By Sabin and Stéphanie
One of the challenges of Research for Development – R4D – is the word in between: the “FOR”. How do we get there? How do we turn our insights, our data, our analysis, our explanations, and indeed, our questions, into pathways FOR development? Indeed, what is the magic for achieving any change at all? How can research connect to what is at the heart of development? The experience of the FATE project indicates that it takes hard work. At the core is a jointly prepared and carefully managed process by which the abstract character of “stakeholder” turns into a genuine partner for a commonly shaped goal.
In January, the entire FATE team met in Bolivia. Two generations of PhD students joined us, making this the biggest meeting we’ve had so far. And the remotest one, too. The fact that the Bolivian people, in the face of their president’s urge to cling to power, recently seems to have re-adopted some of their well-tested practices of political protest from the past did not contribute to favor the circumstances in which this meeting took place – least of all for the Bolivian team who did an amazing job in receiving us.
We traveled to the remote Southern Highlands of Bolivia in order for the whole team to get a sense of the extreme conditions under which the campesinos in the region produce one of the most popular foods of our times: quinoa. It is, however, not only quinoa, but the high-end variety, Quinoa Real – the royal quinoa, that is grown at the shores of the Uyuni salt flats.
One of the challenges of the regional producers is that, as nearly 100 countries of the world have embarked on quinoa production, markets became saturated, resulting in a dramatic collapse of prices since 2015. The distinction of Quinoa Real from other varieties for health-conscious consumers is one of the tasks the producer association has to engage in.
At the core of this trip were the stakeholder meetings with quinoa producers and members of the regional cooperative, SOPROQUI (Sociedad de Productores de Quinoa). We were invited to two communities, Colcha K and San Pedro de Quemes. The representative and spacious town hall of Colcha K was the location for the first meeting, whereas a gym, sponsored by the national investment programme “Evo cumple*”, was turned into the auditorium for the San Pedro event.
Each meeting was inaugurated by formal speeches from local authorities, contributions from the representative of the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés and our FATE partner, Elizabeth Jimenez Zamora, a few words by the FATE project leaders, and, of course, by local carnival dancers. The ceremonial part was usually over by less than two hours.
One of the contributions to this event by the FATE project was an exchange on agricultural crops produced for export from the FATE partner countries. Presentations given by Saithong Phommavong, Bishnu Upreti and Eliud Birachi offered insights to our guests on how Lao, Nepali and Rwandan farmers address some of the problems they are faced with as they produce for international markets. Not least, everyone had the chance to compare the quality of Lao coffee beans to the Bolivian varieties, taste the surprising sparkle of spicy cardamom seeds and critically assess the practices of Rwandan potato and bean production. The attention our country coordinators received, including a range of to the point questions raised by the fascinated audience, was impressive.
The fact that lunch – clearly also a core element of the event and an incentive for the association members and their families to attend – was delayed by more than three hours speaks to the attraction of the discussions. Finally, our guests all received the report of the analysis of our first survey on quinoa production in the region, including a number of most illustrative graphs, authored by our new PhD student, Alejandro Romero (click here to download the report).
It is in moments like these that we feel to be closest to what we want to achieve: R4D. The bringing together of expert knowledge at a range of levels, the sharing of questions, problems and insights, the opening up for diverse pathways of development. More than anything, it involves translation – not only literally, between languages, but between methodologies, approaches, different knowledge types, and culture in its widest sense: regional, urban-rural, academic, practical and generational cultures. These communal experiences are an expression of the commitment of all of the involved partners. The personal encounters, the insistence on shared understanding and all the hard work that flows into these efforts, is what turns “stakeholders”, and that includes us as researchers, into partners for development.
*The slogan “Evo Cumple” means Evo fullfills.