Involving smallholders as partners in research could make all the difference to their development


In our CRE blog Mark Reed and Lindsay Stringer call for a shift in how we carry out and focus research in the world’s drylands.


Mark Reed is Professor of Socio-Technical Innovation at Newcastle University/HEFCE N8 Agri-Food Resilience

Lindsay C. Stringer is Professor in Environment and Development at the University of Leeds


We have both dedicated a substantial part of our careers to understanding how people living in drylands can make a sustainable living from some of the harshest environments on earth. We both did our PhDs in southern Africa over a decade ago, working in the same region on the similar issues at neighbouring UK universities (Leeds and Sheffield), without any knowledge of each other. We only discovered this after we finished our PhDs, but haven’t looked back since. The latest in a long string of collaborations has been a project with colleagues from the world’s largest research group working on drylands. In it, we reviewed the last decade of research on dryland agricultural systems, to set a new agenda for the research that is needed to meet the Sustainable Development Goals.


More than 2.5 billion of the poorest, hungriest, least healthy and most marginalized people in the world live in “dryland” environments that are characterized by a lack of water. Their inhabitants face combined challenges of poverty and unemployment related to high population growth rates, low crop yields and land degradation, climate change, conflict and civil unrest.   It’s a hostile environment in so many respects. 


At the same time, there is an upside.  Drylands also have abundant solar energy and rich plant biodiversity.  Fifty per cent of the world‘s livestock are being raised in drylands and the people who are farming them have real opportunities to branch out and intensify production and to tackle climate change.  But how is this to be achieved?  Our research suggests that, given the right support and encouragement, involving real partnerships, smallholders could hold the key.


Interventions have been tried before, of course.  Generally development efforts have been spearheaded by a range of international groups, investing in large-scale, top-down projects and programmes, aiming to manage things like soil structure, soil fertility and water availability through irrigation.  More recently there has been more of a systems-based approach to tackle these issues, looking at everyone involved, all the core environmental processes, and how it all interacts.   Smallholders are vital cogs in this system, driving development.  They are central to food security, generating employment and contributing a significant percentage of Gross Domestic Product in many drylands. Improving the benefits from and profitability of smallholder farming remains an urgent challenge for the international community.  How to do this has been a moot point.  We argue that the time for top-down solutions is over and a totally new approach and research agenda is needed, one that emphasizes complexity, interactions, trade-offs and working with affected populations to jointly address dryland development.


In our latest paper we make this explicit, comparing conventional and new approaches.  We argue for a focus on social-ecological systems and livelihood portfolios rather than simply considering single components without looking at connections and linkages.  This approach calls for a transdisciplinary strategy, bringing different disciplines together to work towards shared goals, ideally including expertise from stakeholders who bring different knowledge and perspectives to the research across lots of different scales.  Transfer of scientific knowledge is often one way and it hasn’t worked in the drylands.  We highlight the importance of two-way exchange and co-production of knowledge between researchers and stakeholders, as this draws on a much richer range of knowledge sources and improves local ownership of results.  It’s also important to engage disadvantaged groups and create the conditions for them to become empowered as a part of the process.  Throughout we have to acknowledge that there will be trade-offs where multiple aims of improving productivity; reducing risk; and considerations of social, economic and environmental sustainability are involved. 


If we are to make significant progress towards the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals there have to be new priorities and a shift in how we go about achieving them.  Looking effectively at systems will involve unpacking the relationships and interactions in dryland systems.  We have to understand better how people make their livelihoods in these challenging environments.  This will enable partners to identify opportunities and risks for innovation and investment.  We need to be traversing different scales and sectors and work together to create knowledge.  A consciously people-centred focus is essential and can help us, as partners, to avoid unintended consequences.  The value of the knowledge and understanding of those who know and live in these environments should never be underestimated.   Sharing knowledge is vital as we move into a situation of genuine, equal partnerships and the joint development of new ideas in a process that meaningfully involves stakeholders from relevant sectors and scales.