With just a few snags the Global Food Security Conference 2020 occurred virtually, broadening not only the access but also the perspectives involved.
As a master student and intern with the Focali network I bring a distinct perspective drawn from a background in social science and global health to the fray. Focali places people at the centre of the initiative to shape a sustainable future. This people-centred approach involves them in interventions from beginning to the end and keeps their concerns at the heart of all the endeavours.
Whilst absorbing world-class knowledge collected from around the world during the Global Food Security 2020 conference, I was struck by a nearly universal agreement with people-centred thinking. However, the methods were not completely aligned, as the way forward appeared divided. Some researchers call for better interdisciplinary collaboration and capacity building, while others think we should avoid private sector action and focus on evidence building as the only reliable avenue of progress.
This brings into question how the transformation of our food system can be sustainably achieved, and how can we be sure to include all people in our consideration?
An interdisciplinary approach is an asset
I was listening to Pierre-Benoit Joly of INRAE explaining that change is a cultural phenomenon, and cannot be facilitated by technology alone. Shifting towards investigating and understanding ‘what the problem is’, as opposed to focusing on the availability of new technology, offers a meaningful way forward. Fundamental to this understanding of culture is improved collaboration between various areas of science, knowledge and experience. By collecting perspectives from different disciplines and sectors, we can integrate various aspects and formulate local contextualized adaptations of sustainable food security strategies.
What is striking to me, as an undergraduate of social science, is how entrenched researchers are in their own disciplines. I was baffled as Mariana Rufino, an agroecologist from Lancaster University, expressed that she had never considered the role of political and financial powers in our food systems. It surprised me that a scientist who completed research in both Africa and South America, didn’t notice the implications of a power imbalance on the fact that coffee cultivators cannot afford to purchase their crop themselves.
My current studies are inherently multi- and interdisciplinary and utilize power as a tool of understanding the mechanisms of development. In social science we aim to explore widely, to ensure that nothing is missed, and all people are accounted for (though this does not indicate that they are empowered). We trust each discipline to dive deeply into their focus, while simultaneously acknowledging that we all need to come up for air, and check that our world views, our findings, and our interventions are all congruent with the actual state of the world.
While this social science approach may make findings sound more exploratory than conclusive, it retains a necessary level of self-effacement that can lead to more sustainable solutions.
Putting people at the centre for global food security
One of the most refreshing moments was hearing from Laura Pereira, World Social Science Fellow at the International Social Science Council (ISSC), calling on researchers to keep their hubris in check. The idea that even a well-developed researcher has more to learn should not be revolutionary, but it was such a palate cleanser. It was an invitation to become a broker of power, rather than as a hoarder of it.
To take a step back and provide a platform to local stakeholders is a profound suggestion, and one in line with Focali’s pledge to place people at the centre. In so doing the researcher would be able to create safe spaces in which difficult and silenced themes, rife with entrenched values, could be addressed. By taking a step back, a researcher allows for the community to act as co-creators, which enables better contextualisation of the problem, social cohesion and development of sustainable solutions. A call to be humbler in what we know and what we don’t, enabling multidisciplinary collaboration, and navigating new solutions rather than focusing on measurability, facilitates transformation.
Relying on evidence within the natural sciences focuses on outcomes and often forgets that people are the reason we engage in research. Surely, evidence-based knowledge is essential, but it is not the only source of legitimate understanding. We must also include other ways of knowing what is appropriate to the research setting, such as indigenous knowledge. It is easy to project your own values onto entities we do not know, and so we – perhaps even with the best of intentions – fail to hear other voices, opinions and perspective, leaving them without representation.
This, among others, is how structural violence is enacted in research. By failing to accept active participation of the local stakeholders and balancing power between all the stakeholders – even funders – we risk compromising the effectiveness of the work and undermine the research process.
I make this claim not out of some pure ethical standpoint, which has its merits, but out of the realization of the increasing interdependencies and the collective intelligence of people at all levels of engagement. As we have seen during the pandemic, without healthcare or livelihood rights, food security around the world is at risk. It is only by allowing a genuine conversation between disciplines, sectors, and interests that sustainable change can be facilitated.
I call on us to create systems that facilitate such conversations in a meaningful way, such as Pereira’s work in transformation labs, and not limiting ourselves to the lip service of perspective integration. We can start by listening to others more, remaining humble of the limits of our own knowledge, being cognisant of our power and our perspective. That is how we can begin to truly understand what the problem is, and what the solution should be.
Find out more about the final outcome of the conference in the paper “Challenges for a disruptive research Agenda“, written by delegates of the conference.
Jess Haynie-Lavelle is an intern at Focali and a Master student of Global Health at the University of Gothenburg. She was invited to report from the Global Food Security 2020 conference by SIANI.