Agency and behavior change in agri-food systems transformation: Recommendations from a synthesis exercise

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Author: Sarah Freed (Alliance Bioversity-CIAT)

The CGIAR Initiative on Agroecology is taking a systems transformation approach to ensure our agri-food systems support environmental health, social well-being, and fair and prosperous livelihoods.

In taking this systems transformations approach, we must ask three questions:

“Who needs to do what  – differently?”

“What are the factors influencing who is doing what?


How do these factors affect one’s option to do things differently ?”

Often, we respond to the first question intuitively. We might convene with others to further develop and refine the response. We might make our response transparent by documenting it in a Theory of Change.

But often we miss out on responding thoroughly and clearly to the second and third question. To do so, we would need to consider the wide range of factors that influence actors’ agency and behaviors and whether these influences differ for the different actors across the agri-food system. There isn’t a well-defined approach for this, especially for approaching it in a way that includes the diverse range of actors.

Over the past two years, we have developed such an approach and tested how it might shape change pathways to agri-food system transformation. We started by developing a framework to identify the influencing factors for agency and behavior change in transforming agri-food systems (the ACT framework). Drawing from case studies in five countries participating in the agroecological transition, we used the ACT framework to systematically identify how and for whom agency and behavior change were enabled or impeded in past initiatives related to agroecology. We also identified common assumptions behind the approaches to agency and behavior change in our case studies of past experiences. For some of these assumptions, we identified how they could be refined to better reflect the outcomes and the perceived factors enabling or impeding change.

Some of our key findings from these cases include:

  • All cases targeted farmers or other producers for behavior change, most often through technical assistance, training, demonstrations, and other approaches focused ​on individuals. ​
  • However, in 46% of cases there were reports of the interventions being poorly suited or aligned with actor needs, indicating key influences on farmers’ agency and behaviors were missed. ​
  • The behaviors of consumers and governance decision-makers were least often considered and addressed, being targeted in less than a quarter of cases.​
  • Structural approaches to influence agency and behavior change, such as addressing barriers imposed through social norms and relations, and/or resource, economic or governance systems, were least often applied.​
  • Perceived key influencing factors to enable behavior change included ensuring market and value chain linkages, partner and institutional support, social learning and collaboration among actors, and efforts to address power and agency in multi-stakeholder engagements.​

Based on the results from our review, we developed recommendations that can guide future efforts to enable agri-food systems transformation through actors’ agency and behavior change. These include:

  1.  Use the ACT framework during an initiative’s design phase to thoroughly investigate the factors influencing agency and behaviors and how these influences differ across agri-food system actors;
  2. Co-develop with the agri-food system actors the vision for their agri-food system and the prioritized targets for agency and behavior change;
  3. Develop a clear Theory of Change that lays out the steps from current situation to the envisioned change, along with clear descriptions of the assumptions embedded in each step;
  4. Implement and reflect on progress in an inclusive, participatory, and iterative way.

To read the full report and recommendations, click here.

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