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Co-creation for research in food security development

Blog Melle Leenstra - Co-creation
October 18, 2018 By: Melle Leenstra

With the aim of reaching SDG2 (zero hunger and sustainable agriculture) development agencies have for a long time funded research for development. In the margins of the recent Wageningen SDG conference Melle Leenstra, policy officer food security at the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was invited to give his take on the topic of the session entitled “Co-creation for impact: Donors and Knowledge institutions”. Below are the views he shared.

I am excited by the topic of this roundtable session as this topic of co-creation sees us, providers of funds for research in development, as more than walking bags of money. Or just administrators eager to tick boxes of politically correct criteria. My only criticism of the subject is the notion of us policymakers as donors. I rather see us as investors, investing public funds to leverage other investments; investments by the private sector, multilateral funds and public investments by African governments… I still hope that somehow the latter will fulfil their old Maputo commitments on agricultural spending. And we policymakers also want to see something in return of our investment: a sustainable development impact.

Please note that the following is not a statement of policy, but a professional view. Co-creation is indeed key to the effectiveness of our interventions.

Grey zone

Let me offer you a glimpse into our daily policymaking practices. When it comes to funding arrangements we in Dutch development are caught between two major types. Grants (subsidies) or Assignments (opdrachten).

The first model lets the prospective recipients of our funds take the initiative for developing a project or programme. Which means we have to wait for prospective implementers to come up with ideas that fit our policy frameworks. After assessing the ideas, we accept or reject them. During the formulation and implementation phase we may make suggestions, but we surely may not steer and thus share liability in case anything goes wrong.

With the second type – assignments – the ball is in our court; we have to take the initiative. That means we have to virtually put ourselves in the implementer’s seat: plan and prepare in detail what we would like to see delivered by a project. And then go to the market with a tender to see which market party can best deliver the services at the lowest price. This is based on the questionable notion that knowledge and expertise to influence complex human realities is a marketable commodity.

In my opinion, neither of these idealized extremes does justice to the need for co-creation as a way to connect demand and supply. Or rather, to link policy aspirations with what can be done in reality.

Now the Dutch people would not be Dutch if our actual practice within these legal bounds would not be characterized by pragmatic maneuvering in the grey zone based on professional integrity and experience and trying to adapt rules and procedures to shifting realities and insights.

Classic role of researchers

In practice, how to co-create within this grey zone differs for us as funders from case to case. It is governed by idiosyncrasies such as the biases and the personalities of the professionals involved, and not less by the knowledge or lack thereof of the policy officer.

Now what does this mean for knowledge institutes? Not only are such policymaking and implementation processes worthy objects of study that can support our learning as development professionals, they also provide programmatic opportunities.

Through the knowledge and expertise generated by researchers, they can have a strong comparative advantage to us funders. Both through their technical knowledge and their knowledge of the local context gained by field work, researchers know things a policy officer may not. In my everyday experiences I have come across cases in which an embassy or we at Headquarters see programmatic opportunities, say in the seed sector or the aquaculture sector, but lack the knowledge to identify the challenges and opportunities, binding constraints and possible entry point for an intervention. In such a case, what does one do? One calls Wageningen UR or another research institute such as a CGIAR Center to do a study. Once this research institute provides an overview, it seems relatively straight forward to solicit a grant proposal. And of course researchers generally are good writers and a proposal is delivered and possibly granted. Thus the research institute may find itself working on development programme implementation rather than research.

In such cases, I question whether a research organization still finds itself operating within its core strength, or whether a partnership with a different type of professional organization would be better.

Co-creation: adapting to each other’s realities

This, in my opinion, is where co-creation comes into play. Not co-creation merely between development funders and knowledge institutes, but also involving professional development agencies. There is one programme, which in my view has the potential to become good practice in this respect.

SNV in East Africa identified an opportunity for a programme on Climate Smart Agriculture, that could contribute to our emerging policy interest in this area. They saw an opportunity to build on their practical experience and tacit knowledge on market-led agricultural development. The area of climate change however was rather new to the organization and to us. As a result, we decided together to involve both Wageningen UR and CCAFS in the programme consortium. As a consequence, the proposal was informed by sound scientific evidence on climate change and agriculture. Knowledge partners will play a role in further determining binding constraints and entry points, but also in monitoring the effects of the interventions and validating ex-ante assumptions. Finally, it is expected that this will provide empirical evidence base on what works and what does not for others beyond the consortium, such as governments and other funders. As such this programme has the potential to be market-led and science-based with the prospect to achieve impact at scale. In other words, the Dutch Diamond approach. Of course, this is a hypothesis that still needs to be validated or falsified.


In conclusion, I see great benefit in co-creation. But this can only happen if researchers connect to our policy realities, by critically and constructively reflecting on our policy work and the work with other development professionals based on their functional competence and added value. If all actors shift focus from not only identifying global challenges and possible solutions to also effectively meeting them, together we can do great things for farmers, families and consumers in the Netherlands development cooperation policy focus regions. I hope and expect that the Netherlands Food Partnership will be an important driver in achieving this idea of joint action to address food security challenges of tomorrow.


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