Forest and livelihoods: tracing the influence of agenda-setting research

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A researcher explains the use of ground penetrating radar to measure peat depth to professors and students. Photo by D. Ramsay/CIFOR

The Poverty Environment Network (PEN) research project was a multi-phase (2004 – 2017), global effort to quantify the contribution of forest and environmental income from natural forests to rural livelihoods across the developing tropics. The project produced and disseminated robust scientific findings, open access methods, tools and data sets with the intention of influencing how data on forest livelihoods was collected, analyzed and used. PEN was initially science-driven, seeking to address key knowledge gaps with rigorous research. The project had an implicit logic that key, high-level decision makers applying an economic lens required quantifiable information in order to value the contributions of forests to development. In later phases the importance of engagement and strategic plans for enhancing use of the methods and findings become more prominent.

The research findings have been influential in shaping thinking about the issue and engaging audiences who require quantified economic data at scale to inform decision-making. The methods and tools have had widespread use in academia and have been adapted for use by the World Bank’s Living Standards Measurement Study (LSMS) and applied nationally in four countries so far.

PEN’s success was facilitated by a number of factors – 1) the focus on addressing a high-demand niche knowledge gap, 2) the highly participatory design and implementation of the research and 3) engagement with strategic ‘amplifiers’ for use of methods and tools.

At the time when PEN was conceived, there was substantial interest in the role of forest and environmental resources in rural livelihoods and poverty alleviation from the growing environmental accounting/economics movement. At the same time, with the exception of formal employment figures, there is scant information on the number of people that benefit from forests and how.

The logistical and methodological challenges in realizing the ambitious scope of the PEN project on such a limited budget relied on working through network among PhD students and junior scholars (33 in total, supported by 40 institutions external to CIFOR). An interdisciplinary team of 15 professors and senior scientists who were responsible for research design, methods development and global analyses provided guidance to this network. An unintended outcome of this collaborative network approach was extensive exposure to, and understanding of the PEN methods, data-set and findings for all those involved, who then perpetuated their use.

In 2013 a collaborative effort between FAO, CIFOR, IFRI and the World Bank LSMS and PROFOR used PEN methods to develop an LSMS module on forest and wild products, became a significant factor in advancing PEN methods towards influencing policy level decision making. The LSMS module provided the scope to have the method applied at scale and mainstreamed into national data collection systems.

PEN’s experience shows that even in a demand driven context, it takes a long time (10+ years) for truly agenda setting research using these strategies to be mainstreamed into practice and influence development outcomes. In hindsight, there were both planning and funding continuity opportunities that would have expedited the achievement of outcomes. Key lessons from this study relate to the importance of focusing on strategic, high impact pathways for use by key audiences, the unexpected value of broad-based scientific engagement from design stages.

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