Livestock Research for Rural Development 11 (2) 1999

Citation of this paper

Participatory research with farmers: Lessons gained from postgraduate training courses in Vietnam

John Kornerup Bang

Departments of the Science of Religion and Political Science,
University of Aarhus, Aarhus, Denmark


An evaluation was made of 17 students who participated in three MSc courses in sustainable agricultural production in Vietnam. The evaluation focussed on three main aspects reflecting an approach that seeks to combine an ecological perspective, focus on resource poor farmers (RPF) and the participation of these farmers in the process of research and extension. Overall,  65% of the students were performing within a framework generally corresponding to this combination. Aspects concerning a technological perspective relevant for the environment and RPF stood strongest. It is crucial that participatory processes are embedded in a relevant technological perspective, as a pure focus on the farmers perspective is illusory just as the farmer’s perspective tends to be narrow and opportunistic. However, even though a firm instrumental participatory performance was identified, it is recommended that  for futurecourses there should be more emphasis on the participatory processes in a more open-ended way. This is foremost a prerequisite to create more commitment and to build up capacities among farmers and thereby address in a better way critical concerns such as the sustainability of the technology together with it’s lateral spread. The final perspective of the proposed approach is the concern that policy-changes towards the kind of development, so highly emphasised recently, that is based on a strong focus on the environment, and the needs and priorities of the intended beneficiaries through their participation in the process, are worth only little if the persons to carry out this task have no expertise in the subject matter. The actual performance of the students analysed represents serious potentials in addressing this concern.

Key words: Participation, farmers, MSc courses, sustainability, environment


Much has been written in recent years about participation, sustainable development, gender and indigenous knowledge. In this context Chambers (1993) has argued for the need for a new professional and the following is an analysis of initial experiences in creating such a new professional in a Vietnamese context. Specifically, it is an analysis of a sample of three batches of  students who participated in MSc courses in sustainable agricultural production. The analysis is done with respect to three main aspects reflecting an approach that seeks to combine an ecological perspective, focus on resource poor farmers (RPF) and the participation of these farmers in the process of research and extension. The key variables from the Farmer-First-and Last model (FFL) are "on-farm research", "focus on RPF", "flexibility", and "origin of research issues" – the technology’s relevance for RPF – and the participation of the farmers in the research project.

The two first batches of students were financed by the Swedish donors SIDA and SAREC and obtained their degrees from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences although their research was done in Vietnam or another developing country. The third batch of students obtained their degree from the University of Tropical Agriculture Foundation (UTA) ( in a course carried out wholly in Vietnam and partially financed by the Danish Embassy in Hanoi.

Dr T R Preston ( founded originally the idea for these courses and throughout the years, he has remained a central force in their conduct. However, over the years the intellectual and practical leadership of the courses has been derived from a significant group of scientists.  For all of the students thatg were interviwed, except two, their home institutions were part, in some way or another, of the Vietnamese agricultural research and extension system, mainly the universities. The remaining two students came from NGOs outside Vietnam.

The philosophy behind the SAREC and UTA courses

The Colombian experience

The concepts underlying all three training courses were developed during the late 1980's in the Cauca Valley in Colombia where an applied research programme, instigated by a consortium of Farmer Associations, aimed to develop extension messages for farmers in better use of local resources in livestock-based farming systems. The innovative part was that the research and extension activities served also as a learning opportunity for recently graduated professionals in agriculture. Key features of the programme were:

Over a period of 8 years some 40 young agricultural professionals benefited from this programme and interventions were developed with high levels of adoption by the participating farmers.

Transferring the Colombian experience to Asia and Africa

In a SIDA-SAREC financed initiative to attempt the transfer of this experience to ecologically fragile zones in selected countries in Asia (Vietnam and Cambodia) and Africa (Tanzania, Kenya and Ethiopia), a number of compromises were made so as to accommodate the training within the norms of a formal MSc course offered by the executing agency (SLU, Uppsala)

In the first course (1992-94) students from Vietnam (4), Tanzania (3), Kenya (1), Cambodia (1) and Colombia (4) did:

All students were given laptop computers. The research was on-station with the exception of one student who did his project in a village in Colombia.

In the second course (1994-96) with students from Vietnam, Cambodia, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Nicaragua and Colombia, greater orientation towards farmers and the target countries was achieved by moving the introductory course work to Vietnam (University of Agriculture and Forestry, Ho Chi Minh city) and putting emphasis on closer farmer involvement in the research. A highly successful innovation was when the students spent 2 weeks of their course work in Vietnam participating in a "learning by doing" experience through executing mini-projects, and using their computers to analyse the results, in a pilot ecological farm setting which was also the home in Vietnam of Dr Preston, the principal architect of the project.

The obvious success of this feature of the course and a desire on the part of several of the core resource persons to accelerate the transition to a more farm-oriented programme, fully based in Vietnam and with greater emphasis on use of the rapidly developing information technology, gave rise to the initiative to form the University of Tropical Agriculture Foundation (UTA). Funding was secured from the Danish Embassy in Hanoi for a pilot project to test these more radical ideas and the first course managed by UTA began in November 1996.

The mission of UTA

UTA is the site where lectures are given to the students and it is at UTA that the students get their initial practical training. There is an ecological farm and it is located in the campus of the College of Agriculture and Forestry, part of the Ho Chi Minh National University, Thu Doc, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Between the visits to UTA the students conduct research for their theses at their home institutions.

The fundamental point of departure for UTA's vision, is the fact that in the final analysis the Sun is the only sustainable source of energy, and therefore it is crucial to do research to develop technologies that make it possible for the Sun to provide enough energy to furnish the needs for feed of animals and food for humans. This strategy includes "making the most of available resources and wasting as little as possible". Thus the need for integrated farming systems. The main components of the integrated farming system at the UTA ecological farm are: local or cross breeds of ducks, chicken, pigs (Mong Cai),  goats (Bach Thao), cattle and buffaloes, sugar cane, cassava,  multipurpose trees, the plastic low-cost biodigester, and ponds for duckweed and fish.

It is a fundamental point that this kind of agriculture is seen to respond both to environmental challenges and the special conditions of resource poor farmers (RPF).

The UTA was established in order to "offer appropriate education for tropical conditions." The course consists of a three-month intensive training programme at UTA. This is followed by eighteen months of research for the thesis at the student’s daily workplace. Finally, there is a period of three months of analysis of findings, including one month at UTA for preparation of the research dissertations.

As indicated above the main focus of the course is the ecological perspective, but it includes other aspects as well. Foremost is a "learning-by-doing" approach, and a fundamental concern to learn in a real ambience, including the participation of the farmers, particularly the women. This aspect is more accentuated in some articles written by the leaders of the centre (Rodríguez et al 1996; Preston 1995; Rodríguez 1998). These research methodological aspects derive to a great extent from inspiration from the farmer-first-and-last model (FFL) developed by Chambers and Ghildyal (1985) and Chambers and Jiggins (1986).

Thus the strategy of UTA, even though the ecological aspect seems to be the main concern, presents itself as an approach that seeks to combine ecological concern, with explicit focus on RPF and the participation of the farmers.


While key aspects of the FFL model and the technologies’ relevance for RPF can be represented by quite straightforward concepts, the concept of participation, on the contrary, is somewhat ambiguous. Thus a careful elaboration of it’s meaning is needed in order to get hold of it’s most immediate implications.

Typologies of participation often list a range of meanings of participation.   Rajakutty (1991:39), referring to Kirks (1983), offers a fundamental distinction between two meanings of participation. The first is:

"Instrumental participation. When participation is viewed as a way of achieving certain specific targets, the local people participate in the outsiders’ project."

In instrumental participation the focus is on the felt needs and the socio-economic context of the local people, the insider, in order to get the best possible information required for the design and implementation process. This is based on the central insight that technology is (also) a socio-cultural phenomena, thus it becomes imperative to evaluate a technology in relation to the socio-economic context in which it has to function. It is known to be important, especially in relation to sustainability, that the projects fit the insiders' felt needs. Here, the insider is used (hence the word "instrumental") to extract information from, in order to be able to make an appropriate design, which is expected to help ensure that the fundamental objectives of the outsider are achieved.

The other meaning of participation is:

"Transformational participation. When participation is viewed as an objective in and of itself and as a means of achieving some higher objective such as self-help and/or sustainability."

Focus is still on the insider but the approach is more radical, as it is a fundamental premise that the insider must participate in defining methods and the objective of the project, due to a fundamental focus on capacity building. Development is not viewed as a specific outcome but as an ongoing process during which the insider is becoming more and more capable of controlling her/his own development. Paradigmatically it could be expressed like this:

The two types of participation mentioned above can be seen as extreme and opposite ends on a continuum referring to a still higher degree of influence on the decision process as one moves away from instrumental towards transformational participation or vice versa, but this distinction also includes a contrast, which highlights that the difference is not only a question of degree of influence, but a question of different objectives.

Ideally stated: it is either the objective to use the farmers in the realisation of a predefined project of the outsider, or, to realise the project of the farmer. It is important to acknowledge that these two different situations have very far-reaching implications on every level in a development process where different people are interacting.

The relativity of relevance

The famous anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1973:5) has defined man as:

"…an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun,…"

This definition is stressing the hermeneutic point, that the world is always a perceived world, thus pointing at the relativity of every concept, including the concept of "relevant technology" so central for the interest of this field of work.

Two central concepts within the field of anthropology and social science in general are dealing with the fundamental problem that arises from a hermeneutic understanding of the world, i.e. that the world does not look the same from different perspectives. This implies that anthropological research potentially views its object in a way totally different to the way the object views itself. It highlights the risk of basing research on categories completely irrelevant to the context as perceived by the insider (the object of the research, in the present case the farmer).

These two concepts are etic and emic, where the first refers to the perspective of the researcher (the outsider), the second refers to the perspective of the researched (the insider) (Wintrop 1991:91f). Against this background one can logically take three different positions concerning the question of a "right perspective": the etic, the emic, or, in a certain combination, both of them.

Within anthropology, or social and political science in general, insisting strongly on the etic perspective with reference to scientific rigour and a fundamental endeavour to generalise, can be seen as an acceptable point of view provided the objective of the research is generation of knowledge, and insofar as the perspective is to be applied within a society of researchers. Within the field of development research the situation is, at least on this aspect, very different, insofar as the ultimate aim of the research is generation of knowledge or technology applicable by the representatives (the farmers) of the emic perspective. Thus the emic perspective becomes of crucial importance. The fundamental question at stake is actually whether relevant technology can be generated exclusively on the basis of an etic perspective, and the answer implied in this way of thinking is in a fundamental sense "no".

There are two levels in this "no". One operates within the traditional anthropological point of view that research of contexts, different from the one of the researcher, demands that central categories of analysis be derived from that context. Thus the emic perspective is described and used by the researcher in order to produce more relevant knowledge. This is a concern that instrumental participation is approaching, but not fully encompassing. The other is due to the special task of development research aimed at generating technology applicable and actually applied by the insider. The point is that even the most appropriate etic analysis will have to deal with the risk that the "insider", for whatever possible or impossible reason, does not perceive the technology as relevant, in practice expressed by no adoption. Here the emic perspective is widened and refers directly to the insider’s perspective as expressed in action. This is within the concern of transformational participation.

These considerations tend to put a major emphasis on the emic perspective, but it must be noted that over-emphasising this may cause one to fall into an illusion. Illustration of the point can be found in Rajakutty (1991)  who, in his definitions, writes that in instrumental participation the insider participates in the project of the outsider, while there is no reference to this relationship for transformational participation. But it’s the etic perspective that is active, i.e. from where the initiative is taken. The emic perspective is defined in contrast to that, excluding thereby the possibility of a pure emic perspective. Therefore, also transformational participation is fundamentally the outsiders' project. The difference, as mentioned above, is to be found in the two perspectives' different objectives and their related methods and criteria of success.

Thus this conceptual perspective can not, and "will not", provide a reason for leaving, or trying to leave as much as possible, the etic perspective. Instead it points at the contrasting tendencies that one faces when dealing with these two perspectives simultaneously. It permits us to add to the above definition and description some general trends of the two types of participation and their mutual relationship.

Instrumental participation, fundamentally etic,  has the capacity to conduct analysis and generate technology based on macro-analytical insights and the experience of outsiders including, in addition, timely information from the insiders directly involved in a concrete piece of research work. The limitation of instrumental participation consists of the fact that it does not include the emic perspective in any direct sense, and it does thereby not address the question of relevance from the emic perspective explicitly and directly, i.e. any relevance for an insider is always seen and calculated from the etic perspective. Thus the focus of the learning process is foremost learning by the outsider about the insider.

Transformational participation addresses this problem as it has the insider's participation in all aspects of the process as its main feature (and a fundamental long-term objective of capacity building). It is a fundamental feature of the emic perspective, that the process must be open-ended, and the more open, and the closer the process gets to the emic perspective the more the process is gaining in relevance as perceived by the insider. This implies a strong focus on an interactive learning process where different perspectives can merge and commitment and relevant knowledge can be created. The limitation or, better,  the risk of transformational participation lies in a tendency to over-emphasise the emic perspective, in order to ensure relevance as perceived by the insider. In practice, this corresponds to a "the-farmer-is-always-right" attitude. This is, as mentioned above, logically impossible and thereby illusory, as the emic perspective is defined in contrast to the etic perspective. Furthermore it excludes the inclusion of macro-analytic and other experimental insights of the outsider.

Finally, the rather tricky point that these two extreme types of participation are both on a continuum, and in contrast, must be emphasised again. Thus the transformational participation is also focussing on the learning of the outsider, but more and more on the insider, and thereby at the same time operating with two different perspectives potentially in contrast. This irresolvable paradox is the fundamental point. Participatory processes are fundamentally characterised by a trade-off position between several perspectives that have to merge. That can happen only through a process, which is unique in every situation, and it is therefore imperative that the conceptual framework of participation ends in the tension between various perspectives, leaving it to practice to determine what to be done. This implies also that the two kinds of participation are not mutually exclusive, but complementary with partly separate focuses and potentials. Thus in concrete situations it is a question of "too much" or "lack of" some of these perspectives.

This can be seen as a theoretical motivation for a point that Roland Bunch, among others, emphasises on the base of practical experience after years in "development", and a few quotations give the point some depth of meaning. Bunch (1985:vi) writes that:

"…agricultural improvement among small, traditional farmers is, and always will be more an art than science."


"Program leaders will need to have a feel for the delicate balances between the value of change and a respect for the society’s traditional values, between the demand for excellence and the necessary freedom for local people to make their own decisions and learn from their own mistakes,…"


The farmer-first-and-last model (FFL)

This model was developed by Chambers and Ghildyal (1985) and Chambers and Jiggins (1986). It is a response to the fact that agricultural research has failed in the past to serve with any degree of success the poorest part of the World's farmers. Chambers (1993:60) identifies three kind of agriculture:

"…-industrial, green revolution, and a third, diverse and risk-prone agriculture."

While the traditional transfer-of-technology paradigm (TOT) has served the first two kinds of agriculture with success, this is not the case for the third kind of agriculture, mainly because it is so different in almost every aspect that the research process of the TOT paradigm fails to generate relevant technology (Chambers 1993:60-63). For a confrontation between the three kinds of agriculture see Chambers 1993: table 5.1.

This apparent conflict in research strategy has led to a search for new approaches, and the FFL model is only one among others trying to meet this challenge. Although there are huge differences among these new approaches, farmers' priorities and participation can be identified as fundamental key substances (Chambers: 1993:67).

It is fundamental that the FFL framework conceives the problem of the dominating paradigm that does not fit to a certain kind of agriculture, to relate to a whole set of issues ranging over the development of professionals, research methodologies, the award systems of universities,  habits of distribution of resources, and many more such features (Chambers and Ghildyal 1985:24). The aspect in focus for this study consists of research methodology and behaviour of the researcher, and the related challenge to train scientists in working with research methodologies and to adopt behaviours that are appropriate in order to meet the fundamental issues of the FFL model, i.e. to capture and understand the special conditions and nature of the "third type" of agriculture and to enable the participation of the farmers, in order both to base the process on the priorities of the farmer and to develop the capacities of the farmer to analyse and conduct experiments by him/herself (Chambers1993:74).

The practical aspects included and confronted in the FFL literature are many, but in order to get a foundation for an evaluation of actual performance, key features can be derived out of three fundamental reversals that are seen as representing in a general way the paradigmatic shift, i.e. the reversals of location, learning and explanation of non-adoption (Chambers and Ghildyal 1985:19f).

Reversal of location

This requires that scientists give priority to research on-farm, with the research station in a referral role. Remembering the fundamental motivation behind this model, i.e. the special character of the "third" agriculture, it is of crucial importance that scientists not only go on-farm, but that they do it in a way that will allow them to really understand the complexity of the "third" agriculture. That implies first of all that they should avoid simplifying to make conditions resemble the research station, in order to facilitate the type of measurements they are familiar with from the research station (Chambers 1993:65). It is equally important that the poor farmers are not left out for the sake of "getting good data", as it is exactly the complex conditions of the poorest farmers that the FFL model and - by inference - the UTA model claims to address.

Reversal of learning

This is the reversal that really reflects the contrasts inherent in the different kinds of participation, which also the FFL-model is fighting with. This includes that the researcher:

"…starts by systematically learning from farmers, with transfer of technology from farmer to scientist as a basic and continuous process." (Chambers and Ghildyal 1985:20)

This is in a certain sense an instrumental approach to the learning process, focussing on the researcher's effective extraction of information, but it is also so radical that it implies a search towards the pure emic perspective. Actually the model is also committed to the learning of the farmers in order to build up their capacities. There are, as pointed out earlier, contrasting tendencies here, which are not reflected in the quotation. In actual fact, taking into consideration all aspects in the literature concerning learning , the main focus can be said to be on a continuous interactive learning process where everybody - farmers and scientists - learn from each other and the process itself. That is the ideal. In practice there will always be the above-mentioned trade-off situations.

Reversal of explanation of non-adoption

This is the strongest and in principal the only pure emic perspective one can work with. It implies that research quality and relevance is evaluated by the actual adoption of the farmers. When farmers do not adopt, the conclusion - according to this reversal - should be that the technology does not fit and the research has not been relevant (Chambers and Ghildyal 1985:19).

Material and methods

Semi-structured interviews were conducted in September and October 1998 with 17 present and former students: three from the 1992-1994 SAREC funded course, 6 from the 1994-1996 SAREC funded course, and 8 from the 1996-1998 UTA course funded by Danida. Thus the samples were not complete for any of the courses. For the two SAREC funded courses this was so due to the fact that only a limited proportikon of the students were Vietnamese. For the UTA-course two students were left out due to "time-problems". Furthermore, it must be emphasised that an explicit focus on on-farm research was, along with other aspects, not very present in the first course (see the earlier section on the origin of the courses). Thus, it is somewhat of an approximation to attempt to evaluate all the courses by the same concepts. However, the key scope of describing actual experiences related to these concepts is still to some degree relevant even for the first course.

The subject of the interviews was the character of the research process on-farm and the work with the farmer, as the central theme, in the two-year period of the course. Furthermore, questions were asked to establish changes in relation to these issues over time i.e., the students' situation before, and from the beginning of the course to the time after the course - in the case of the students on the SAREC funded courses. Field visits to the sites for the on-farm research were made when possible, providing, by observation and interviews with farmers, a possibility for in-depth assessment of the character of the research process and it was an opportunity to verify the information obtained at the interviews. Finally, the research papers of all the students were examined.

The fact that field visits were made with only 7 out of 17 students obviously makes a theoretical difference in the status of the validity of the data obtained from the various students. However, in practice this is not considered a serious problem as there was found a high degree of agreement between the information obtained in the interviews and the field visits. Furthermore, the theses have served also to some extent as control measures, which makes it possible to compare all the students on a similar basis.

Finally, it must be emphasised that this study did not operate with any control group of students from a conventional MSc course. Thus the scope of the study is to describe an actual performance and it’s correspondence to an ideal represented by certain operational dimensions and, on this basis, to point at features which have been determinants for the performance.  Such features could then serve as the starting point for  initiatives worth trying out in the future. The study cannot deal with causal interrelations between these features in any formal sense. Some reflections on such issues will in a explorative sense be included, as the experiences with the conventional research and extension system, during a two week visit to the IFAD-sponsored Participatory Resource Management Project in the Tuyen Quang province, provided some significant contrasts. It is anticipated and emphasised, though, that these are based on single experiences and more documentation would be needed to generalise.

Evaluation by key-categories from the FFL-model

Originally the focus of the research was limited strictly to an assessment of the participatory performance of their research, but staying at UTA a week before starting the site visits, it was realised that other aspects had to be taken into consideration as well. Thus central themes from the FFL perspective such as doing research on-farm, the active focus on poor farmers, flexibility and readiness to change research issues in the course of an ongoing research process - and in this context - assessing how the research issues are derived, i.e. where do they come from, was evaluated in relation to "yes/no" categories. The evaluation is presented in appendix 1.

Evaluation of the technologies’ relevance for RPF

Specific technological issues were also realised to be important to include, as presence or absence of a relevant focus on RPFs to a great extent is determined by the selected technology. It is an aspect, though, outside the field of this study and that made it difficult to deal with. Therefore, the analysis on this could not be as detailed as on the other aspects. An attempt was made, because the discussion outlined above on the concept of participation, makes it imperative that participatory development is not limited to a focus on participatory processes aiming at the emic perspective, but in addition must deal with concrete technologies and insights of the outsider. The important point is whether the technologies from an etic perspective can be said to fit the RPFs' conditions. Bunch (1985:102f) gives some indications on key characteristics of a technology that makes it more appropriate for RPF. These can be summarised as follows:

It uses resources that RPF already have, it is low risk, culturally acceptable, labour rather than capital intensive, simple to understand, set up and manage, it has a market available for RPF with sufficient depth and it is safe for an area's ecology. The more specific technological issues of UTA and the students' performances are, in a general way, taken into consideration by assessing to what degree the work of a thesis can be said to correspond to these characteristics. The following score was given: 2 for corresponding, 1 for quite, but not completely corresponding and 0 for not corresponding. For the assessment see Appendix 2.

Evaluation of the participatory performance

The assessment of the participatory performance, in contrast, was an attempt not only to verify its presence but, more precisely, to describe its character. This was approached both on the basis of the FFL literature and the discussion above concerning the concept of participation. In the FFL literature the emphasis is on getting the farmers to participate in all phases of the research process (Chambers and Ghildyal 1985:16f). But as pointed out above, there is more than one form of participation, so while there is a point in saying that there has to be participation in all phases of a research process for it to be truly participatory, the specific character of this participation in the various phases still remains to be seen.

Thus we have two dimensions:

Referring to the initial discussion of the fundamental types of participation the evaluation of the students' work operates with tree types of participation i.e., none, instrumental or interactive, which will be allocated a score of 0 (none), ½ (instrumental) or 1 (interactive) point, respectively. This scoring has been applied to the typical main phases of a research process, i.e., diagnosis, identification of issues, design, research, and evaluation. For the assessment see appendix 1.


Performance of on-farm research

In Table 1 the situation with regard to the students' experiences with on-farm research before and during the courses are summarised.

Table 1: Experiences with on-farm research.










On-farm experience prior to the course







Conducted on-farm research as part of the thesis







It can be seen that a large number of the students - 14 out of 17 - did on-farm research for their thesis. It can also be seen that only a few had done it before they entered the SAREC/UTA process, which means that the courses succeeded very well in getting the students to work on-farm. It is quite significant that for many of them (71%) it was their first on-farm experience, even though most of them who  participated in the SAREC/UTA courses had previously had many years of work and training as researchers.

It is important to acknowledge that the on-farm work is next to compulsory in these courses, which makes the fact that 18 % (3 students) did not do on-farm research interesting. How could they avoid it?

A study of the reasons behind this result revealed the following. For two students the situation was that their research for the thesis was a continuation of the research they were doing as staff members of their institution, as this was the wish of the management of their centre. It must be noted that the research centre in question is generally committed to on-farm research, but in their cases the management was reluctant to let the two students go on-farm alone as it was not fully convinced of their capabilities to do so. The management, therefore, preferred the students to continue the work they conducted on the research centre. Concerning the last case, the situation is somewhat different. He changed the issue of his research for his thesis on suggestion from Dr. Preston into indigenous milking practices and from buffaloes to milking cows, but he quite consciously chose not to do on-farm research, in order to get enough cows for the trials to produce statistically significant results and he therefore used an experimental farm for his trials.

The aspect that they all have in common is that the reason for not doing on-farm research is based on a fear not to get good enough data. And this concern about the "good data" was actually a general trend in the group including those who did on-farm research. We shall later see (table 4) that the lowest participatory performance was in the design- and research-phases. It was a general feature that the farmers were not as actively included in these phases as in others, and the reason was exactly due to a concern about the quality of the data. Thus the on-farm research conducted in the design- and research-phases of the students are generally very much a copy of the kind of research executed on-station and on experimental farms.

The missing focus on the poorest farmers is "a relative" of the "good data" concern. The emblematic example of this was one student, who actively (most students just don’t include them) excluded two poor households chosen by the local leaders for her trials, due to concern with the data. Actually an explicit focus on including poor households in the samples could be identified only for 36% (5/14, excluding the three students without on-farm research.) of the students, leaving 64 % without this focus.

In relation to the concern and motivation for on-farm research as contained in the FFL model, this is an expression of a wrong conception of the purpose of the on-farm research. Good data in the FFL perspective might better be presented as proportions, percentages, medians, in clusters, histograms and ratios in relation to factors such as income, gender, location, altitude and distance from market and less as means and standard deviations (Blalock, 1960). It is pertinent to emphasise that this negative conception of a concern to get good data is not addressing the evident concern of the students to do a good job, which is evidently positive. Instead it refers to the actual conception of how a good job, or good data, should be understood. It is felt that a far too narrow view of statistics is behind the students' perceptions of "good data". The point is that different conceptions of "good data" set different potentials for the participation of the farmers in the whole research process. And when the conception of good data is as narrowly focussed on significant statistic results (which to a great extend could be executed on a research farm) the active participation of the farmers, and especially the poor farmers, becomes less realistic. Thus, in future batches UTA clearly needs to strengthen the students' abilities to understand the role of technology under the very diverse and particular conditions of RPF. Furthermore on-farm research in this perspective also aims at the farmers' participation, not only for the generation of the technology in itself, but also for the generation of capacities and commitment of the farmers.

For two students, as we have seen, it was quite clearly their Institution that stood in the way of their possibility for conducting on-farm research, while for the other students in general it seamed to be their education and understanding of research prior to entering UTA. This combination of institutional norms and education as serious obstacles to on-farm research is seen also in the fact that only 29 % had done on-farm research before entering the UTA. It will obviously be interesting to see whether they will continue to do on-farm research after they complete the UTA course and return to the fold of the norms prevailing in their own institutions. In a medium to long-term perspective the question is whether UTA through training of a number of scientists from the same institutions can establish new critical masses of scientists in a number of institutions with a deeper understanding of and commitment to on-farm research?

On-farm research. Analysis of the SAREC-funded groups.

An analysis of the extent to which students who had completed the SAREC funded courses continued to do on-farm research after the courses, and whether they did so to a higher degree, would answer some of the questions raised above.

Table 2:  Influence of the SAREC courses on tendency to conduct on-farm  research
On-farm research

No/very little,  %

Yes,  %

Total,  %

Before the course




During the course




After the course




The results presented in Table 2, at a first glance, seem to indicate that we have a situation where people are forced to do on-farm research for a course and then go back to business as usual insofar as there is the same percentages in the two categories before and after the courses. However, table 2 does not account for the new status of 4 out of 9 students (44%) after the course.

Looking deeper at the data, the explanations for the changes from "before" to "after" the courses, include factors such as:

On this background it becomes clear that the courses have had a very significant role and that they are a crucial factor in getting the students to work on-farm. What in fact these cases tend to suggest is that it is for reasons in relation to factors such as institutional settings, previous education and habits, that the percentage of students doing on-farm research is relatively low, although a firm conclusion would have to be based on a larger sample. Until that can be done it is postulated the factors listed here are important.

Overall, the majority got to work on-farm through these courses, and when they stop afterwards, this must be connected, either with the return to research environments with other priorities and habits, or with an inherited wrong conception of on-farm research. It must be a concern of planners of future courses that when the students return to their institutions, the environments they have to work in may defeat the on-farm skill acquired during the courses.

Participatory performance

As noted above the mere fact that the research is mainly on-farm is only the first step to making agricultural research more relevant for RPF. Further down the road of the process it is crucial how the on-farm research is conducted, i.e. does it provide for and give a real possibility for the participation of the farmers? For a clearer view, and in order to emphasise that this is not pretended to be an exact measurement, but rather a rough indication to capture the main trends, the participatory performances are grouped in four categories. The reason for adding an extra category in relation to the three main types of participation discussed earlier (none, instrumental and transformational participation) is practical and pragmatic. It was found that the categories would get too wide and there are substantial differences that may not be expressed in 1 point. Also the fourth category gives the possibility to emphasise - and accommodate in practice - that these pure forms are only analytical tools.

The categories with their meaning are as follows:

0-1 point. None/passive participation. This includes what Pretty (Pretty 1995:173) describes as "participation in information giving" and "participation for material incentives".

1½-2½ points. Instrumental participation.

3-3½ points. This is a kind of middle ground, or it can be said to mark the threshold between instrumental and transformational participation with its base in fully interactive action research. 

4-5 points. Transformational participation.

The scores are summarised in Table 3.

Table 3:  Participatory performance during the entire research process





Types of participation Number of students


Number of students


Number of students


None or passive



































From Table 3 it can be seen that the dominance of instrumental participatory performance is very substantial as 50 and 56% of the students from the UTA and SAREC courses fall into this category while only 2 students (12% of the total sample) have been placed in the transformational participation category. Taking a closer look by breaking the research phases down to their component parts and scoring them 0, 1/2 and 1 point for none, instrumental or interactive participation reveals the same picture as the estimated average is 0.44 points or close to the 0.5 points, the value allocated for instrumental participation. Details are presented in Table 4.

Table 4:  Participatory performance in the research phases

Score 0 Score ½ Score 1 Average score for the phase
Research phases Students Total points Students Total points Students Total points Total points for the row divided by 17 students








11.5/17 = 0.68

Identification of issues







8.5/17 = 0.50








3.5/17 = 0.20








6.5/17 = 0.38








7.5/17 = 0.44








Grand average: 0.44

The large deviations from the average are found in the baseline and the design. In the baseline the deviation is positive (0.68 points versus the average of 0.44) as it is here the mention is made of use of available, natural resources, sustainable solutions and that the research work should be for the benefit of the poor and women. In the design phase the deviation is negative (0.20 versus 0.44) largely because the students tend to limit themselves to application of a limited range of on-station methodologies to the on-farm situation and therefore in many cases exclude poor people. As a result, 71% of the students score 0 points for this phase.

The significance of this in practice is that there is an overall good contact with the farmers and their context, and consequently a relatively good, relevant and up-to-date knowledge of the context of the trials, leaving quite some space for feed-back from the farmers and modifications of the technology and the trial. Thus, the potential for getting relevant results, due to this central focus on the farmers and their contexts and the fact that baseline information and the trial as such is executed close to the farmer both in a physical and mental sense, is quite significant. But as implied in the term "instrumental", it is the researcher who defines and takes the decisions and the farmers are used as more or less passive or responsive instruments in the realisation of the project of the researcher.

But where do the research ideas then come from and what kind of "project" or research do the students bring to the farmers?

The selection of research topics

The research topics were identified to come from the sources indicated in Table 5.

Table 5: Sources of research topics

Source of research topics

The Course/Supervisors 44
Ongoing Research              26
Farmers/PRA      24
Own experience 3
Television 3

Thus the "course/supervisors" category explains almost half of the topics chosen for research, while "ongoing research" stands for one fourth, almost the same as the PRA/farmers category. These numbers indicate a great influence of the course and their supervisors on the choice of subject for the thesis. Assuming that there is very likely to be a bias favouring the "farmer" category, as it is the "politically correct" thing to state, it might well be that the influence by the course/supervisor category is even stronger than suggested by the scores above. In fact all the theses of the students interviewed are within what was defined as the perspective and field of concrete activities of UTA; a fact that tends to emphasise even more the strong influence of the course in the determination of the research topics of the students.

In this context two groups can be identified. There are students who change their research under the influence of the course (65%) and there are those who do not (35%), but those who did not change were already working within the UTA vision. The interesting point is that even within the same substantial perspective it seams that the change of research issues in itself is important, as the difference in points scored on participatory performance by the two groups is significant. Those who changed have an average score of 2.5 points while those who did not change have an average score of 1.6. This suggests what might be quite logical, and certainly in line with the focus on learning by doing and the need for flexibility, that getting the students out of their previous routines and field of expertise acts as a stimulus for adopting new working methods.

The relevance of the technologies for RPF

The obvious question is whether this strong UTA influence is good in relation to the overall aim of training the students to generate relevant technologies for RPF? The answer is not easy. It was argued above that relevance is not an objective concept. The big influence of the course and the supervisors on the selection of research topics  is only emphasising the instrumental character of the performance with its primarily etic perspective. In itself this can not be seen as evidence of irrelevance as discussed earlier, but instead it highlights some specific features.

First of all is the question of the capacity in the researcher and his/her institution to conduct a macro level analysis and incorporate such insight into the definition of research topics. In UTA the whole approach and strategy of analysis is centred on the RPF within an ecological and sustainable framework. In fact the evaluation of the research issues of the theses in terms of relevance for RPF indicates that these aspects are well established in the students. The evaluation is based on several key aspects of a technology that makes it relevant for RPF identified by Bunch (1985) as described earlier and presented in Appendix 2. The average scores are in Table 6.

Table 6: Relevance of the research in relation to RPF
Local resources Low risk Culturally acceptable Labor  rather    than capital intensive Simple Ecologically safe Market Total
Average score 1.9 1.8 1.9 1.9 1.7 2.0 1.6 12.7
Maximum 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 14

An average score of 12.7, being 14 the maximum score for research that meets all the identified issues fully,  must be rated as a very high value. The score on the ecological dimension is at the maximum, a fact of particular importance, in view of the tendencies of RPF to degrade the environment, as it is often their only possible source of living, even if the perspective is short-term. The only dimension scoring slightly lower is the market dimension. It was found that this aspect was generally less reflected and taken into consideration by the students than the other aspects, and there were some examples where more attention on these aspects seems to be required. This refers to the involvement in dual-purpose goats and cows, as there is no tradition in Vietnam for milk consumption. However, on the other hand as shown in nearby Thailand, if with economic growth consumption of milk products will follow, it will of course be part of a sound long-term policy to establish local capacities to meet such a demand in the future. However, referring to such a long term perspective here and now it is less relevant for RPF. One case of "market-problems" was the most extreme. This student did on-farm research on pig raising in an area where there was no good market for pigs at the time of the experiment and where nobody raised pigs any more. The only reason why the trial produced a profit for the farmers was because the pigs were provided free of cost by UTA. Nobody in the sample raised pigs when this author visited them a few months after the trial ended, but they were all interested in a new trial with free pigs!

Thus, the fact that the research topics and the technologies developed were especially adapted to suit RPF and the environment results partly from the environmental macro analysis standpoint of UTA, and the many years of experience of its personnel with agriculture in the tropics and with RPF.

The importance of having a relevant focus based on macroanalysis and years of experience is further emphasised by the following general experience. It was one of this author’s most significant experiences during his stay in Vietnam, that whenever he asked the farmers who hosted the UTA students' experiments, if they were interested in integrated farming, use of local resources ...., their answer was invariably positive, exactly the perspective of the SAREC and UTA courses, while the opposite was the case when the author visited and spoke to the farmers reached by the IFAD Participatory Management Project in Tuyen Quang Province. In the IFAD project, all the farmers were very interested in improved high yielding crops, exotic high productive animal breeds etc, exactly what the research and extension system for years have provided them. This suggests that over-emphasising the emic perspective, i.e. "the farmers are always right", is not necessarily appropriate and that the emic perspective can be notoriously narrow and often opportunistic. The researcher or extensionist that goes to a village to do participatory work will invariably have something specific on his or her agenda, and the farmers will always try and often succeed in guessing what it is - and obviously - their most likely way of thinking, will be that it might be risky to ask for something the outsiders can not or will not provide.

It is therefore not a defect that the SAREC and UTA courses and consequently the students have other more substantial things on the program than open and transformational participatory processes. On the contrary it is a strength, that these are linked to a technological and ecological perspective fundamentally focussing at RPF. Thus using an overall framework for a relevant research topic and research process that represents a combination of:

the SAREC/UTA students' accomplishments can be summarised as follows:

Within the framework 65%
Outside the framework 35%

This performance is, as emphasised above, almost exclusively etic, and therefore the relevance for RPF is always a relevance as seen and calculated by the outsider, rarely including the emic perspective in a direct sense. Thus the course obviously avoids the risk of over-emphasising the emic perspective on the one hand but, on the other hand, being substantially far from this perspective, it at the same times fails to take advantage of it’s potentials.


Focussing on the emic perspective has, as argued earlier, two main strengths. In a long-term perspective the main purpose is capacity building among the farmers in order to make them less dependent on the outsider and thereby make development sustainable. It is also a main prerequisite to meet the objective of lateral spread of a technology. It could be argued that this aspect is mainly relevant for development projects while research should focus more narrowly on efficient generation of new technologies. But this is an argument that remains substantially within the TOT paradigm (Chambers and Ghildyal 1985), since the distinction between research and extension it pre-supposes, is actually a potential block for the problem-led "learning by doing" action research.

The other main strength of focussing on the emic perspective is immediate and always present, i.e. the capability to get the perspective of the insider and the content of the researchers' and farmers' processes to merge. At a practical level, creation of a sustainable commitment among farmers is very important. It is a core aspect concerning sustainability of a technology, i.e. that farmers will continue to use it.

Adoption and non-adoption

The dilemma that UTA in the future needs to resolve may be captured in the statement that the "trials were successful but adoption poor".  The question of technology adoption/non-adoption frequently came up as a central concern of the students, although the interviews were not planned to evoke specific responses in this area,. That the lack of adoption was of such great concern reveals that the students to some extent are actually thinking within the conceptual framework of transformational participation and the FFL model with it’s fundamental focus on the actual adoption by the farmers as the final criteria of success. But their reactions and attitudes in trying to deal with the problem reveals, on the contrary, that they are not fully thinking within this conceptual framework.

The case of one student can serve as an illustration. She has made on-farm trials for several years on the effect of changes in management practice of sugar cane cultivation with regard to the production of biomass. The trials have generally been a great success in terms of increasing the production of biomass and improving soil fertility by changes in the management practices, thus requiring no extra financial input. However, she complained about the conservative farmers who do not adopt what is evidently a good technology. It was felt as a very burning problem, and a major concern of hers. She actually sought advice on this, i.e. are there models to calculate, in a broader sense, socio-economic and cultural factors of non-adoption.

This is an academic discipline in its own right (Rogers 1995) and the question becomes whether it is not unrealistic to expect that the farmers will adopt technologies in all cases as this has never happened before in the history of agricultural research. It is outside the scope of this paper to treat the subject in detail, but the question is raised. However, here the central point is the attitude this reaction reveals: trying to calculate the reasons for the non-adoption of technologies tested in successful trials by means of increased production is fundamentally a reaction that remains completely within the etic perspective and a TOT way of thinking. This student never questioned whether the research process and the concrete technology, even though successful in terms of increased production, were really relevant.

Other somewhat similar situations were found, and two can be mentioned.  In one case the student complained that farmers did not adopt the technology even though it required only small changes and only slightly more work and that this would lead to increased production and a better environment. In still another case the student had made the situation even worse by paying for all the expenses as otherwise the farmers might not have been interested in participating in the trial, and that in spite of the fact that the research actually appeared highly relevant and adapted to the local conditions and needs. The objective was to solve a major pollution problem combined with a possibility for increased profit by reducing the costs of feed. The farmers' attitude appeared to be mainly passive "waiting for more help".

The meaning of this is fundamentally that the farmers had not perceived these technologies as relevant. In every single case there can of course be identified particular reasons for that. But the fundamental point at stake is that the instrumental performance of the students had the consequence that the farmers were left relatively passive in the process, and the students' and farmers' perspectives were not able to change sufficiently to make the process and their perspectives merge. In other words the process and the technology never really became the "property" of the farmers' and their commitments remained low.

The point has been made previously that one is not likely to generate relevant technology based only on an etic perspective as, with some positive exceptions, it has been the dominating perspective in the courses that have been evaluated. The idea of "learning by doing" is a response to the fundamental insight that it takes experience both to try out technologies and to change perspectives. In fact, UTA as an institution is actually representing a long process of "learning by doing" and thereby the creation of commitment. The students are exposed to the same through an intensive process that aims to change their perspectives and to create new commitments in them.

The farmers, on the contrary, were in most cases restricted to a passive role in responding to questions, and were thereby supposed to get committed by watching success, due to the instrumental participatory performance of the researchers. The cases of "adoption problems" discussed above indicate that this is not enough, and a stronger focus on the process becomes important in order to create more commitment and thereby address the problem of sustainable adoption of the technology.

In order to point at possible solutions capable of bringing about such a change, it is necessary to identify the reasons for the actual instrumental performance, with it’s relatively low focus on the process.

Determinants of performance

First of all the Vietnamese context under which these courses are undertaken must be taken into consideration. It has been argued that the relatively poor experiences of the students in conducting on-farm research both before and after the courses had a great deal to do with their institutional settings and general education. In fact, the Vietnamese research and extension system (like the rest of the political and administrative system) has since the 1940’s applied a top-down approach that saw the research conducted mainly on the research stations followed by extension by decree to the collective or co-operative farming system. In 1989 Vietnam started it’s transition to a market economy, and with the implementation of the land tenure law in 1993, the amount of communal co-operative lands was reduced to 5%, opening up the opportunity for the establishment of private farms (Sidahmed et al 1997). Efforts to reform the research and extension system in order to make it responsive to the needs of the new private farmers was a logical follow-up. It is obvious though that changing working methods and attitudes in such a system cannot be expected to be done within a short-term perspective. Thus the operational conception of the new "bottoms-up" model that this author met during conversations definitely represents major changes in respect of the "old way", but it is still substantially different from the approach UTA tries to implement.

In short, this operational conception of a "bottoms-up" model can be summarised as follows:

It starts with the selection of research topics on the research station followed by initial on-station research. If the results are promising the research is taken to on-farm evaluation with selected "good" farmers. After that PRA surveys and the like are conducted to identify farmers for whom the technology is relevant, i.e. where it is fitting the specific socio-economic conditions of the farmer. Finely the technology is transferred through workshops, demonstrations and key households signing an extension contract.

This clearly represents fundamental changes, foremost in terms of the absence of political decrees and the focus on finding the right farmers for the right technologies, but it is still not a truly interactive process between the research and extension system and the farmers, which is the approach that UTA strives for. So while the participatory performance of UTA, as assessed above, might look somewhat poor in relation to the "ideal" aims of the courses, it is still substantially better than the participatory performance in the official research and extension system.

It is an evident constraint for the effort of UTA that the heritage and daily institutional setting of the students is so far from the approach that UTA tries to implement. This is surely an important factor in order to explain the relatively low participatory performance, viewed against the objectives. On this basis, it seems logical to propose  that UTA could obtain a substantially better participation performance by choosing it’s students from other institutional settings, such as local NGOs, which are more likely to have a philosophy close to the approach of UTA. But it must be remembered also that the gap between the approaches of the research and extension system and those of UTA is as much a challenge for UTA, as a problem.

This author’s experiences in visiting the IFAD-assisted Participatory Management Project in the Tuyen Quang province can serve as an illustration of the above points. One of the most striking features was the huge difficulty the project had exxperienced throughout the whole project cycle, due to an almost complete lack of experience with participatory methodologies at all levels. This it must be emphasised included also the farmers. It is the firm belief of this author that the IFAD project would have benefited by being able to have access to professionals in the research and extension system with the skills and outlook that UTA is trying to implement.

In folowing up this idea, it does not seem to be a good idea to select against students from the official research and extension system for future courses, as including them and inducing changes in their attitude to participatory research and extension is a key challenge that must be addressed.  The participatory performance could be reinforced by having students from universities and research institutes mixed with professionals from NGOs with more or less the same working methods as UTA. That would provide for a possible "lateral spread" of participatory outlook and commitment among the students, as a supplement to the official teaching of the course.

The Vietnamese context undoubtedly accounts for a lot of the difficulties in implementing a transformational participatory performance which creates sufficient space for the emic perspective.  However, some weaknesses are to be found exclusively within the UTA and it’s approach. The actual outcome of the trade-off situation between a focus on the technology and a focus on the process seems in the case of UTA to have favoured the technology focus too much.  Chambers in 1985 emphasised an inherent conflict between a "resource and livestock centred approach and a people-centred approach". But a central focus on RPF can be either etic or emic in it’s perspective, and UTA’s idea of a people-centred approach as expressed in practice has been mainly etic. By far the biggest part of the teaching is focussing on the concrete technologies of the UTA vision and also the sessions concerning participatory methods are closely linked to this perspective. In other words; a people-centred approach does not preclude the generation of technologies that, based on information gathered direct from the farmer’s context, can be calculated to fit the conditions of RPF particularly well.  But it also includes a focus on an unpredictable open-ended process in which the emic perspective is allowed to emerge and merge with the content of the process. This requires fundamentally that the process is given more attention and space for it’s own sake, which requires a reduction of the strong focus on specific technologies in order to create more space to the process. It is imperative to acknowledge that this will inevitably slow down the process of generation of technologies, and a real willingness to do that will be needed. If this contributes to the sustainability of the technologies generated, as this study indicates, then time is saved in the long run.

A final aspect shall be taken into consideration, i.e. an aspect of paternalism. Bunch (1985:21) points at "doing things for people" as an aspect of the general concept of paternalism. This is likely to destroy enthusiasm and consequently the generation of commitment. Furthermore it is a latent threat to the learning-by-doing process. It was found that the leaders of the UTA course and most of the students had a tendency to "do things for others"; the leaders for the students and the students for the farmers.

Concerning the leaders, the reason seems to be related to the very strong focus on the concrete technologies, which generates an attitude where sometimes the objective (the good technologies) justifies the means (a too fast process;  not leaving sufficient space for learning-by-doing, i.e. by own mistakes). Concerning the students, the reasons were probably either their education or it was transmitted from the attitude of the leaders. In relation to this aspect is is proposed that a higher priority be given to ''slowing down" the process,  and thus providing more space for the action of the students and the farmers, respectively.


The objectives and approach of UTA are considered to be highly relevant, as present development policy stresses the needs and perspectives of the poorer farmers with a strong focus on the environment and opportunities for women.  However, the intended beneficiaries will gain little through their participation if the professionals chosen to guide them have no expertise in, or commitment to, the subject matter. The actual performance of the students of UTA as identified by this study indicates the potential that the learning process offers in the task of creating the "new" professional.


This study was conducted during a two-month stay in Vietnam in September and October 1998.

The author would like to express:

His sincere thanks to all the students interviewed for their willingness to corporate and doing interpretations during fieldvisits. The interviewed students were; Mr.Bui Xuan An, Mrs. Nguyen Thi Loc, Mrs. Nguyen Thi Hong Nhan, Mrs. Du Thanh Hang, Mrs. Le Thi Thu Ha, Mr. Tran Quoc Viet and Mr. Nguyen Van Lai, Mrs. Lylian J Rodríquez, Mrs. Nguyen Thi Mui, Mr. Mai Van Sanh, Mr. Le Duc Ngoan, Mr. Nguyen van Thu, Mrs. Nguyen Nhut Xuan Dung, Mrs Le Diep Long Bien, Mr Nguyen Van Lai, Mr Hong Samnang, Mr Nguyen Phuc Tien

Warm thanks to the leaders of UTA, Dr. T.R. Preston and Lylian Rodríquez, for their hospitality and for the many inspiring discussions.

A special thanks to Mr. Frands Dolberg for his always prompt and useful supervision and his invaluable support and encouragement, before during and after the stay in Vietnam.


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Received 10 January 1999

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