Asia's welfare revolution; results and complexity; China in Africa; Jim Kim gets blogging; Illicit finance; ignorance on fragile states; celebrating informality: links I liked

September 12, 2012

Is Oxfam finally growing up? Report back from the frontline (sort of)

September 12, 2012

Paradigms, lock-ins and liberations: Robert Chambers on rice and shit

September 12, 2012
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 Following my review of his new book, and Robert’s thoughts on immersion programmes (which generated some great comments), CLTS workshop in Mombasa_P Bongartzhere is a third and final piece from Provocations for Development

A lock-in is a paradigmatic syndrome in which there is strong mutually-supporting inflexibility. Let us examine two examples of paradigmatic lock-ins which have been comprehensively turned on their heads to create new counter-intuitive, counter-commonsense, syndromes of startling potency. They raise questions about what Donald Rumsfeld famously described as ‘unknown unknowns’. Looking back at the lock-ins which they have transformed, they can be seen as liberations. The first liberation concerns rice cultivation and the second rural sanitation.

The rice plant can tolerate flooding, but grows better in mainly aerobic conditions. Farmers flood their fields to control weeds, substituting water for labour. Scientists have taken this as a norm. Conventional paddy growing practices are relatively management sparing. Seedlings are grown in a flooded seed bed, uprooted quite roughly when 21-40 days old and transplanted by being pushed down in clumps of 3, 4 or more into flooded, puddled soil, either in lines or at random and close together. Fields are then kept flooded throughout the growing cycle.

The System of Rice Intensification (SRI) simultaneously changes all these practices. Seedlings when still very young and small, 8-12 days old, are transplanted carefully (the principle is TLC – tender loving care), 1-2 plants per hill and widely spaced in a square pattern: this reduces plant population by two-thirds or more. The paddy soil is kept moist with mostly aerobic conditions, with intermittent applications of light irrigation. Manual push-weeders control weeds and churn up and aerate the soil. There are many benefits and few disbenefits from this set of practices: plants are supported above ground by more extensive longer-lived root systems, are stronger and healthier and more resistant to pests and diseases and to drought and storms, and produce many more tillers (each of which bears a head of grains) which also give better outturns in milling.  Across many rice varieties, on-farm evaluations in eight countries found yields raised by an average of 47 per cent, with water savings averaging 40 per cent. Costs of production per hectare were reduced by 23 per cent and farmers’ net income per hectare was boosted by 68 per cent.

Traditional rice research, notably that of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), has been locked into a paradigm of crop improvement through breeding higher-yielding varieties, responsive to chemical fertiliser, and dependent on large amounts of water for flooding. This genocentric strategy led to the Green Revolution. There have been other successes particularly with some disease resistance, and recently with developments in GM breeding for beta-carotene (for Vitamin A). But despite huge investments there have been no broad improvements which work with all varieties equivalent to those with SRI management. Nor which bring such multiple benefits. SRI is a green revolution of a different sort.

Turning to rural sanitation, the conventional approach worldwide has had two thrusts: first, to teach and educate, seeking to induce changes in behaviour (software); and second, to subsidize the installation of facilities (hardware) designed by engineers. The reasoning has been that poor people need to be taught the importance of hygienic behaviour, and that they deserve decent sanitation but cannot afford it. However, didactic strategies of behaviour change have had rather limited effect, and the commonsense approach of hardware subsidies has not worked: the experience in many countries, with both Government and NGO programmes, has been that many of the toilets constructed are not used or are used for other purposes.

Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS), like SRI, turns conventions on their heads, with radical, simultaneous, mutually-supporting changes. Instead of teaching people, there is facilitation of people’s own appraisal and analysis of their own open defecation and its effects. Instead of subsidies for hardware for individual households, people dig their own pits and construct their own latrines. Instead of being handed down engineering designs, people make their own designs. Instead of outside interventions for those least able to construct their own latrines, community members are encouraged to help them. Instead the number of latrines constructed, the focus is more on how many communities have been verified as open defecation-free.

Students learning SRI the hard way

Students learning SRI the hard way

SRI and CLTS have met with similar resistances from the respective professions. Both confront the stasis of accepted commonsense conventions: these stem from and are locked in by professional training and norms – of rice research scientists and of engineers and others who promote rural sanitation. The lock-ins are reinforced by funding.

Both SRI and CLTS entail multiple simultaneous changes of concepts, principles, methods, behaviours, relationships and mindsets. Both are, in a full sense, shifts or flips of paradigm taking us into new spaces with dramatic new potentials. Neither cost much to develop. Both were evolved by doing, hands-on, in local conditions. Both are close to the lives and realities of poor rural people. Both were discovered by remarkable innovators – Father de Laulanié with SRI in Madagascar in the mid-1980s, and Kamal Kar with CLTS in Bangladesh in early 2000. Both have been spread internationally by champions fired with well-informed enthusiasm – Norman Uphoff with SRI, and Kamal Kar himself with CLTS, both of them quickly joined by many other champions energized through the wonder and excitement of ‘seeing is believing’ personal experience of dramatic transformations.

These two movements are unstoppable and spreading on a remarkable scale. The governments of China, India, Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia, where together two-thirds of the world’s rice is produced, are promoting SRI methods, based on their own evaluations and results. Worldwide, the number of farmers benefiting from SRI practices in over 40 countries is in the range of 2 million and growing rapidly.

In mid-2011, CLTS practices are also found in over 40 countries. Spread has been most extensive in India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Ethiopia, with other African countries following hard on their heels.  It is increasingly endorsed by governments as policy or approved practice. As of mid-2011 well over 10 million people lived in communities that had been declared open defecation free, while millions more should be benefiting in communities which are not yet ODF.

Both SRI and CLTS have discovered principles with wider applications. SRI principles and practices have been applied to sugarcane, wheat, finger millet, teff and other crops. Some have renamed it SCI, the System of Crop Intensification. CLTS principles and practices have been applied also to solid waste management, for example in Cairo, and to sanitation in urban slums.

SRI and CLTS raise acute questions. I pose these as challenges to you and to all development professionals:

  • Are we disabled by lock-ins to paradigms and mindsets which narrow, focus and frame our vision so that, as with traditional rice research and rural sanitation, we fail to see and find breakthroughs?
  • Are there other development liberations from lock-ins waiting to be discovered and promoted?
  • If there may be, how should we set about looking for them? How in other words can radical, revolutionary, innovators and disseminators – de Laulanié’s, Uphoffs, and Kamal Kars – be found, supported and encouraged?
  • Do we need to take more risks and to celebrate failures in development, as Engineers Without Borders do? Should we judge harshly any organisation that cannot boast of the risks it takes, and of its failures to prove it? Is lack of failures itself a failure?

There may be clues in the commonalities of SRI and CLTS. Both were counter-intuitive. Both confronted and upended unquestioned commonsense and conventions of deeply rooted neo-Newtonian best practice. Both originated from grounded hands-on innovation, observation and awareness. And both followed many years of applied experimental experience – de Laulanié’s growing rice and Kamal Kar’s in participatory facilitation and development. Does this mean that such people and such conditions should be sought out and supported?

So finally – are these transformative international movements of SRI and CLTS one-off phenomena? Or are they forerunners of much else waiting to be discovered and spread? Are there similarly paradigmatic flips lurking latent in other improbable domains? And will future generations look back and marvel at how we could have been so timid, unimaginative and lacking in hands-on creativity, that none of us discovered them earlier?

See also Robert’s guest post on CLTS , or this three minute intro video featuring Kamal Kar



  1. This was very interesting. Identification of these lock-ins should be of prime importance as if the application of knowledge from a new or additional paradigm can result in productivity increases then this is critical. Maybe we should seek where there is supposed to be only one paradigm and take a very close look at the biology of the crop concerned to see if constraints are actually being addressed efficiently (as is being done). Farmers are often far more effective at convincing other farmers.

  2. I’d argue that maybe what you need is a two track approach to development work
    1. A larger part that bases its approach on research, past experience etc. in the form of strategies, guidelines, tools etc. i.e. mainstream development
    2. A smaller part (but bigger than it is now) which explicitly focuses on experimenting with new innovative approaches adapting as they go possibly with multiple, even contradictory experiments ongoing at the same time. The aim of these experiments is to identify breakthrough approaches independently of the mainstream and then study and share them and where appropriate link them back into the mainstream. More in this idea here

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