Getting local policy makers on board with food system analysis

The Food System Decision Support Tool, developed by Wageningen University & Research and the KIT Royal Tropical Institute, offers a step-by-step approach to translating our understanding of food systems into policy solutions. But how does this tool add value in practice? We asked Melle Leenstra (agricultural counsellor for Egypt and Jordan) and Geert Westenbrink (independent agricultural adviser and former agricultural counsellor for Ethiopia and Myanmar).

The toolbox is a great, compact array of instruments for the practical application of the systems approach
Geert Westenbrink, independent agricultural adviser

In 2016, when Geert Westenbrink was working as an agricultural counsellor in Myanmar, he saw the food systems approach as a new conceptual framework that disrupted the traditional value chain approach. “In the Netherlands, we aim to be trailblazers in innovative agricultural policy and I felt that we needed to invest in this emerging development. I spoke to colleagues in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, including Melle Leenstra, who was then working on the Food Security Knowledge Agenda. We then collaborated with KIT and Wageningen University & Research to launch a project to translate the theoretical framework into practical resources. This was the first step in producing the toolbox now available.”

Westenbrink rates the toolbox highly. “It’s a great, compact array of instruments for the practical application of the systems approach within research programmes," he says. “At the same time, this approach is still relatively new. The challenge is: how do you explain this methodology to people who aren’t familiar with it? It would be useful to add case studies to it soon, as a way of illuminating the approach.”

Remaining critical

The former agricultural counsellor is a strong advocate of the systems approach, but does add a proviso: “The average bilateral project on food security and agriculture has a budget of 5 to 20 million euros across 4 to 5 years. That could be enough to help set a system change in motion. But the projects are too short and constrained to fully support such a change. The systems perspective can help us develop a relevant and fully considered programme that reflects where the Netherlands can make a difference. But we also need to remain realistic and critical, and avoid this becoming yet another transient conceptual catchphrase in development partnerships.”

Successful for Nigeria

“You can think of the toolbox as an umbrella structure where there’s a place for everything, from agricultural production and innovation to nutrition and the environment,” says Melle Leenstra. “It offers common points of orientation for a range of stakeholders. The challenge is around implementation: what will we actually allocate the research money to? Every time you make a decision, you will alienate some people.”

It’s a useful resource for emphasising to local policymakers the importance of an integrated approach, coordination and collaboration
Melle Leenstra, agricultural counsellor for Egypt and Jordan

Leenstra is trying to encourage the use of the toolbox in the region he works in. “It’s a useful resource for emphasising to local policymakers the importance of an integrated approach, coordination and collaboration. In the Netherlands, we often do that intuitively. In other parts of the world, the concept can resonate more. In Nigeria, the approach has been successful in getting various Nigerian and Dutch stakeholders around the table and in structuring the discussion about a collaborative effort in the country. But in many countries there are persistent political and economic imperatives for continuing to work in silos.”

“You see this in Egypt with water, for example, where ministries impose top-down decisions and the private agribusiness sector does its own thing. The toolbox has the potential to be a very practical instrument in opening up fruitful conversations about such policies. But in practice, it remains very challenging to get local policymakers to the point where they embrace the food systems approach. You need sufficient capacity to explain the systems perspective and to get them on board.”