Workshop in Bhutan, building relationships

Workshop participants

Workshop participants in Thimphu, Bhutan

I’m recently returning from a workshop in Bhutan that colleagues here at IFPRI and I organized to address sustainable land management. The workshop was by most measures a tremendous success. It was well attended- including the Honorable Minister of Agriculture and Forests – the attendees were engaged in the discussion, and there was even local media coverage. It was refreshing to see real interest in scientific research coming from high-level members of parliament (something we don’t get much of in the US).

Yet the workshop also demonstrated the limitations of any single piece of research. The discussion among participants highlighted just how many different interests are at play in a project such as this. It’s impossible to provide a piece of research that addresses all of these needs simultaneously. In our study that manifested itself in our inability to include roads in our hydrologic model, which was a major discussion during the workshop. Although we do address the issue in the report, we could not incorporate it in a dynamic or quantified sense. This led to representatives from the Druk Green Power Corporation being honest in telling us that they would not be able to use portions of our research. This feedback is invaluable. It is only through this honest feedback that we are able to refine the methods and focus of our research.

These limitations made it immediately clear that ongoing collaborations are crucial for a project such as this. To build on existing relationships and extend past research is clearly a necessity when addressing complex issues, but it is not always the norm in international organizations. As we built on our relationships within Bhutan, we began to get a better understanding of the problem as well as some of the possible (and practical) solutions. Not only did we gain access to additional data of better quality over time, we also began to better understand the politics of the situation.

In research, exploring a problem in-depth can be a difficult sell to funding partners, which makes strategic project management important. Funding sources often (understandably) want to pursue novel ideas. This puts the onus on researchers to find ways of folding existing relationships and projects into new proposals as a means of continuing collaborations. Ephraim, here at IFPRI, for example, is using case-study countries as a means of maintaining (and funding) existing collaborations while simultaneously expanding his research into a new global scale. This is an example that I (and many researchers) would do well to follow.