Assessing the impact of agricultural research on poverty using the sustainable livelihoods framework

By Adato Michelle and Ruth Meinzen-Dick


As the goals of international agricultural research move beyond increasing food production to the broader aims of reducing poverty, both agricultural research and studies of its impact become more complex. Yet examining the magnitude and mechanisms through which different types of agricultural research are able to help the poor is essential, not only to evaluate claims for continued funding of such research, but more importantly, to guide future research in ways that will make the greatest contribution to poverty reduction.

This paper reports on the approach used in a multi-country study of the poverty impact of research programs under the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). The study used an expanded understanding of poverty that goes beyond income or consumption-based headcounts or severity measures. It considered many other factors that poor people in different contexts define as contributing to their vulnerability, poverty, and well-being. The study used the sustainable livelihoods framework which provides a common conceptual approach to examining the ways in which agricultural research and technologies fit (or sometimes do not fit) into the livelihood strategies of households or individuals with different types of assets and other resources, strategies that often involve multiple activities undertaken at different times of the year.

Applying the sustainable livelihoods approach requires interdisciplinary research and a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods and highlights the multi-layered interactions between technologies and the vulnerability context of households, their asset base, intervening institutions, and livelihood strategies. However, additional aspects of culture, power, and history need to be integrated with the framework to understand the role of agricultural research in the lives of the poor. Additional explicit attention must be given to the implications of gender, ethnicity, class, or other types of social differentiation. Although this approach is more difficult for research than conventional single-disciplinary analyses, it leads to a more complete understanding that can help develop technologies that better fit in with complex livelihood strategies, especially of the poor.  

This paper reports on the conceptual framework, methods, and findings of these studies. The paper provides an overview of the sustainable livelihoods approach, how it can be applied to agricultural research, and describes detailed methods and results from five case studies: (i) Modern rice varieties in Bangladesh; (ii) Polyculture fishponds and vegetable gardens in Bangladesh; (iii) Soil fertility management practices in Kenya; (iv) Hybrid maize in Zimbabwe; and (v) Creolized maize varieties in Mexico.