By Melanie Ryan, Senior Programme Manager, Luc Hoffmann Institute
Last month, a group of researchers and development experts met in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa to answer a challenging question. What will it take to turn research, money, time and expertise into policy changes that can manage social and environmental trade-offs in African agriculture?
Current food and forest policies in Sub-Saharan Africa often fail to recognise the connections between agricultural development, biodiversity and ecosystems. This could mean countries losing more than a third of their natural forests and much of their biodiversity. Reconciling human, economic, social and environmental trade-offs is a complex challenge calling for informed and sound decisions.
A new partnership between the Luc Hoffmann Institute and the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) under the SENTINEL project is designing collaborative research and questions to reframe the challenge. It will gather and evaluate data and information to review what we know about food security, ecology, ecosystem services, biodiversity, poverty and local landscapes across Ghana, Zambia and Ethiopia.
Importantly, this collaboration asks critical questions not just within the research community but with those who set the rules and policies in these countries.
SENTINEL is emphasising collaboration across boundaries and sectors to generate a new understanding and ability to manage the complex trade-offs that those implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS) are faced with. There are no right or wrong answers. There are different choices and emphases and each country has its own drivers and historical legacy as well as aspirations for the future.
This project will play an important role in helping to meet the SDGs on zero hunger, reducing inequality and conserving ecosystems in these countries. The Luc Hoffmann Institute has been asked to provide tools, methods, resources and expertise to maximise the impact of the research and convening.
During the five-day workshop we navigated the challenges of interdisciplinary and cross-sectoral communication, learnt new ideas and critically examined our own and each other’s assumptions about change. The result: an ambitious vision and plan grounded in a solid theory of change that had been pulled apart and put back together again. After asking the question ‘what does it take’ of each other and of the research, this group of people reached a point where they now can see a common direction in which they are heading and are clearer about the role of science in this process.
In a previous life I worked on the design of decision-support tools and river basin modelling where the rule of thumb was ‘every model is wrong, but some are useful’. Perhaps the same is true for theory of change, each version will always be ‘wrong’ or imperfect in some way but this one is definitely useful.
The week in Addis showed that well-structured questions, tools, methods and expert facilitation will lay the foundations essential to addressing tough challenges. What it also reveals is that building trust across regions, expertise and personalities allows people to drop their titles and ask each other hard questions while finding humour and building hope.
Next steps will focus on gathering insights from research into future scenario building, similar to that used for the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and research that asks the question ‘what does the successful management of trade-offs between the three SDGs look like?’. This builds on the hard work of dozens of partners and capitalises on global networks through both IIED and the Institute.
Read more about the SENTINEL project.