Sustaining agricultural productivity in Ethiopia: transformation, culture and landscapes

From the high altitude peaks of the Simien Mountains, to the scorching heat of the Danakil depression, one of the defining features of rural Ethiopia are the farmers and livestock herders who make a living in some of the most diverse and extreme environments in Africa.

Ethiopia has a history of cultivated agriculture and pastoralism that dates back thousands of years. It is home to the largest number of livestock on the continent and also lays claim to a unique cuisine based around the fermentation of the indigenous cultivar ‘teff’.

Not to mention its iconic global export: coffee. Which Ethiopians prepare with an enchanting customary ritual.

In many ways, food production is the glue that holds together Ethiopia’s myriad cultures and landscapes. However, big changes are beginning to dramatically transform rural Ethiopia and catapult it into the global economy.


Village in Simien Mountains National Park, Amhara

Agri-food sector reforms are well underway

The Federal Government of Ethiopia is leading the charge. It wants to boost agri-food exports to help fund its ambitious social and economic development agenda.

It has grand plans to modernise the country’s smallholder farming systems and increase private sector investment while simultaneously reducing food insecurity and vulnerability to climate change.

In 2008 the country launched Africa’s first commodity exchange, the ECX. Its electronic signs and mobile phone services provide farmers with real time information on prices and a secure payment system to guarantee cash on delivery.

The donor-funded Agricultural Transformation Agency has a mandate overcome barriers to productivity growth. With the help of a revolving door of fresh-faced international strategy consultants they have initiated the production of tailor-made fertilizers for Ethiopian soils, as well as piloting ‘clusters’ of commodity-focused farmer cooperatives and rolling out new technologies and services for farmers.

Meanwhile Chinese contractors are constructing road networks and an electrified railway line to connect the interior with the Port of Djibouti. And investors are lining up to take advantage of the potentially lucrative export markets and burgeoning domestic demand for fresh and processed food products.

These developments would appear to hold much promise for a country whose modern image has been unfairly tarnished by a 1980s famine that belies its people’s agricultural ingenuity.


Harvested maize being processed for market near Nekemte, Oromia

Many challenges must be overcome for Ethiopia to successfully establish a sustainable agri-food system

One critical constraint is to sustain the productive capacity of agricultural landscapes in Ethiopia.

In many areas agricultural landscapes have been exhausted by the progressive intensification of cultivated agriculture, as well as the continued reliance on fuelwood and open-grazing practices that incrementally reduce vegetation and perennial grass cover.

The consequence has been widespread soil erosion and land degradation. The Guraghe region south-west of the capital Addis Ababa is a telling example where massive erosion channels are a major threat to productive land and local infrastructure, such as roads and schools (see photo below).

Local researchers and conservation organisations have also cautioned that on-going soil erosion from agriculture threatens to significantly reduce the lifespan of the country’s hydroelectric dams in the Omo-Gibe river basin through siltation.

In short, this means that any productivity gains made through the increased use of fertilisers and new technologies could be short-lived if soil and earth continues to wash away causing negative externalities.


Erosion in Guraghe region near Wolkite, SNNP

However, Ethiopian farmers are not standing idly by watching their agricultural lands degrade. There are countless examples across the country of impressive efforts by farming communities to reduce erosion and rehabilitate their degraded agricultural landscapes. Examples include the infamous FMNR project in Humbo and regreening initiatives in Tigray.

In addition, local and international researchers are collaborating on advanced agroforestry techniques that promise to deliver both environmental benefits and productivity gains for smallholder farmers.

The problem is that erosion control infrastructure like check-dams are often poorly maintained and thus the environmental benefits are not sustained. Moreover, smallholder farmers, who are usually living close to the poverty line, favour farming techniques that provide a shorter-term return on investment, such as planting small woodlots of fast-growing eucalyptus trees, rather than more complex agroforestry systems that deliver long-term benefits.

This raises some important questions about what the role of conservation agriculture should be within Ethiopia’s desired shift towards an export-orientated agri-food sector.


Tree-cropping system research trial in the Rift Valley near Mojo, Oromia

Another critical issue is conflict between traditional and modern land-use practices.

For example, the expansion of irrigated cotton and sugar plantations in the Awash valley has cut off some pastoral communities from their traditional grazing lands.

While in other parts of Oromia, foreign-owned agribusinesses have been targeted by protestors who perceived them as encroaching on the traditional rights of local smallholder farmers.

This creates a challenge for any investors wanting to establish a social license to operate in areas where clearly defined land rights have not been the norm or customary land rights have been overridden. Particularly given the Federal Government of Ethiopia is already facing domestic opposition to its expansive reform agenda.

Many of these issues are not unique to Ethiopia. Globally, there is need to improve the sustainability of agricultural production systems in the face of climate change and environmental degradation. There is also a corresponding increase in consumer demand for agribusinesses to prove their social and environmental credentials.


Pastoral communities discuss land-use issues near Awash National Park, Oromia

There is an opportunity for Ethiopia to forge its own model of sustainable agriculture

This model could build upon its history of agricultural ingenuity and unique blend of cultures and landscapes.

For example, some smallholder farmers could to be given the right incentives to adopt agricultural practices that deliver long-term environmental benefits, such as agroforestry techniques that integrate food production for local markets with the delivery of ecosystems services that provide landscape and catchment-scale benefits.

These farmers could play an instrumental role in sustaining the productive capacity of farming landscapes that are dedicated to commodity production through the provision of important ecosystem services, such as erosion control and moisture retention. Moreover, they could be strategically located along riparian buffer zones to help to reduce sediment loads entering rivers in order to maintain the expected lifespan of hydroelectric energy infrastructure (i.e. through land-use planning and/or integrated catchment management systems).

This would align well with the recommendations of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, which signals the need for a global shift towards diversified agro-ecological farming systems.

In addition, as a recently retired Ethiopian agroforestry expert once implored to me, there is a need to build a social and cultural movement to rehydrate the country’s landscapes.

Such a movement could involve mutually beneficial business partnerships between smallholder farmers, pastoralists, and agribusinesses. These partnerships could be formed on the basis of protecting and enhancing the productive capacity of the natural resource base upon which both traditional and modern farming systems depend.


An example of a diverse landscape in Ethiopia


To date the focus of the agri-food sector transformation agenda in Ethiopia has been on the transfer and diffusion of modern agricultural technologies, infrastructure and practices.

Yet Ethiopia would likely benefit more if it also considered how it can capitalise on its long history of small holder agriculture and pastoralism, and seek to establish diversified farming systems that combine food and fibre production with the provision of ecosystem services.

But perhaps most importantly, the agri-food systems being established in Ethiopia must remain in harmony with the country’s diverse cultures and landscapes. For food production is as much as cultural activity as it is an economic development activity and local people and communities must benefit from and be a partner in any agri-food system reforms.

This could be the key to unlocking a unique sustainable development pathway in Ethiopia that meets the country’s socio-economic development ambitions while preserving important aspects of its unique cultures and landscapes.

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Reflections on the New Climate Economy Report on Urbanisation in Ethiopia

This post provides some reflections on the recently released report titled Unlocking the Power of Ethiopia’s Cities, which was jointly prepared by the Global Green Growth Institute and Ethiopia Development Research Institute and funded by the New Climate Economy initiative.

Overview of the Report

The report is essentially an attempt to provide a vision of a potential urbanisation pathway for Ethiopia that can bolster the country’s economic growth aspirations. Specifically, it is an attempt to assess how patterns of urbanisation in the different regions of Ethiopia could be managed and shaped in a way that supports economic growth and development across different economic sectors. The methodology adopted by the authors for this purpose includes the use of different scenarios and a ‘spatial economic framework’ for analyzing the potential contribution of different urbanisation pathways to economic development in Ethiopia.

As stated in the Report:

The work outlines a five-stage process to help guide the development of Ethiopia’s spatial economic framework. The framework is designed to inform existing urban plans by presenting new and important choices for decision makers. These might include the setting of urbanisation targets; how to phase or sequence growth; and the identification of the number, distribution, hierarchy, role and function of key urban centres and development corridors.

The ‘preferred scenario’ for Ethiopia’s urban future identified from this analytical framework is a ‘poly-clustered spatial development’ approach, which includes eight urban hubs, corridors, and clusters that are based around specialised economic activities and functions.

This scenario is based on three ‘recommended strategic directions for growth’:

  1. Unlocking the potential of secondary urban growth centres
  2. Agglomerating and connecting economic functions
  3. Targeting the development of a compact, connected and resilient urban network


Overall the report provides an valuable overview and assessment of some of the key issues and potential options for urban development futures in Ethiopia. The scenarios presented in the report also provide a useful framework for considering different urban and economic development pathways that could be pursued by Ethiopia, as well as the associated pros and cons of each of the possible alternative scenarios.

However, there are some issues in the detail of the report I wish to comment on in the interest of contributing towards improving this area of work in Ethiopia.

Disconnection from Existing of Literature on African Urbanism

The report appears to be largely disconnected from the existing body of literature dedicated to the unique urbanisation challenges in Africa. This is evident in the references and the lack of discussion or analysis of the history, dynamics and characteristics of urbanisation in Ethiopia or Africa more broadly.

For example, the process of urbanisation in Africa since independence has been notable in that many African countries experienced urbanisation that was not accompanied by strong economic growth or a process of industrialisation. A key consequence of this has been the emergence of a large informal sector in many African cities due to the inability of the formal sector to meet demand for employment, housing and other basic services. In some African cities this has resulted in a situation referred to as ‘extreme splintered urbanism’ whereby enormous disparities exist between rich and poor communities in urban areas and informal settlements or ‘slums’ are pervasive.

In the case of Ethiopia urbanisation rates have historically been very low due to the predominance of the rural agricultural economy and low levels of human and economic development. Recently this has begun to change due to the country’s strong economic performance over the last ten years, however urbanisation rates still remain very low compared to most other African countries.

In addition, the Ethiopian capital city, Addis Ababa, exhibits its own rather unique urban characteristics, such as the presence of ‘urban village’ medium density, mixed-use areas and the absence of gated communities as I discussed in a previous post. Other cities in Ethiopia also exhibit quite unique characteristics and also occupy very different geographical and topographical spaces, from the highland cities of Gondar and Mekelle, to the lowland cities of Dire Dawa and Arba Minch and the Rift Valley cities of Hawassa and Adama.

However, none of these unique aspects of Ethiopian and African urbanisation are discussed in this report, which gives an impression that the analysis is rather ahistorical and without due regard for the local context of Ethiopia or Africa more broadly.

In addition, the report also appears to be grounded upon a ‘predict-and-provide’ approach towards urbanisation and urban planning, with limited consideration for emerging urban ideas and concepts such as the ‘science of cities’ or ‘adaptive urbanism’, which both promote a greater role for city residents in designing and controlling certain aspects of urbanisation.

Lack of Appropriate Data to Backup Conclusions

Some of the conclusions and inferences drawn from the analysis in the report are debatable or lacking appropriate data to back them up. For example, the authors state that:

Stimulating economic growth in new centres has appeared more successful than policies seeking to limit growth in large, dynamic and growing cities such as Addis. These policies (e.g. greenbelts, growth management plans) have generally been less effective and led to wider implications, including increased congestion, rising house prices and outflows of industrial activity where cheap labour and land can be guaranteed.

However, the evidence provided to support this conclusion comes from a rather subjective ‘Evaluation of spatial policy options for urban development’ contained in the report, which doesn’t include a clear methodology or any metrics for comparing the impact and effectiveness of the evaluated policy options from the referenced case studies. Furthermore, in a detailed review of urban containment policies in Seoul the authors suggest that in fact greenbelts can be a potentially useful approach for guiding and managing urban growth, particularly for protection of key ecosystem services and productive agricultural land if well applied. It also suggest that impacts on housing prices are modest and could be offset by progressive housing policies to maintain affordability.

Therefore, such conclusions by the authors appear somewhat premature, particularly in regards to their applicability to the Ethiopia context given the limited analysis of the specific local urban conditions and policies.

Very Limited Attention to the Informal Sector

The most disappointing aspect of the report is the very limited attention given the important role of the informal sector in Ethiopia’s urban centers and the rather antiquated approach towards addressing informal settlements.

For example, one of the ‘assertions’ being tested in the report’s performance assessment of the different scenarios is that “informal settlements [are] more likely to appear in bigger cities where population is less controllable.” This appears to be based on a very simplistic view of how and why informal settlements emerge (i.e. that they are primarily the result of rural-urban migration) rather than the more nuanced ‘slum-producing logics’ framework as developed by Edgar Pieterse.

In addition, under the business-as-usual scenario it states that the “costs of urbanisation [are] likely to be high due to retrospective clean-up of informal settlements within and on the periphery of urban areas.” It appears this is grounded in the belief that informality is something to be avoided at all costs and implies the only solution is removal and resettlement.

This is out of line with the emerging best-practice approaches to addressing informal settlements as outlined in the Five Management Stages of Informal Urbanism by Christian Werthmann, which suggest that the most enlightened and realistic approach is to anticipate and accommodate informality through different methods, such as land allocation, upgrading, and/or the provision of sites and services.

It also ignores the growing body of evidence from numerous Asian cities that demonstrates how informal areas can be upgraded and improved through the collective actions of local community groups with the use of locally controlled funds, which in turn can catalyse increased investment from local governments, and all at a fraction off the cost of slum removal and resettlement programs and without severe social impacts.

In addition, the size and importance of the informal sector in African cities should not be underestimated as it plays a critical role in providing employment opportunities and producing goods and services. Moreover, as I have argued in a previous post, some elements of the informal sector, such as the informal taxi network in Addis Ababa, exhibit the characteristics of a complex-adaptive system, which should be appreciated for its flexibility and responsiveness.

One Very Large Caveat

The report contains one very large caveat that raises a number of questions regarding the ability to implement the report’s recommendations. As stated in the report:

This study has not, however, completed any formal analysis of capacity, policy and regulation, financial approaches and governance – which are critical for the sound implementation of any urbanisation strategy…Something repeatedly recognised by government consultees of this report was that capacity (along with finance) is a priority issue. There are a range of ongoing efforts by [the Ministry of Urban Development, Housing and Construction] and others to improve local municipal capacity in particular; however the scale of resources and time required is significant. The readiness and assimilative capacity of local government to plan, develop and administer a wide range of new investment and activities will test this capacity further. This is a key risk (and perhaps the most significant one) in realising the spatial urban development plan.

Given this is the case, the value of the report’s findings and recommendations need to be questioned if they are too far beyond the current implementation capacity of the relevant government agencies. A more sensible approach could potentially be to consider the existing strengths of local agencies, including the informal sector, and how they could be enhanced and built upon, rather than seeking to implement strategies that require a high level of analytical and implementation capacity that may not exist for many years.


Overall I believe this report represents a good starting point for thinking about potential urban futures in Ethiopia and how spatial patterns of urbanisation can complement and drive economic growth and development. However, as detailed above there are a number of areas where the report is found wanting, particularly in regards to the lack of consideration for the role of the informal sector in Ethiopia cities and the unique characteristics of Ethiopian and African urbanism. Moreover, the huge financial and capacity requirements to fund and manage the proposed poly-clustered spatial development strategy raises questions around the practicality of this urban development approach.

As such, I believe a more nuanced assessment of the local urban context in Ethiopia and the dynamics of urbanisation processes in African cities could complement this work and perhaps yield some different insights about what is more practically implementable.

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Climate Change and Development: Return of the Technocracy?

A few weeks ago I attended an experience-sharing event for the Strategic Climate Institutions Program, a five-year initiative that aims to build the capacity of the Ethiopia government to implement its Climate Resilient Green Economy strategy.

One thing that struck me was the diversity of projects receiving grant funds through this program, ranging from urban rail projects to designing energy efficient cook stoves and improving the management of national parks. Prior to the emergence of the climate change and development agenda these projects would have been categorized quite differently (and perhaps more meaningfully) as urban transport, poverty reduction, or natural resource management projects respectively, and funded through separate thematic programs.

I couldn’t help but wonder that the only thing linking many of these projects together was the fact they had been funded via the same program under the broad umbrella of building climate change institutional capacity. As such, I found it difficult to see what common lessons could be drawn from such a disparate group of projects, apart from general financial and technical issues related to this specific funding program.

However, what I found most striking was the implication that the categorization of these projects as climate change initiatives represents a shift towards a more technical-scientific approach in development. Which raises a number of important considerations regarding the risks and challenges associated with the climate change and development agenda for countries like Ethiopia.

Based on my observations from this event and my experiences in Ethiopia I have identified three potential issues that could arise from the new focus on climate change in developing countries.

1. Climate change objectives taking precedence over development objectives

The projects being funded through the Strategic Climate Institutions Program are aimed at enhancing the capacity and technical knowledge of government agencies in Ethiopia to deliver its Climate Resilient Green Economy strategy. This includes activities such as building new institutional arrangement to manage climate finance, producing climate-related data and information, and integrating climate resilience into development planning mechanisms.

While many of these activities also contribute towards development objectives (i.e. poverty reduction), these are given less priority than the climate change related objectives. Moreover, there is an implicit assumption that climate change and development objectives are compatible without the need for any major trade-offs between the two.

Consequently, I believe there is a risk that the development objectives could become subordinated to climate change objectives unless both are given equal priority.

2. Diluting  the capacity and resources of government agencies

Climate change initiatives require a much higher level of sophistication in project design to effectively integrated climate change and development issues in a coherent and scientifically robust manner. The fund managers for the Strategic Climate Institutions Programme noted that one the key challenges they faced was the lack capacity of Ethiopian government agencies to develop sound project proposals without significant technical support.

Informal discussions I had with grant recipients also revealed that there was an enormous gap between existing capacity of local government agencies and the technical knowledge and data requirements of the new Climate Resilient Green Economy policy implementation mechanisms. I also noticed that some of the guidelines being produced to support these new mechanisms are highly technical documents that give insufficient consideration for the existing planning processes of local government agencies.

This means that significant resources and effort must be dedicated to building the capacity of local government agencies to undertake these new climate change policy implementation mechanisms in Ethiopia. Which is likely to dilute the resources of local government agencies, particularly if insufficient advice and support is provided on how the new mechanism should be integrated within their existing operational practices.

As a result, it is not hard to imagine that many local government agencies will face difficulty adopting these new processes, and moreover, that such efforts may also inhibit them from fulfilling their other statutory responsibilities unrelated to climate change.

3. Re-framing development issues at technical problems

The implementation of the Climate Resilient Green Economy strategy in Ethiopia necessitates the application of climate science to different types of development issues. This type of science-based approach runs the risk of re-framing development issues as ‘technical problems’ that require ‘technical solutions’ to fix them.

If history is any example then this is likely to result in climate science and technical knowledge taking precedence over other types of knowledge, and decision-making becoming heavily influence by ‘hard’ scientific data rather than equally important social and political considerations.

The experience of the Famine Early Warning System Network provides a concrete example of this situation, as often scientific climate information has a much greater influence on the decision of governments to initiate food assistance programs than other factors.

In addition, the overall implementation model of the Climate Resilient Green Economy strategy arguably represents a return to the top-down, technocratic approaches that were predominant in the development sector from the 1960s to the 1980s. Where goals and targets are set at a national level based on technical-scientific analyses, which are then filtered down to the local level.

This approach essentially transfers power into the hands of supposedly objective technical experts, while at the same time making it more difficult for other actors, such as communities and local governments, to engage in decision-making and strategic planning processes that directly affect them.

Is there a alternative way forward?

It’s a tough question to answer. There is no doubt that Ethiopia must seek to buffer itself against the impacts of climate change and take advantage of opportunities to establish a sustainable green economy. The decision of the Ethiopia Government to develop such an ambitious climate change strategy is also very commendable.

I believe what is currently missing is a in-depth understanding of the existing capacity and operational dynamics of government agencies in Ethiopia. As well as a full recognition of the enormity of change required within the public sector to effectively implement the Climate Resilient Green Economy strategy. As stated in a study by the Overseas Development Institute:

Implementing the Climate Resilient Green Economy strategy will require a major transformation of the institutional architecture of the government administration (both horizontally and vertically) and the scale of this transformation should not be under-estimated. Considerable public investment is now required to strengthen the capacity of the various government ministries and agencies charged with the responsibility for implementing climate change programmes at all levels of government.

To date the approach to building the capacity of government agencies seems to be focused on establishing completely new institutional structures and processes which carries the risks I have detailed above.

I believe that a more effective and sustainable method would be to adopt an ‘asset-based approach’ towards building the capacity of local institutions on climate change.

Such an approach would start with developing a more nuanced understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of government agencies, and then begin integrating new systems and processes incrementally. As opposed to overlaying completely new institutional architecture over the top of existing government systems and processes and expecting it to be seamlessly adopted by government agencies, which are generally highly resistant to change.

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Five urbanisation challenges in Addis Ababa

I was recently quizzed on what I consider to be the key urbanisation issues in Addis Ababa based on my experience living in the city over the last year.

So here is a quick overview of five urbanisation challenges facing the city from my own perspective

1. Sustainability of buildings and infrastructure

Addis Ababa is currently undergoing a massive construction boom. Unfortunately, the design and construction of many buildings and infrastructure is of a low quality, with insufficient attention being paid to issues of environmental performance and life-cycle analysis. Understandably the government is facing pressure to meet rapidly growing demands for housing and infrastructure and to raise living standards. However, the current short-term focus on meeting immediate needs rather than considering longer-term issues of sustainability is likely to prove very costly in the long-term, due to the high cost and complexity of retrofitting and rebuilding infrastructure.

2. Urban planning and integration

The rapid growth of Addis Ababa is not being managed effectively by appropriate urban planning mechanisms. Consequently, urban development activities are not well-regulated and there is a lack of integration of new urban developments in transport, housing, commercial buildings, and utility services. For example, large multi-story buildings are constructed with no parking facilities on major roads where parking is also banned. Furthermore, there is a lack of consideration given to the effects of urban development on the existing character of locations and the emergence (and destruction) of precincts. Not to mention my personal bug-bear, the virtual absence of any consideration for pedestrians in urban design and construction management.

3. The informal sector

The informal sector plays an important role in generating employment opportunities for youth and recent urban migrants, as well as supporting the provision of goods and services to city residents. In particular, the flexibility and adaptability of the informal sector helps to mitigate the effects of disruptions caused by major urban development activities. However, the informal sector is not well-understood or appreciated by city officials and faces constant marginalization and subordination through poorly considered regulations and lack of genuine engagement.

4. Environmental management

Probably the one aspect that affects most people in the city is the lack of reliable and secure access to potable water, sanitation, and waste management services. This results in numerous public health issues for city residents, particularly the poor. In addition, heavy rainfall causes minor flooding, erosion of unsealed roads, overflow of sewerage systems, and disruptions to energy supplies, due to inadequate drainage and lack of green spaces to absorb excess runoff.

5. Investment in Human Capital

Investment in human capital is a critical component of sustained economic growth and development in cities and regions. However, due to underinvestment and severe capacity constraints the quality of education, health and other social services remains poor in Addis Ababa. Consequently, social development indicators and access to secure employment and economic opportunities remain low for many residents of the city. Moreover, the city is heavily reliant on technical support from foreign professionals across many key sectors and industries.

Other notable urbanisation issues include a poorly functioning urban land market, encroachment on productive agricultural lands from urban growth, and lack of modern banking facilities.

Well that’s my point of view based on my personal experiences. Any feedback or comments are most welcome.

In my next post I will highlight some of the ways the Ethiopian government is trying to deal with these urbanisation challenges and provide some suggestions of my own.

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The PDF download debate: view from an Ethiopian research organisation

report published by the World Bank earlier this month found that over 31% of its policy reports have never been downloaded, not even once.

This is quite a startling (albeit perhaps unsurprising) finding given that one of the primary objectives of these policy reports is “…informing the public debate or influencing the development community.”

The public admission of this by the World Bank has sparked a lot of online debate and discussion amongst the international research and policy advocacy community about the value and utility of these types of policy reports (see here, here and here). Many representatives of research and advocacy organisations focused on international development have acknowledged they face similar challenges regarding the utilisation of their research and knowledge products.

This raises some interesting questions such as:

  • Have we reached the point of knowledge saturation, i.e. an oversupply of knowledge products and information?
  • Are the knowledge products produced by these organisations irrelevant or not adequately tailored and packaged appropriately to their target audience?
  • Are knowledge management and communication systems and processes in need of an overhaul?
  • Or, perhaps most importantly, are the development funds being spent on research and policy advocacy a wise investment or should these funds be reallocated for other types of development activities?

With this in mind, I would like to present a slightly different perspective, coming from someone who is currently based within a national research institute in Ethiopia.

Similar problems but different issues

The organisation where I am currently working is part of the national agricultural research network in Ethiopia. It also faces a similar problem in regards to the effective utilisation of its research outputs but this is due to a number of different reasons than those facing the World Bank or other similar organisations. These issues include:

  • Relatively low quality publications, with questionable data quality and methodological rigour.
  • Unclear or ambiguous target audiences for many publications.
  • Lack of demand-driven research, in particular the lack of clear linkages with government policy agendas and programs (research projects tend to be more driven by the interest of individual researchers).
  • Lack of effective information and knowledge management platforms for archiving and disseminating research outputs (PDFs available for download? Virtually non-existent!)
  • Lack of funding and organisational resources allocated to knowledge management, communication, and stakeholder engagement.

These issues represent a significant impediment to the utilisation of its research reports.

However, even if all these issues were to be addressed, it is perhaps just as likely the organisation would find itself in the same position as it well-resourced international counterparts.

So what are the possible solutions to this lack of uptake and impact of research for development for local research organisations?

In the case of my current organisation there is undoubtedly a need to address the issues and capacity gaps I have outlined above. As I mentioned in a previous post, the organisation already receives support to improve the technical knowledge and skills of its research staff. What is critical now is to ensure that the organisations information and knowledge management systems are up to at least a basic standard to ensure that the existing body of knowledge is not lost.

This is one area I believe stronger links between local and international research institutes should be made. For example, these organisations could pool resources to develop national knowledge management hubs that could provide technical support and services to Ethiopian research organisations to help them manage their information and communicate it effectively.

In addition, I believe there is a need for this particular local research organisation to shift towards the provision of knowledge services, in addition to the development of scientific knowledge products. These knowledge services, i.e. research consultancy projects, could be made available to government agencies but also community organisations and small businesses. This would create a much greater incentive for the organisation to build closer links with end-users because they would have to engage with them in order to understand their specific research and knowledge needs.

Finally, the organisation should try to conduct more operationally-focused research. In particular, research that supports pilot experiments in complex environments (as opposed to research primarily conducted in controlled experimental environments), as argued by Ben Ramlingam. This type of research would also require the organisation to build closer links with government agencies and development actors.

Well that’s my brief contribution on this interesting debate. Any comments welcome.

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Complexia blog joins Twitter

After being inspired by this blog post from a fellow blogger and acquaintance in Addis Ababa, I have decided to setup up a twitter account to complement Complexia blog using the Twitter handle @complexiablog.

I will be using it to promote new blog posts but also to contribute to relevant conversations in the Twittersphere and provide links to ideas related to complexity, development and sustainability in practice.

So if you enjoy reading this blog and use Twitter please follow me for regular updates on blog posts as well as links to other relevant information and online conversations.

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Organisational Capacity Building – A Systems Perspective.

I have been reflecting on the inherent challenges of building the capacity of local organisations in development and I believe that adopting a systems perspective is a very useful lens for assessing capacity needs and for identifying points of intervention.

This shouldn’t be surprising given that it has been argued that organisations should be viewed as complex-adaptive systems , and thus any efforts to change or improve them need to take this into account.

Knowledge Transfer – A Narrow Approach to Capacity Building

From my experience working within a local research organisation in Ethiopia I have found that too often capacity building initiatives adopt a very narrow approach, in which capacity building becomes largely limited to the transfer of knowledge.

For example, in this organisation most capacity building initiatives funded by development partners focus on providing technical training to research staff and sponsoring researchers to attend conferences or workshops (or less frequently, funding the procurement of vehicles and research equipment). Consequently many broader organisational capacity constraints are not addressed and most of the capacity development is confined to the individual staff involved in the training.

This is not to discount the value and importance of such types of capacity building initiatives. However, the impact and benefits of such capacity building initiatives is constrained in this case because the organisation is lacking the resources and administrative capacity to make full use of such advances in technical training. In particular, it lacks the necessary support systems to effectively manage and communicate its knowledge and research outputs in order to make an impact through it research.

Capacity Building from a Systems Perspective

In order to illuminate the capacity building needs within local organisations applying a systems perspective can reveal much more about the inherent organisational capacity constraints and identify a range of potential areas in need of capacity building.

For example, I have been exploring options for improving data and knowledge management practices within the research organisation mentioned above. One of these initiatives included the development of a computerised data management system to store and manage the data associated with one of the organisations research technologies.

On the surface this may seem like a relatively simple exercise, to design and implement a suitable database system that captures and stores all the important data associated with the research technology. However, as I have discovered (not unexpectedly) that numerous challenges have made this a very complex task, and many of the issues are directly related to the broader capacity of the organisation.

Some key challenges included a lack sufficient ICT infrastructure to support an enterprise-level data management system, a lack of human resources to manage such a data management system, a lack organisational understanding of computerised data management systems in general, and moreover, existing organisation structures and support systems that are firmly rooted in paper-based administrative procedures (arguably for good reason I should add given the frequent power outages and lack of a generator).

Without understanding all of these issues (i.e. adopting a systems perspective) it would be easy for an outsider to think that the solution to the capacity gap, being the absence of a data management system, would be to develop a suitably designed database.

However, as I have highlighted, the seemingly straight-forward task of developing a data management system actually represents a major organisational improvement and change management initiative. One that requires not only the development of a suitably designed data management system, but also investment in ICT and human resources to support such a system (and potentially a complete organisational restructure).

Given the organisational context as described, any future efforts to building the technical capacity of the organisation without addressing the broader organisation capacity constraints is likely to have very little return on investment.

This couldn’t be made clearer than the fact that I discovered some training materials from a workshop that a former employee of my organisation had attended on knowledge management. To his credit he had actually prepared a draft plan for how some of the ideas could be implemented to address some of these organisational capacity issues. But apparently nothing ever eventuated from this plan, and when he left the organisation all the knowledge and ‘capacity’ that he had gained went with him.


The critical point is that capacity building initiatives being developed for local organisations should adopt a systems perspective when seeking to identify suitable areas of intervention. In particular, they need to move beyond delivering technical training and the funding of equipment and also consider investment in organisational level capacity requirements.

Admittedly this would not be a simple process, and could come up against internal political issues around the allocation and management of resources. As such, using approaches such as Problem-Driven Iterative Adaption may be a useful for guiding such a process.

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