researcher, Economics and Rural Development Center, NAFRI, and CDAIS national innovation facilitator for the pig partnership.
Khamla Sengphaxaiyalath illustrates the point with a story about his pig raising group in Don Kha village. “The Ministry of Agriculture has quite strict restrictions on imports of live pigs and pork products but members of the group need to import piglets from Thailand until they get their own rearing operation up and running. They can apply for permission and they will because they have a good relationship with both the District and Provincial Agriculture and Forestry Office as well as the Governor’s office. Some DAFO officers attended a study tour to Thailand with them in January 2018. Because of their close involvement, DAFO and PAFO are more inclined to help the group than if they were being approached by an external NGO.”
By working this way, CDAIS in Laos is building capacity that will remain within the agencies that work directly with smallholders. “If facilitators are NGO staff or consultants, they take their knowledge and experience with them when they leave,” says Nikhom Chanthava, Head of Rice Research Unit, Rice Research Center, NAFRI and CDAIS innovation facilitator. Government staff move too, but usually within the same department or ministry. This is real diffusion of knowledge. What I have learned from working with CDAIS I can apply to any of the projects I am working on now and in the future.” CDAIS facilitators are usually involved in a range of projects and benefit from training provided by other agencies and are in a good position to act as ‘integrators’.
“This arrangement is a benefit to CDAIS also” says Xayasinth, researcher and leader of the Economic and Rural Development Center within NAFRI. “Because they are working with us, CDAIS knows the reality of our situation. We must follow ministerial and departmental policies and procedures and sometimes this can slow things down, or we have to find another way to do something.”
After nearly two years of work we [CDAIS] were able to bring together 37 members from two grower groups with DAFO staff for a training workshop on quality control. One of the main outcomes was that DAFO staff agreed to set up regular visits and to be more involved in the quality control process. CDAIS can take a step back now, and that is a sign of real progress. Khanthanou Lorsavanh, Researcher, NAFRI and CDAIS national innovation facilitator for the organic vegetable partnership.
“Working this closely with government can be challenging, but if we want real change, sustainable change, we have to nurture change from within.” Patrick D’Aquino, CIRAD, and CDAIS Agrinatura Country Focal Person for Lao PDR
Xayasinh’s comment highlights one of the main drawbacks of the CDAIS arrangement. Speed. This is where patience becomes a virtue. Government processes anywhere in the world tend to take time and are not designed to match ODA project timeframes. Not having its own project team was a conscious decision on the part of CDAIS Laos; a choice designed to reverse the usual order of pushing the project partners to adapt their pace to that of an external agency. Facilitators have their assigned tasks within their institutions and CDAIS activities are ‘in addition to’. The pace may be slower but the benefit is integration into government structures and processes. This is a ‘modesty’ mechanism in that it prevents a project team from thinking they should be a special priority of national teams and institutions. As embedded agents of change, they decide which project activities are best done where, when and how.
What makes a good facilitator?
National innovation facilitators in Lao PDR shared their thoughts on what it takes to be effective in their role as agents of change. They all agreed that, first and foremost, you have to care about the work; you have to want to bring about change and you must bring an open mind to every encounter. Practical experience in the field counts for a lot. People will talk more freely in their homes and fields so good listenting skills are important. Helping other people solve their own problems is much more difficult than presenting ready-made solutions. In this approach, the problems shift from the technical to the social realm and require patience and confidence; confidence in the capacity of smallholder farmers to take a lead role in their own development. And finally, juggling the demands of their departmental duties with their CDAIS work requires good planning and time management skills.
“Working as a CDAIS facilitator means I can bring real-world experience into my classroom. I have been the facilitator for the integrated rice field and aquatic animals niche since 2016 and in that short time I have learned so much.” Syphachan Vannasy, Lecturer, Faculty of Environmental Science, National University of Laos, and CDAIS facilitator
Funding for phase one of the CDAIS Lao project will end in December 2018 but the national facilitators are keen to scale up their efforts. The next step will be to link issues in the different innovation partnerships with government agencies that have an obvious stake in the outcomes, and to link horizontally within them from district staff to provincial staff to ministry level. Among the agencies CDAIS will approach are: Division of Standards, Department of Technical Extension and Agro Processing, National Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute, Department of Rural Development and Cooperatives, Department of Policy and Legal Affairs, and the Department of Agricultural Land Management.
The focus will be less on niche group support and training and more on linking the niche groups with a wider range of stakeholders, especially national actors. CDAIS will contribute to strengthening the new extension management system by providing an effective participatory methodology and developing a certification programme for facilitators.
Scaling out at the local level: Enhancing district delivery and management of agriculture extension in Lao PDR
The agricultural sector of Lao PDR is undergoing rapid change, particularly in relation to increasing private sector investment, and this is placing new demands on agricultural extension. This has led to the creation of a new Department of Agriculture Extension and Cooperatives (DAEC) that will support districts and provinces to provide effective extension services. A research team from James Cook University (Australia) will partner with DAEC to research and implement ways of strengthening extension. By partnering with other initiatives currently underway in Lao PDR such as CDAIS, the project seeks to achieve significant scaling out of extension guidelines and tools.
This year CDAIS will recruit new facilitators from NAFRI and other government agencies. A first training session has been organized with DoPLA staff, another with new NAFRI staff, and in October one more with DRDC & DTEAP. “Come the new year, our facilitator network will be bigger and we can present the team at national meetings and working groups. Supporting our efforts will be Dr Bounthong, Director General of NAFRI and National Project Coordinator of CDAIS project in Laos and Oudoung Keomipheth, CDAIS Country Program Manager.