Roots, Tubers and Bananas- working on “Flagship Products” towards Intermediate Development Outcomes
I had the opportunity to facilitate a meeting of representatives of the four Centers (CIP, CIAT, Bioversity, IITA) and other partners of the CGIAR Research Program (CRP) on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) in CIAT (March 20- 22). This CRP has been in the intensive process of establishing the foundations for results based management, thus dealing with impact pathways. In this workshop, the focus were flagship products and their pathways through intermediate development outcomes, with the end of improving the CRP Research impact on livelihoods. RTB is looking to answer difficult questions regarding what it entails to implement results based management “for real”. The team has been leading with the concept of “flagship products” as a way to “encompass the big ideas for RTB research and research results” and “ to go beyond a simple aggregation of the current product portfolio within themes, toward rational cross-theme, cross- center and cross-crop products and outcomes” (Graham Thiele, RTB Director). RTB has already influenced Consortium-level thinking on the inclusion of flagships as an indicator in annual performance monitoring.
During the workshop, participants from the 4 centers and the 4 main RTB crops (potato, cassava, plantain and yam) presented the flagships they have been drafting for a couple months now, and the workshop team “chose” four of these to work on, as examples for the further development of the complete RTB Flagships Portfolio. We aspired to also discuss and achieve a better understanding of the shift to results- based management and the set of RTB Intermediate Development Outcomes (IDOs), and then, necessarily, concepts of impact pathways.
Key issues and “food for thought” came out in the discussions- most of them are related to the “big questions” of research for development initiatives: when does research “finish” and development “begin”? How can we trace the contributions of science to development, that is, from our “flagships” (big products) through next users and partnerships, all the way to final effects on our beneficiaries and their environment? Where can we quantify, and what other ways can we use to “connect” what we do with what is happening beyond our pilot sites (or areas of direct influence)?
We discussed some of these “big issues” in the context of RTB and its implementation of results based management, here are my favorite ones:
Partnerships vis-à-vis attribution of impact
We want to (need to!) work in partnerships, yes. According to the simplest definition in Perspectives on Partnerships Literature Review (Horton, Prain and Thiele, 2009), “partnerships are collaborative relationships between organizations that are pursuing common objectives” When truly working towards common objectives– how to separate the effects into neat little attributable boxes? This will be a challenge, especially as the collaboration grows to include more and more varied partners: while part of our theory of change is that if many different organizations work in partnership, together we will be more likely to have impact. This works inversely to our capacity to monitor, evaluate and eventually attribute this impact to RTB (or any other (especially research) program). Our ability to pinpoint the extent of our “results” (in this case IDOs and System Level Outcomes achieved), which is at the core of results based management, is then made more difficult by rich partnerships, how will we find this middle ground?
Products: offer vs. demand
A lot of work is going on now (and not only in RTB!) aimed at resolving how to harmonize the work we are already doing, that is already in our portfolios, expertise and thus where we have the most comparative advantage with a few well- designed flagships that address a strong demand/ need from, well, the whole world out there? During this workshop, I observed with happiness that RTB scientists (most of the ones here, at least), definitely its leaders and Jacqueline Ashby and Anne Marie Izac of the Consortium, who were here again helping us, all realize that this is an organic process. That a quick, forced “retrofit” is not the answer here and that indeed, there is no easy answer to this. There was recognition in the group that slowly but surely, we will find and be able to really run with those few but hardy products that are needed for contributing to solve at least one of the System- Level Outcomes, and where we also have the scientific lead! Some of the flagships we progressed on during this workshop are sure starting to look like it.
Funding needed for upstream and downstream research
This is definitely another issue that is not limited to RTB, but that is crucial when thinking about results- based design and funding “pull”. Of course it will be easier to make the funding case for not-too-resource-demanding products that have already been advanced, and that are already either being used, being adopted or even showing outcomes, and where we have strong partners and a good history of work, that is: very “downstream” (referring to the production pipeline) products. And it will be harder to justify the funds for blue sky, “upstream”, lab-based, lengthy research products, products that still haven’t proved their mettle and usually don’t even have their potential so clearly mapped out… but that are the heart of what we do in the CGIAR, and may be the only way for us to continue researching. One of the opportunities here lies in forging strong public-private partnerships which address the issue of funding research, but this comes with problems of its own, such as ownership of the results. Another partial solution is to make an effort to “map out” the connections between blue-sky research and outcomes very well, to justify investment. This also has influence on the way we are designing impact evaluations: how to make sure the connections between the funding and the results emphasize the role of research.
These conundrums of course remain “unanswered”, and will keep coming back as we “cycle” our way to outcomes with the CRPs. An RTB’s well implemented results- based management, combined with their commitment to outcomes and impact, and what has been a careful consideration of the roles of gender research, capacity building and knowledge sharing in impact pathways, will surely contribute to answer these questions.