Unsexy topics, paralysis and the dancefloor

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Lennart Woltering is a Scaling Advisor at CIMMYT. In a recent interview, we asked for his general advice on scaling. Today, we pick up on comments he made in a conversation with Germany’s GIZ for its “World without Hunger” (WwH) website.   

Syngenta Foundation: You say that people “should not fall in love with the solution [but] with the problem”. It’s great to be passionate.  But doesn’t the need to fall in love just reinforce the issue you also mentioned to WwH – that ’unsexy’ topics don’t get tackled enough?  

Lennart Woltering: That depends on your standpoint. What if a solution is the one thing that you work on for years? You convince donors to back it and you commit to scaling it up. Then you’ll probably fall into the “hammer looking for a nail” trap. However, if you fall in love with the problem, you get to know its history and roots. You find out why it exists in region A, but not B. Understanding all that at a structural and cultural level helps one to see that solving the problem is not a quick fix. It needs a range of tweaks, nudges and changes in many different areas. Your beloved solution is only a piece of the puzzle.

Everyone would agree with you that we all “have to use development funding very wisely”. But what would be good agricultural examples of ‘very wise’ use, and judged on what basis?

Whether in farming or other areas, it’s really about three points: supporting local processes, amplifying good things that are already happening and being a broker or facilitator. You have to focus on collaboration, contribution and outcomes, instead of competition, attribution and outputs. Too often, organizations want to show what they and their money can ‘do’ in a particular country. The danger is that they act like the kind of company that looks for the biggest market share, creates dependencies and concentrates on its own sustainability. The focus must be on the public good.

You advise us all to do more of the “silent work behind the scenes”. What sort of tasks are you thinking of here that are relevant for scaling?  

My team has just submitted a paper on capacity development and scaling conservation agriculture. It looks at four large programs in Mexico, Southern Africa and South Asia. As a proxy measure of scaling success, their reporting counted the number of people trained. The trouble is that that the numbers all the attention, both of the implementers and funders. That makes it to see the importance of their fit with the ‘higher levels’ –  such as strengthening organizational capacity, cooperation structures or the enabling environment. Individuals’ capacity development can give you some impressive numbers up front. But if it’s not integrated into those higher levels, it is normally neither very effective nor sustainable. However, higher-level capacity development is harder to plan, control and quantify. That doesn’t mean it is missing, it is more hidden. In our paper, we propose a conceptual framework that makes it very explicit what capacity development at the different levels implies. Similar research on how CIMMYT actually approaches scaling in practice makes that same call  to create more attention to and appreciation of such ‘behind the scenes’ activities.

.You devote a lot of energy to enabling successful scaling. So it’s surprising to hear you saying that “scaling per se is not good”. You add that “we have to have responsible limits to growth”. What are the disadvantages of scaling in smallholder farming, and who should decide where to set the limits of growth?

Agriculture is the world’s biggest water user. It can also be a major polluter and threat to biodiversity. We have to respect planetary limits, “do no harm” and “leave no one behind”. Don’t confuse commercial scaling pathways with those for the public good. The former typically look for maximum scale for a few. But at my overall organization, the CGIAR, we need to optimize for the scale at which most people can benefit, and at the lowest environmental costs. We would call this “responsible scaling”; any organization that holds up the public good should insist on it. Local governments should take a more active role here, too. Thanks to the 2013 quinoa boom, South American farmers were able to sell the crop at high prices. Some were literally growing quinoa under their beds, abandoning fallow rotation systems going back to the Incas. Within a few years the soils were exhausted, and production and livelihood systems completely collapsed. We’re now working in Bolivia to find a new sustainable equilibrium for cultivating quinoa.

A major ‘Woltering Warning’ is against “paralysis by analysis”. You tell us all not to “analyze so much that you get stuck”. What is a notorious agricultural development example, and how does one avoid falling into this trap?  

I think this happens at different levels. We all know an innovator who keeps on tweaking his/her innovation without trying it out in the real world, or a donor who demands elaborate but largely irrelevant environmental, social and other assessments before a big project is launched. We live in a dynamic environment and our interventions change it further. It is important to work under real-world conditions. Take things one step at a time: learn and go on, learn and go on. In other words, be brave and flexible enough to change course or steps if necessary. Keep tabs on the systems that are important, work with a multidisciplinary team and invest in monitoring and evaluation. 

Donella Meadows, the ‘godmother’ of systems thinking, said that we can’t control systems or figure them out, but we can dance with them! This requires us first to “get the beat” and listen to the system. So get on the dancefloor and don’t hang around at the bar figuring out what moves to make!

Read our Foundation’s recent paper on Scaling.