Norming through Storming

An account of the SIAGI half-yearly progress review workshop, by Chiranjeevi Tallapragada (LNRMI) and Wendy Merritt (ANU)

The SIAGI team met for the project’s first six monthly review on 3-5 October 2016 in the IIT Salt Lake guesthouse in Kolkata. The participants could not have imagined that the three days would lead to so much positive change.

The workshop sessions started with partner presentations on farmer household typologies. There are many ways to develop typologies, the pros and cons of which were discussed in depth. Despite a forecast of winds of change from the project leader, the sessions moved briskly through the value chain analysis and public-private partnerships. Whilst the project team has narrowed down what value chains we may look at, it was recognised that we need to do more engagement with the target communities and further understand the context of our case study regions before selecting the crop or aquaculture systems. The winds started blowing from the post-lunch sessions onwards but the extent of the storm was not yet visible.

Sailing through group discussions and interaction (Photo: Mahanam Dashbrota)

The storm crossed the coast on the second day with discussions on the ethics of community engagement. Most participatory processes don’t treat communities with respect and facilitators (or researchers) instead use participation to justify what they recommend should be done for the good of communities. Truly ethical community engagement recognises the ability of the communities to know what is good for them and to be the keystone for making positive change. The role of the facilitator is to help make connections, provide support and let the community determine outcomes. While a project may stimulate change, the project timelines are for the research processes but not for the communities who are on a continuous journey.

There was a consensus that the SIAGI team needs to ethically engage with the communities in the case studies. However, the eye of the storm centred on what the ethics of engagement meant to each person in the room, what could be its objectives, what rules to follow while engaging, what processes need to be adopted, how to balance the engagement needs of project components and who in the team needed to be involved at what point in time. The role of facilitators, skills that would be needed and the outputs that may be derived and the potential risks or limitations were some of the issues that we encountered. It was apparent we needed to step back and re-design our strategy for on-going engagement with the communities. A fantastic although challenging outcome!

Describing the iterative, inclusive path to ethical community engagement  (Photo: Mahanambrota Das) 

After the ethics discussions subsided, the team was provided with an overview of the findings from the review into institutional arrangements and policy settings relevant to our project aims in coastal areas of Bangladesh and West Bengal. The day concluded with some operational discussions. That evening we walked from the guesthouse to have a lovely dinner at a local restaurant – lovely food and great company!

The crew adjourns to the mess hall (Photo: Mahanambrota Das)

The third day began with a presentation on bio-economic modelling for agricultural intensification, work that offers multiple opportunities for community engagement. Farmers are critical to inform the objectives of the modelling and capture the resources available to them and the constraints they face. The team felt that the process of engaging with farmers to build the model was a concrete example of the ethical community engagement processes previously discussed. The session on integrated modelling allowed the team to consider the overall picture of how each project activity fits together and reflect on the substantial conceptual understanding of that the team has already developed.

Colleagues concentrate hard to stay afloat in the challenging research seas.  (Photo: Mahanambrota Das)

The workshop concluded with a discussion about the range of stakeholders we may need to engage with, and monitoring and evaluation. The team noted the continual process of identifying stakeholders and the need to start early. Monitoring and evaluation will need to be intertwined with the re-designed community engagement process.

Throughout the whole workshop there was an overall excitement in making new connections and bonding through mutual respect. Many participants stated that the joint India-Bangladesh-Australia meeting was how they wanted meetings to occur in the future. All the thought-provoking and challenging discussions were held without our captain losing control or direction of the ship. The project in terms of its maturity cruised several nautical miles into clearer skies, towards an exciting vision of a new dawn for participatory development and research.

Our captain feels the wind from each quarter (Photo: Mahanambrota Das)


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