Thesis title: Assessing impacts of agricultural research for development in culturally diverse environments in the Northwest Highlands of Vietnam — Sustainability, participation and communication

Principal supervisor: Associate Professor Elske van de Fliert

Associate supervisor: Dr Oleg Nicetic

Thesis abstract:

Since the late 1990s, various development efforts and research initiatives have been conducted by national research institutions and international development agencies for the economic development of the Northwest Highlands of Vietnam. A shift towards a research for development approach, which targets the immediate use of research outputs for development purposes, became apparent in the late 2000s. These agricultural research for development (AR4D) projects have adopted participatory processes in an attempt to better link the research with development. It is important to understand the contribution of these AR4D projects to rural development, not only in terms of knowing the extent of the impacts and their sustainability but also for informing appropriate agricultural policies and research for development strategies in the future.

Despite the importance of knowing the impacts of AR4D, the impact assessment of agricultural research initiatives in the Northwest Highlands remains problematic in regard to both the objectives and methods. This study developed a holistic impact assessment framework for the Highlands and tested the proposed framework in order to validate its appropriateness and gain insights into how AR4D underpinned by participatory processes can contribute to better changes in people’s lives. The results of the application of this framework would also help to inform future development policies and effective AR4D interventions with a particular focus on a highly culturally diverse region.

To achieve the overall objective, this study employed mixed methods largely based on qualitative data collection methods in combination with documentary research. The documentary research included a review of the literature on development theories and practices related to the impact assessment of AR4D projects. It also included an examination of secondary sources on the impact assessment approaches in agricultural research projects implemented by active research institutions and development agencies in the Northwest Highlands. The primary data was collected by primarily using qualitative methods such as focus group discussions (FGDs) with farmers, semi-structured interviews with farmers, and in-depth interviews with key informants including local leaders, agricultural extension staff and agricultural researchers who were actively involved in research projects in the Highlands. This was complemented by a limited amount of quantitative data derived from the interviews. The fieldwork was conducted in two districts of Son La province, covering the implementation sites of three agricultural research projects. The purposive sampling method was used for the selection of participants of both the FGDs and in-depth interviews. Three field trips to Son La were made, in December 2012, September 2013 and July 2014.

The initial findings were reported back to the participants in order to elicit their feedback and validate the data. All the gathered primary data and information was recorded, reviewed and translated into English. Thematic analysis was used for data analysis and interpretation of the research findings. This involved cleaning the quantitative and qualitative data, coding the data based on its themes or patterns, and carrying out analysis with the assistance of the latest SPSS software.

The research results indicate that a conventional top-down approach with limited attention paid to the social complexity of the Northwest Highlands was used in most of the Vietnamese Government-funded and international agency-funded research projects. A short-term and economic focus was taken in the impact assessments of most research projects in the region. The impact assessment efforts aimed to measure direct research outputs, report scientific findings and analyse cost-effectiveness for donors and funding agencies rather than account for the sustainable livelihoods of the target communities. Weak mechanisms for sharing impact assessment results with and getting feedback from stakeholders was also identified as a major cause of a low level of contribution of impact findings to local livelihood development. These weaknesses also led to poor evidence on how the AR4D projects had contributed to – or rather, failed to deliver – sustainable impacts in the Northwest Highlands.

The research findings indicate that the framework that includes the five key components: 1) types of agricultural research, ii) key groups of assessment indicators; 3) impact assessment strategies, 4) methods and tools used for impact assessment and 5) communicating results to stakeholders can help to measure fully impacts of AR4D. This proposed holistic impact assessment framework utilising the sustainable livelihoods framework and participatory methods can help to assess the contribution of participatory processes in AR4D projects to subsequent development outcomes in different social contexts. This impact assessment framework can be utilized not only for the Northwest Highlands of Vietnam but also for other countries and regions with similar levels of socio-economic and cultural diversity. Using the sustainable livelihoods framework as a lens for identifying multiple livelihood impacts provides a better understanding of the complexities involved in social change and development, while participatory techniques enhance the participation of the target stakeholders in the impact assessment processes.

By applying the proposed impact assessment framework in three agricultural research projects in the Northwest Highlands, the study found that the AR4D project that had adopted participatory processes to conduct the research and facilitate the immediate use of research outputs for development achieved better social, human, economic and natural impacts for local communities than the other two projects. The findings suggest that the holistic framework would not work well if researchers lack good facilitation skills or a deep understanding of the local culture and power structures. They also indicate that researchers should pay attention to the flexible use and modification of the framework in order to adapt it to local contexts and to more comprehensively assess the impacts of AR4D in culturally diverse regions.

Life after thesis

After his PhD study, Nhuan returned to teaching work at the Faculty of Economics and Rural Development, Vietnam National University of Agriculture (VNUA). He applies the impact assessment frameworks developed through his PhD study in several research projects carried out by VNUA in rural areas of Vietnam. He has been continuing to revise his framework to make it fit better to different social and research contexts in Vietnam.