Rapid Appraisal of Agricultural Innovation Systems & climate change adaptation in Kazakhstan

How can participatory methods be adapted to different socio-cultural contexts? A critical evaluation of Rapid Appraisal of Agricultural Innovation Systems, and its application to agricultural adaptation to climate change in Kazakhstan.

By Giuseppe Feola, University of Reading

Rapid participatory appraisal techniques have a long history. Many interdisciplinary and participatory approaches have been proposed to examine and address complex problems in agricultural systems, such as vulnerability to environmental change, innovation, or sustainability.

This paper critically discusses the modification and application of one particular participatory approach to agricultural systems analysis (Rapid Appraisal of Agricultural Innovation Systems [RAAIS]) to agricultural adaptation to climate change in Southeast Kazakhstan.

We employed RAAIS in the project Climate Change, Water Resources and Food Security in Kazakhstan to investigate the main challenges and ways forward in water use in agriculture. The project aimed to examine and predict impacts of climate change on water resources and crop production in Kazakhstan. Focusing on the two villages of Karaoi and Koram in the south-eastern Almaty region, RAAIS was employed to: (i) characterise the water systems in their multiple dimensions (i.e. technical, economic, social, cultural, political); (ii) identify the challenges faced by a range of actors directly or indirectly involved and affected by water use in agriculture (small- and large-holding farmers, local authorities, environmental organizations); (iii) identify current water use and water management practices employed to deal with water stress and variability; (iv) identify entry points for adaptation of water use in agriculture.

We conducted one-day multi-stakeholder workshops in each of the two villages. The workshops brought together approximately 30 people per workshop in separate stakeholder groups of small farmers, medium and large-scale farmers, non-governmental organisations, scientists, agribusinesses, and representatives of state structures (e.g. local and regional authorities, water users associations) to discuss the theme: Water-use in agriculture: main challenges and ways forward. The workshops consisted of seven exercises conducted in small groups and plenary discussions.

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This was the first application of RAAIS in Kazakhstan or Central Asia. It was also the first application of RAAIS in a country undergoing a post-Soviet transformation. Based on our experience and two preparatory field visits, we hypothesised that our application of RAAIS may be influenced by a range of local socio-cultural and political conditions that made our context different from the ones in which the approach had previously been applied (Africa, Central America, and China). We were specifically concerned with two potential issues. Firstly, we expected that strong social hierarchies, notions of authority, and a culture of top-down decision-making would work against the open, frank and equal participation of different actors. Secondly, we hypothesised that contextual differences may challenge some of the implicit assumptions of RAAIS. These included, for example the assumption that the civil society and scientists would be present and play an influential role in any given farming system. Similarly RAAIS implicitly assumed general (non-locally specific) definitions of fundamental terms such as ‘large- or smallholding’, or of ‘farming’ as a socially recognised activity, and overlooked the fact that these definitions may be contested locally.

Overall, we found the RAAIS approach to be an effective diagnostic tool for complex problem analysis in farming systems research. Notwithstanding, the adaptation of RAAIS to different socio-cultural and political contexts may require more consideration than is apparent in the original design of this method. While the tool is flexible, researchers need to be aware that RAAIS cannot be applied ‘as is’ to any setting or problem. Adaptation to context and flexibility may be needed for two purposes. First, in practical terms, one may need to change the workshop length (and thus select particular exercises) or adapt it for different languages. Second, and conceptually more important, one may need to adapt workshop design to different types of actors (for instance, there may be no civil society in the Euroamerican sense implicit in the methodology) and gender or age groups, as well as be aware that seemingly basic concepts like ‘farmer’, or ‘large land-holding’ may mean different things in different contexts.

Furthermore in this respect, we found that the training of facilitators, note-takers, and other organisers is much more important than acknowledged in the original design of this method. In many contexts, therefore, it may be essential to brief facilitators on the epistemological approach that informs the research, even before providing training in RAAIS. Second, training can prepare the facilitators to overcome existing social relationships, hierarchies, and local power relations, which can significantly affect the outcome of the participatory process, so that they might be provisionally suspended during the workshop.

Our experience in Southeast Kazakhstan suggests that these considerations can improve the likelihood of RAAIS, and similar participatory research methods, being successfully adapted to different research topics and contexts more broadly.

The paper “The application of Rapid Appraisal of Agricultural Innovation Systems (RAAIS) to agricultural adaptation to climate change in Kazakhstan: A critical evaluation”, by Barrett, Feola, Krylova, and Khusnitdinova, is available here on request: g.feola@reading.ac.uk.

The paper was produced as part of the project Climate Change, Water Resources and Food Security in Kazakhstan (CCKAZ), which was funded by the United Kingdom’s Newton Fund Institutional Links Programme (Grant No. 172722855).