Radical innovation to buzzword bingo: the spread of gender-transformative approaches in agricultural research-for-development

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    CGIAR Initiative on Aquatic Foods
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New research identifies the drivers of gender transformative approaches (GTAs) in agricultural research-for-development (A4RD) organizations, while also raising serious concerns about how the rush to embrace GTAs could “empty out the radical intent” of a promising social innovation.

GTAs aim to better address and transform the root causes of gender inequality in a way that more conventional approaches have failed, with a particular focus on systemic and structural causes of inequality. The authors note that over the past decade or so, there has been growing interest in GTAs by a number of actors in the AR4D sector – from donors and philanthropic organizations to research institutions. They suggest that the crossing of GTAs into the mainstream of gender and agriculture discourse this is, in principle, promising and that GTAs have significant potential to address the root causes of gender inequality. But as well as limited evidence of the impact of GTAs, little is known about why or how GTAs have spreading and evolving in the ecosystem of A4RD organizations.

The researchers from the CGIAR Initiative on Aquatic Foods looked at how GTAs have spread in A4RD, undertaking in-depth interviews with 20 respondents from 19 A4RD organizations focusing on gender and agriculture – including UN agencies, CGIAR centers, international and local NGOs, and funding agencies. The research strategically chose WorldFish as a pivotal entry point due to its early adoption and promotion of GTA within the CGIAR system since 2012, earning recognition as a “pioneer” in scaling GTA within the A4RD networks. For all the organizations interviewed, the researchers examined the extent and depth of adoption and the perceived risks and constraints of integrating GTA into their organizational programming. In so doing, the researchers also identified the gaps, weaknesses and inefficiencies in the AR4D ecosystem that could prevent the wider adoption of GTAs.

However, they found that the spread of GTAs within the ecosystem has been nonlinear, meaning they are the result of the complex interactions of multiple organizations across different timeframes and subject to a range of influences at different levels. They also identified the “passion and persistence” of certain individuals (“organizational champions”) as being key factors in the spread of GTAs and the way in which their outcomes are perceived. Similarly, the mandate and agency of a given organization was also found to be important: For example, the global mandates, sectoral breadth and extensive networks of Rome-based UN organizations and funding agencies have been credited with helping promote GTAs through the A4RD ecosystem. At the same time, NGOs and smaller research organizations also have a role to play, for example, by being able to test and develop GTAs through pilot projects.

However, the authors note “deep concerns” relating to the use of GTA terminology to gain the approval of funding agencies, or because it is considered trendy, while either not following through in practice or failing to recognize the time, effort and expertise GTAs require. They also warn that organizations could undermine the promise of GTAs if they rush to embrace gender transformative change without providing sufficient funding and staffing to make it happen. They suggest that intervening in agricultural communities with insufficient understanding of GTAs or the kind of long-term funding they entail could do more harm than good, potentially producing “very real harms and backlash.”

“At first glance, the rapid rise and adoption of GTA as a social innovation by so many in the A4RD sector should be celebrated and recognized,” said Cristiano Rossignoli of WorldFish, a co-author of the study published in Gender Technology and Development. “But GTA is a highly complex social innovation, and its spread may be helped or hindered by the way in which different actors take up, interpret and disseminative its core concepts and approaches – as well as the funding, staff and time they commit to implementation.

“Our study cautions that momentum without consistent, in-depth understanding of how GTA is a departure from more common gender approaches, risks emptying out the radical intent of the innovation and undermining its potential to drive systemic change.”

As well as providing insights specific to the spread of GTA, the paper also sheds new light on ways to measure the dissemination of knowledge-sharing processes in a multi-organizational environment, how complex social innovations travel and evolve.


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