Gender equality and innovation in agriculture and natural resource management

July 13, 2015
Photo: World Bank

Photo: World Bank

By Patti Petesch

GENNOVATE: Enabling gender equality in agricultural and environmental innovation is a qualitative comparative field study reaching 125 villages across 25 countries where the CGIAR is active. The research explores—from the bottom up—differences in women’s and men’s capacities to access, adopt, and benefit from innovations in agriculture and natural resource management (NRM).

The large study in fact marks a first in the CGIAR, not only for the scope of fieldwork but also for the collaboration across numerous CGIAR Research Programs (CRPs). GENNOVATE is engaging roughly 20 gender and social science specialists based in 11 CRPs, along with several academic and non-governmental (NGO) partners.

Photo: Ollivier Girard/CIFOR

Photo: Ollivier Girard/CIFOR

What in part motivates GENNOVATE’s large team is a shared frustration with current scientific and economic paradigms for agricultural and NRM research and development. Inspired by his research on weed spray usage by Iowa farmers, Everett Rogers’s seminal work on innovation diffusion way back in 1962 stressed that a key attribute of innovations with high adoption rates was their compatibility with local social structures and mores.

Yet today’s guiding frameworks for agricultural research and development remain stubbornly blind to how much technology uptake will be affected by local context and cultural practices— and the gender inequalities and other social group differences embedded in them. This oversight matters because we are missing significant opportunities to learn what works and why, while evidence mounts of schemes that miss their target beneficiaries and even cause them harm.

GENNOVATE’s comparative methodology is designed to uncover broad patterns in interactions between community characteristics and gender differences in capacities to innovate, patterns that will cut across truly diverse agricultural systems, geographies and cultures. But what is key to understand about the approach is that these findings will remain contextually grounded in specific places and population groups, enabling researchers to learn from and potentially uncover regularities in the diversity of women’s and men’s responses to new opportunities.

Moreover, GENNOVATE’s dataset will allow the research team to drill down and compare concretely the perceptions and experiences of local women and men, of younger and older women and men, and of poorer and wealthier women and men. In some cases the sample is also reaching important minority groups, such as indigenous communities of the highlands of Mexico and the Thai in northwest Vietnam.

Let’s turn to East Kalimantan to illustrate. A GENNOVATE team has collected data in five villages with large palm oil plantations nearby, an industry that has grown rapidly in the region. While many studies stress the negative impact of large scale oil palm investments on women in particular, a more nuanced picture is emerging here, where in some cases, women from some ethnic groups have drawn on prevailing gender norms—or the behaviors that are expected and appropriate for one’s sex— that facilitate their capacity to innovate as land brokers or as small-scale entrepreneurs.

This contrasts with the mostly negative experience of women and men from Dayak communities who have lost their traditional sources of livelihood as oil palm concessions were granted on disputed land and who now rely on precarious wage labor contracts with the plantations. Many older adults describe being overwhelmed and frightened by their circumstances, whilst young men and women are seeking out new opportunities, albeit in very constrained circumstances.

A key question is what can be learned from men and women in the communities that do seem to be resilient and able to innovate in response to the challenges of large scale oil palm. And why aren’t Dayak women just as resourceful? Can lessons from these cases inform future palm oil development schemes? Stay tuned.

The study is also wrestling heavily with gender norms and socioeconomic fault lines. Take, for example, this exchange from a GENNOVATE practice focus group conducted with poor men in Nepal in May 2015:

Moderator: “How have women from this community moved their households up and out of poverty?”

Focus group member: “There is no such role of women of my village in earning something. But if they use resources moderately they can save. They can make handicraft … such as making mats, rope, and fans with date leaves. Then they can save money and go up.”*

As this poor farmer sees it, women of his village do not earn income – even if they happen to be making mats, rope and fans for sale. The invisibility of women’s economic roles in plain sight of day may seem odd. This oversight happens to be common—the world over—in villages and in much of the way we research and support rural livelihoods.

We also often miss the key role of forest resources in women’s strategies for provisioning their families and fighting hunger. But women’s livelihood activities are just extensions of their everyday housework, care and budgeting roles. That is what’s typical and appropriate. That is what is deeply valued in this village. And that is what is most often measured.

Documenting how much women are in fact engaged in natural resource management in this study, which has equal participation from men and women, will be easy. Much harder will it be to change the politics and dense web of social rules and institutions that surround inequalities in women’s and men’s choices and opportunities.

“In our village,” explained a participant in the women’s focus group from this same Nepalese community, “women work on their own or family land without any wage.” Why pay for what can be had for free?

In most other study villages the gender gaps are less extreme, but the legacy of unfairness and exclusion for half the population remains pervasive. This is true both on the ground and in the ideas and tools we use to construct what ought to be.

GENNOVATE’s large team of researchers have united to contribute to faster change on gender issues in the CGIAR and in the lives of poor rural women and men. That includes shining a light on the factors that make a difference in the communities where youth see opportunities and where both women and men are reporting promising pathways out of poverty. Whether and how agricultural and NRM innovations are part of that story remains to be seen. Stay tuned.

Patti Petesch, a consultant with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), is GENNOVATE’s expert advisor. She co-authored the World Bank global studies Voices of the Poor (Volume 2 and 3), Moving Out of Poverty, and On Norms and Agency.

GENNOVATE is coordinated by an Executive Committee composed of Lone Badstue, CIMMYT (chair); Gordon Prain, CIP; Amare Tegbaru, IITA; and Paula Kantor (in memoriam). GENNOVATE’s website will be up shortly and provide a full list of PIs and study countries.

*The Nepal fieldwork mentioned in this note is led by Tasheen Janvry and Anuprita Shukla of Glasgow Caledonia University, under the overall direction of Lone Badstue, CIMMYT. GENNOVATE’s website will be up shortly and provide a full list of PIs and study countries.

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