Smallholder farmers should be full participants in defining, implementing, and evaluating projects intended to improve their farms and lives. When agricultural development projects include systematic farmer feedback, they tend to be better targeted, locally-owned, and more sustainable. Over the past few decades, various approaches and research methodologies have been developed to transform "top-down" projects – in which smallholder farmers are passive "beneficiaries" in donor-driven actions – to farmers as the protagonist or proactive "constituent" co-owning projects that are intended for their benefit. Smallholders and implementing agencies should work hand-in-hand in a joint learning process and be mutually accountable for results. Accountability should be multi-directional – implementing organizations should be accountable to smallholder farmers to ensure projects bring tangible benefits, and smallholder farmers and communities should be held accountable to the role they have agreed to play in the project. Systematic feedback loops are critical in building accountability of all parties. In spite of these efforts, real participation of farmers in agricultural development projects remains a challenge. Donors like the Gates Foundation are geographically and culturally distant from rural communities in Africa and South Asia, and there are no easy feedback loops to carry the voice of smallholder farmers. Grantees, whether in the public, private or NGO-sectors, are ultimately responsible to the donors who fund them and not to the constituents they are supposed to serve. In order to dramatically increase local ownership of our programs, innovative approaches to capture feedback and ensure their systematic use are needed.
There are several challenges to building better feedback and accountability systems between all parties involved in agricultural development projects:
- Feedback Mechanisms:
- Reach/Cost – The ability of programs to interact in a timely manner with constituents has been limited by high costs of communication and delivery, particularly with the rural poor who tend to be hard to reach. Costs can be high both for organizations seeking feedback and for smallholder farmers giving feedback;
- Representation – Smallholder farmers include large numbers of individuals whose diversity of economic, social, demographic, environmental, and behavioral realities make accurate representation difficult;
- Measurement: Measuring accountability and sustainability is difficult and practices that influence these dimensions are hard to identify and analyze. Measurement approaches often focus on impact assessment, capturing material and technological improvements instead of values or behavior change collected from constituents (i.e. asking people who are intended to benefit from social change what they think about plans, performance and results);
- Organizational Response: Organizations face challenges in effectively using information for new project-level or organizational solutions. This becomes even more challenging in terms of demonstrating real impact for women smallholder farmers who have unique and changing needs;
- Learning From Experience: The development process often goes through several cycles of success and failure before patterns emerge to inform better practice. Most organizations don’t have the learning processes in place to build and spread best practice experience in feedback systems, and most funding cycles are not long enough to permit such learning and transference;
- Incentive Systems: Most organizations are incentivized against responding to farmers due to pressure from donors and others to a) show progress is 'on track' and without problems; b) show success in short-term cycles rather than longer term commitments; c) keep costs down; and d) not complicate already complex development work.
The aim of this call is to solicit innovative solutions to build effective feedback and accountability in agricultural development programs. We are looking for tools that enable constituent voices to be consistently heard in all project phases. Your submission may address one or more of the following categories:
- New practices/systems to be used throughout all project phases to increase constituent feedback and/or enable communities to hold programs accountable;
- Systems to evaluate existing feedback practices used by your organization. This evaluation should provide evidence of how your organization learns from constituent feedback and shares these practices with others;
- Systems that enhance your existing feedback practices, e.g. new practices to make publicly available constituent feedback at regular intervals and in transparent and easily accessible ways; and
- New practices/systems that effectively integrate cost-effective digital technologies.
What We Are Looking For:
Proposals must closely align with the Gates Foundation’s Agricultural Development Program and:
- Convey a clear and testable hypothesis for how the innovation will improve feedback and accountability:
- Substantially lower the cost of farmer feedback and accountability systems;
- Increase feedback frequency (at least monthly or quarterly);
- Demonstrate the effectiveness of feedback in making better decisions, in particular, addressing women smallholder farmers’ unique and changing needs;
- Trigger organizational and community learning; and
- Be adaptable and scalable across a range of projects, organizations, local contexts, regions and geographies.
Proposals must (i) demonstrate that farmers’ needs and perspectives were integral in the design of the solution; (ii) show how constituent voice will impact project implementation; and (iii) demonstrate how constituents will assess the effectiveness of the implementing organization. Proposals must include a basic plan that describes how the donor – implementing organization – constituent relationship will be framed in a learning process that reflects not only standard measurements of material/economic metrics for project success, including technology transfer, but also qualitative metrics for how the project contributes to human wellbeing. Proposal should include a paragraph on what Phase 2 would potentially look like and what is needed for sustainability.
Examples of what we will consider funding:
- Novel practices or technologies that enhance constituent voice at all project stages (design, implementation, evaluation) and implementing partner assessment by constituents (e.g. development and in-country testing of low-cost mobile phone feedback systems that enhance constituent voice);
- Innovative solutions to incentivize multi-directional accountability (donor – implementing organization – constituents), including best practices to document and make available all feedback;
- Solutions that show how constituent voice is impacting implementing organizations and other partners on a regular basis;
- Initiatives that supplement existing systems to improve the impact of constituent voice and increase organizational willingness and readiness to be assessed and held accountable to constituents;
- Applied research applicable to NGOs or for-profit organizations that enhances constituent voice, promotes a culture of learning, and ensures downward accountability practices.
We will not consider funding for:
- Ideas that are not directly relevant to agricultural development and smallholder farmers in our focus geographies (Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia). Projects may be tested and performed anywhere in the world. However, any solution developed must be relevant to those in our target geographies of sub-Saharan Africa and/or South Asia;
- Ideas without a clearly articulated and testable hypothesis and metrics;
- Traditional market research approaches;
- Traditional community mobilization and feedback approaches that do not significantly lower costs;
- Ideas that do not demonstrate improved accountability (must have effective M&E);
- Models that require long-term financial subsidies;
- Theoretical research;
- Ideas for which a relevant indicator of success cannot be demonstrated within the scope of the GCE Phase 1 award ($100,000 over 18 months).