Enjoying a hot cup of coffee is one of our favorite past times here in Seattle. We use it as an opportunity to catch up daily with our colleagues on what’s going on around the office and to collect their personal feedback on our projects. The irony is that we here in the Gates Foundation’s Agricultural Development Program almost never get to "catch up" and hear directly from the single most important people in our projects – the smallholder farmer – for whom all of our agricultural projects are supposed to be of service.
Donors like the Gates Foundation are very far removed from the female smallholder farmer in Sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia who we are trying to serve. It’s difficult for us to understand their daily realities and the values that shape the way they work and live. When we have tried to hear directly from farmers so that they can have a stronger voice in our projects, it has been very expensive and difficult. For this reason, despite the good intentions within the development community, many projects are still "top-down," meaning the donor or NGO takes the lead in designing, implementing and evaluating projects, and smallholders all too often simply become passive "beneficiaries."
Smallholder farmers, like all of us, do not just want to be passive beneficiaries. Real development happens when they are the central "protagonist" or co-creator of initiatives, fully participating in defining, implementing, evaluating, and owning projects intended for their benefit. Farmers know their own circumstances best. Strong and systematic feedback loops that ensure communication with farmers are critical in successful and sustainable agricultural projects.
I wish I could get farmers right into my office so that we can build in their opinions and solutions directly into our projects. Short of that, I wish I could hear from them regularly, and in ways that are affordable and effective in getting the information we need. I wish there were an efficient way to build in this farmer feedback into improved project decision-making. Finally, I wish we had a good way for all parties involved in agricultural projects to hold each other accountable for project results – including the donor, the NGO, the farmer, and the farmer’s broader community.
How can donors and NGOs directly hear from the smallholder farmer more? How can we use the information collected to hold each other accountable for results? Do you have an innovative solution for how to do this regularly, cheaply, effectively and transparently? Let us know!
Apply now for the Innovations in Feedback & Accountability Systems for Agricultural Development topic. This topic is part of the Gates Foundation's Grand Challenges Explorations initiative. Applications for this round will be accepted through November 12, 2013.