Robyn Johnston reflects on her recent two-day workshop on AgWater directions for Cambodia.
Last week the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and the Australian Center for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) jointly hosted a two-day workshop on agricultural water (AgWater) in Cambodia. It has made me think more about how and who we consult in our research.
The typical workshop format is to corral the participants for one, two, three days and subject them to a repeating series of powerpoint presentation / 5 minutes discussion / presentation / 5 minutes discussion / small groups / report back. It’s almost as if we feel that having gone to all the cost and effort of bringing people together we must now organize how they spend all their time. There is not much room for genuinely new discussion.
In the AgWater directions workshop, we broke with this tradition. Participants were invited to attend any one or more of four two and half hour sessions over two days. There was a short (15 minute) presentation outlining the research we had done along with four or five main questions designed to frame the discussion (draft discussion papers had been circulated in advance). The bulk of the remaining two hours was left for discussion. Our thinking was that since the people we invited were invited on the basis of their knowledge and experience, it would benefit us to let them share that knowledge and experience.
And they did share, generously and openly. Although the number of participants dwindled after lunch, the quality of the discussions remained high. I think we did achieve our goal of “being informed” by local experts. The more open-ended nature of the discussion promoted a free exchange of views, and the discussions did not always go in the direction I had anticipated. In one case, the discussion on groundwater potential, the session resulted in significant re-orientation of our thinking on how to carry the research forward. Participants pointed out that we were thinking narrowly within the agricultural sector; but that within the domestic water supply sector, the local well drillers have a pretty good idea of where there is viable water. So, we are rethinking our proposal for a groundwater resource assessment to include an initial study where we go and interview all the well drillers and collate their information.
Would I use this format again? Probably yes: rather than convening workshops, I think there may be more merit in organizing focus group sessions like this. But two things continue to trouble me.
The first is who we consult: sessions like this work best with a small group of experts. In theory, with most of the research we do, it’s not that difficult to identify the main players; but such an approach risks entrenching existing cliques and makes it hard to link up with emerging players and those with alternative viewpoints.
The second issue is the extractive nature of consultation. I am always a bit surprised that busy people – particularly community leaders, and government officials with other priorities than research – will make time for meetings and workshops which may offer them little benefit in the short term. The importance of the discussions from the research team’s perspective is obvious, but I am not sure what we have to offer in return. As we move more and more into participatory forms of research, I think this is something that we need to think about more.
We plan to follow up these discussions with one or more concept notes on potential research opportunities. I’d like to thank Evan Christen and ACIAR for funding this initiative. I also want to thank Sanjiv de Silva and Thuon Try for assistance in preparing and presenting the workshop; Elizabeth Weight for helping to guide discussions; Martina Mascarenhas for keeping meticulous notes and Terry Clayton for facilitating the workshop.
Learn more about the agwater directions for Cambodia meeting:
Read/download the draft issue papers (revised and Khmer versions forthcoming)
- Agricultural water management planning
- Institutional structures for productive use of agricultural water
- Rice vs fish: impacts of intensification of rice cultivation
- Groundwater for irrigation in Cambodia
View the PowerPoint presentations: