Towards a relational approach to agency for mapping pathways into and out of poverty

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Global poverty looks radically different in the 21st century as climate-related events, political-religious conflicts and economic growth-inequality nexuses add to persistent forms of social exclusion based on gender, race, and class. In this uncertain and unpredictable context, we require new approaches to understand complex pathways into and out of poverty, directing attention to poor people's collective capacity to bring about transformative change i.e., their agency, as constituted by social networks and relations with nature, and mediated by science and technology. Our aim is to develop the concepts and methods of an innovative 'relational agency pathways approach', drawing on theories from Science, Technology and Society studies and the 'pathways approach' to poverty reduction and social justice, which emphasise interactions between social, technological and environmental change.

We will develop this new approach to understand diverse pathways out of poverty for smallholders and the landless in agriculture, in two arenas. First, we will study how small farmers and farmworkers adapt new technologies on the farm, as their cultivation practices are transformed due to technological and environmental change. Second, we will study how farmers turn a harvested crop into a commodity for the market, negotiating their relationships with credit providers and traders. Both these arenas played out dramatically under the 'Green Revolution', from the 1960s onwards, when technology, markets and government support were used to intensify agricultural production. 

The first geographical focus of our work will be on the North Arcot region of Tamil Nadu, India, a classic exemplar of the Green Revolution in Asia, where extensive historical data since the early 1970s are available. Collaborating with our co-investigators at Madras Institute of Development Studies, and collecting new life history data in the field, we will map long-term agency pathways into and out of poverty constituted by changing technologies, natural resources and social worlds, as lived by people of different genders, classes and castes. We will test the approach in Machakos County in Kenya (in collaboration with our co-investigator at African Centre for Technology Studies), where several attempts have been made to get a Green Revolution off the ground, but none have been sustainable. In addition to relying on archival data and collecting life histories using ethnographic engagement with the study's participants, we will use a workshop format to collect data on how people evaluate diverse pathways out of (and into) poverty along a range of criteria derived from conventional indicators of welfare and well-being as well as those designed by the participants themselves.

To communicate our approach in other low-income contexts, we will develop a training programme for junior researchers. There will be broad-based participation from researchers, policymakers and farmers throughout the project, and we will organise a final workshop in Kenya, which will bring these participants together in a safe space for collective learning, where our findings and approach can be confronted with their different knowledges and experiences.

We will present our work in academic and policy forums, produce policy briefs and web blogs and a short documentary film (to engage with audiences beyond academia and policy). We see our research to be of interest to at least five groups: a) government institutions attempting to intensify smallholder agriculture through better use of natural resources and new technologies; b) rural development organisations (including non-governmental ones), active in organising initiatives for poverty alleviation; c) academic researchers working on agricultural sustainability and poverty issues in the global south; d) environmental NGOs at international and grassroots levels; e) farmers' associations such as the East African Farmers' Federation.

Our impact approach rests on four pillars of co-production, accessibility, innovativeness and relevance. In the context of efforts to achieve a sustained Green Revolution transformation in LICs, this project will recast farmers' agency from being a problem, to being constituted by relational processes in ways that allow them to escape poverty. Central among the intended end-beneficiaries of this project are poor people in rural areas, including the farmers and workers whose agency has been under-recognised by existing programmes. Our project will contribute to new approaches for realising these benefits for poor people in rural Africa and India by revealing policy-relevant lessons drawn from the successful transformations observed in North Arcot (Tiruvannamalai and Vellore districts). The immediate beneficiaries therefore are regional and national public policy-making institutions in Africa and India, international agricultural development organisations/initiatives, smallholder farmers' associations, and civil society organisations in both regions (see Pathways to Impact for a list of names). 

To maximise the relevance and potential for instrumental impact from our research we will ensure that beneficiaries' needs and priorities are taken into account from the beginning. The inception workshop in India will be attended by the project advisory committee from India and Africa, who will help frame the research with the core team, ensure relevance and define interest in policy networks. The inception workshop will involve selected stakeholders in co-designing the project's outreach strategy through the use of an adapted Participatory Impact Pathways Analysis (PIPA) as used by the ESRC STEPS Centre. This will map networks of stakeholders, articulate knowledge about their relationships, networks, pathways of influence, attitudes and interests, and identify potential ways to communicate and engage with them. This in turn will inform communications and engagement strategies and messages, including the use of existing digital platforms, papers, briefings and meetings. The project's Advisory Committee (see Pathways to Impact for membership) will provide further guidance on how our research can meet policy and other decision-making needs at continental (African Union), regional (East African Community) and local (civil society organisations, reached through our advisors) levels. Co-production of knowledge throughout is a vital component. The use of Multi-Criteria Mapping (MCM) in India and Africa will identify under-recognised priorities, values and visions of diverse possible pathways out of poverty among a diverse set of stakeholders. The final workshop of the project will be held in Kenya and will involve researchers and other policy-linked stakeholders from Africa and India, and members of the advisory committee. As well as project findings, a documentary film will be shared, presenting the findings in a persuasive, memorable and accessible medium.

To build a lasting legacy from the project and reach wider audiences, a series of academic outputs (Working Papers and journal articles) will be shared via a strategic alliance with the ESRC STEPS Centre and Future Agricultures Consortium, alongside blogs, opinion pieces, methods summaries, the film and other digital outputs. This includes using targeted mailing lists, dedicated and high-profile space on existing websites, and social media to encourage engagement with the project among wider academic and practitioner groups. A final training workshop for junior researchers will allow the research impact to live on beyond the end of the project. This workshop will launch and use a relational agency pathways approach training manual. The project design enables sharing of perspectives, learning and capacity to take place between our researchers, advisors and wider users between India and Africa, also opening potential pathways for further interactions and projects.

Primary theme: 
Themes: 
Grant Reference: 
ES/N014456/1
Project Status: 
Active
Grant Category: 
Research Grant
Lead Organisation Department: 
Sch of Business Management & Economics
Fund Start Date: 
October 1st, 2016
Fund End Date: 
March 31st, 2019
Fund Currency Code: 
GBP
Fund Value: 
409,878
development studies
science and technology studies
anthropology
poverty
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