New Publication: Worldviews Apart: Agriculture Extension and Smallholder Farmers

Cochrane, L. (2017) Worldviews Apart: Agriculture Extension and Ethiopian Smallholder Farmers. Journal of Rural Social Sciences 32: 98-118.

Abstract: This paper presents an inquiry-based learning assessment into why farmers in the highlands of Ethiopia were not adopting a new planting methodology promoted by the government and non-governmental organizations. It offers a process of reflexivity whereby assumptions emerge as the key barriers to misunderstanding, and focuses on the concept of divergent worldviews as an important consideration for understanding (non)adoption. The learning process offers insight for policy, programming and research, emphasizing learning instead of definitive conclusions.

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Doctoral Dissertation: Strengthening Food Security in Rural Ethiopia

Cochrane, L. 2017. Strengthening Food Security in Rural Ethiopia. Doctoral Dissertation, University of British Columbia. 

Abstract: Food insecurity in rural areas of southern Ethiopia is widespread; in recent years over half of all communities in this region have been reliant upon emergency support. However, food security status varies significantly from year to year, as the region experiences variations in rainfall patterns. Research is required to better understand how food security can be strengthened. To do so, this research was driven by three research questions. First, what makes smallholder farmers in southern Ethiopia vulnerable to food insecurity. Second, according to the literature, the adoption of programs and services is low, and thus a community-based assessment was undertaken to understand why. The third question reflected on the methodology – a participatory, co-produced approach, evaluating whether this form of engaged research enabled positive change. The findings suggest that vulnerability to food insecurity differs by scale. At the community level, access to irrigation infrastructure strengthened food security, and was the most transformative difference between the communities. Within communities, food security distribution was complex and few generalizations can be made. The participatory processes identified that research often makes invisible the purposeful and insightful choices farmers make. When surveyed, they are asked to provide generalizations about input use, crop choice and practices, when in reality each crop, input and practice varies. Similarly, some commonly used measures of vulnerability can also be expressions of security; aggregated averages obfuscate localized inequality. For some programs and services, adoption was found to be quite high – it was only when all services were analyzed as a package that adoption was low. However, not all programs and services served the food insecure households, and the reasons for this are explored in detail. The participatory, co-produced approach enabled unique research questions and metrics and added significant value to the research process, which may also enable long-term positive change to programs and services.

Full text is available for download here.

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New Publication: Debt & Rural Development (Ethiopia)

Cochrane, L. and Thornton, A. (2017) A Socio-Cultural Analysis of Smallholder Borrowing and Debt in Southern Ethiopia. Journal of Rural Studies 49: 69-77.


  • This paper combines qualitative and quantitative research methods in an exploratory study of borrowing and debt in rural southern Ethiopia in order to understand the complexities of the rural finance system and frequency of borrowing and debt in rural, smallholder settings. By comparing geospatial location in relation to access to infrastructure, markets and services within a single agroecological setting, we explore the ways in which these factors influence the frequency of borrowing, sources, amounts and interest rates involved, as well as the duration and extent of borrowing and debt. We find great variation amongst the communities studied, highlighting the importance of the localized nature of borrowing and debt and identify barriers and opportunities that will support the (re)adjusting of policies and programs that would enable smallholder households to overcome cycles of borrowing and debt, and build assets.
The full article is gated. But available here. Abstract and further publication details available via the link above. If you would like a copy of the article, send me an email.
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Putting the Last First

In 1983 Robert Chambers published "Rural Development: Putting the Last First." If you have not come across this book, it is well worth finding a copy. As a book written more than three decades ago, it offers some perspective on what lessons have been learned. However, this book is particularly challenging to read as you encounter issues that are almost exactly the same today as they were in 1983.

The book begins exploring biases – a topic everyone needs to critical (re)reflect upon all the time. Specifically, Chambers highlights those related to rural experiences: "The direct rural experience of most urban-based outsiders is limited to the brief and hurried visits, from urban centers, of rural development tourism. These exhibit six biases against contact with and learning from the poorer people. These are spatial – urban, tarmac, and roadside; project – toward places where there are projects; person – toward those who are better off, men rather than women, users of services and adopters of practice rather than non-users and non-adapters, and those who are active, present and living; seasonal , avoiding the bad times of the wet season; diplomatic, not seeking out the poor for fear of giving offence; and professional, confined to the concerns of the outsider's specialisation. As a result, the poorer rural people are little seen and even less is the nature of their poverty understood." (p. 2) In a previous post on Eyben's 2014 book, I posed the question to what extent the biases are unintentional, when in fact choices are being made (specifically those of choosing to live an expat live and entrenching the biases). Chambers also notes this: "There is also an element of choice. Outsiders choose what to do – where to go, what to see, and whom to meet" (p. 4).

Chambers' second topic of concern is that of the "negative academic" and the "positive practitioner" divide: "Outsiders polarise into two cultures: a negative academic culture, mainly of social scientists, engaged in unhurried analysis and criticism; and a more positive culture of practitioners, engaged in time-bounded action. Each culture takes a poor view of the other and the gap between them is often wide" (p. 28). Further: "to some critical and intolerant academics, practitioners are narrow-minded philistines and at best naïve reformists, part of a system of exploitation of which they are largely unaware" (p. 29). Chambers understands these divides as being rooted in training as academics are taught "to criticise and are rewarded for it" but also notes that the "critical attitudes have made an enormous contribution" (p. 29). I can only assume this has moderately improved since the early 1980s, but nonetheless continues (asthis 2016 development studies book highlighted). For the critical academics, Chambers offers some thoughts for their reflection: "It is easy to write about what ought to be. The hard question is how, in the real, messy, corrupting world to encourage and enable more people to move in these directions" (p. 189).

I found it quite interesting that Chambers raised a key challenge to the research and academic community – again, in 1983 – that has still not been addressed in a substantial way: "Supposedly rigorous in research methodology, academics are astonishingly unrigorous in the diffusion of their findings. To impress peers and promotion boards they publish impenetrable prose in prestigious journals… Enormous sums are devoted to research and little to diffusion of research results. Diffusion and impact are often left to take care of themselves" (p. 62-63). To this concern, I add the challenges of people who need access to the research (i.e. government staff, policy makers) do not have access to the journal articles.

One of the practical solutions Chambers offers to challenges the biases is for outsider professionals "to step down off their pedestals, and sit down, listen and learn" (p. 101) and to recognize "small farmers as professionals and colleagues, as fellow experimenters and developers of technology" (p. 206). The final chapter, however, explicitly offers concrete recommendations, and concludes: "These six approaches – sitting; asking and listening; learning from the poorest; learning indigenous technical knowledge; joint R and D [Research and Development]; learning by working; and simulation games – all reverse the learning process. They encourage and enable those being trained or educated to learn from the many below and not just from the few above" (p. 209).

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Logan Cochrane

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