Lessons from a year long learning cycle.
The poor record of agribusiness investments in creating real opportunities for rural people and respecting their land rights requires greater understanding, dialogue and engagement amongst stakeholders. From March 2021 to March 2022, Land Collaborative, a global Community of Practice supporting Multi stakeholder platforms (MSPs) and multi-actor partnerships (MAPs) to achieve progressive change in land governance, facilitated a learning cycle to assist MSPs/MAPs in twelve countries in southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa on how to engage with the private sector to achieve more responsible agricultural investments (RAI).
The learning cycle was facilitated by the Natural Resources Institute (NRI) of the University of Greenwich, a global member and partner of ILC, and involved over 30 platform participants from Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Laos, Liberia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Philippines, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, and Vietnam. The participants were facilitators and other active members of MSPs and national land alliances in each country, including not only civil society and NGO practitioners but also engaged government officials and private business people, bringing a diverse mix of stakeholder perspectives to the learning cycle.
a social learning approach
The learning cycle adopted a participatory social learning approach, whereby participants were encouraged to learn from each-others’ experience and to undertake creative learning activities focused on their own learning priorities. The learning then informed the development of their action strategies for engaging the private sector. NRI and the Land Collaborative conveners from the ILC, Welthungerhilfe and the Mekong Region Land Governance Project (MRLG) supported participants in collectively creating knowledge, identifying case-studies and lessons learned, and sharing experiences in an environment of trust and a spirit of collaboration. As a result of the COVID pandemic, all learning cycle learning activities and support to participants took place virtually.
Three steps towards action
The learning cycle took place in three successive phases: design and diagnosis from March to May 2021; facilitation of learning from May to September 2021; and strategic action planning, from October 2021 to March 2022.
(1) Design and diagnosis
In the first phase, following an introductory inception workshop, participants were guided by NRI through completion of a Diagnostic tool, intended to assist them to analyse the private sector agricultural investment landscape in each country, and to reflect on their learning and skills needs for engaging effectively with the private sector. Outcomes and conclusions were discussed at a co-planning workshop in April 2021 at which NRI shared options for the content and sequencing of learning sessions and activities, and participants discussed and agreed on priority learning needs and activities – as detailed in a learning needs assessment information note.
Based on this demand-driven assessment process, the NRI team facilitated the second stage of learning activities in two parallel streams. Through a series of five virtual classroom style interactive learning sessions, NRI shared expert knowledge of practical case experience, relevant international policy, law and responsible investment and sustainability standards to help fill knowledge gaps. In parallel, issue-based collective learning was facilitated involving learning loops of reflection, learning and action. Participants found this the most useful element, focused on practical efforts to build trust and communicate with the private sector, understand the incentives driving private-sector decision making and explore with stakeholders how to change the broader enabling environment for responsible investments or to challenge them. Learners were encouraged to reach out to private-sector and government actors to establish an open dialogue and promote practical collaboration and appropriate regulatory reforms.
Participants appreciated the range of complementary activities, and over 80% found the learning cycle useful or very useful to their work. Of the technical topics covered, understanding private sector incentives, and the due diligence and risk assessment procedures were of greatest interest.
The learning insights generated were brought together in a comprehensive Guidance document for MSPs and MAPs on engaging with the private sector for promotion of RAI. The note explores the potential opportunities and also risks of engaging the private sector to support users in their choice of action strategies.
(3) Planning action
In the third and final stage of the learning cycle, participating country platforms were supported through a series of interactive workshops to develop strategic action plans for private sector engagement, set out in a Strategic Action Planning template. Considerable attention was devoted to reflection on how to bring about key changes in the enabling environment of land governance and in particular how to address or influence private sector investments through a strategic combination of pilot initiatives with progressive companies, broader dialogue and policy advocacy, and stakeholder capacity building.
Through a series of calls, NRI supported participants to formulate and begin implementation of initial action plans. NRI also developed a Theory of Change Tool to assist participants to reflect on the objectives, assumptions, and options underpinning their strategic plans, especially how they might (or might not) engage or influence the private sector.
What was achieved
As a result the Land for Life platforms in Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, ILC multi-stakeholder platforms in Cambodia, Mongolia and Philippines, MRLG Laos alliance and the Oxfam Mekong sustainable rubber team are now moving forward with private sector engagement strategies as additional pillars in wider land governance strategies. Participants agreed that as a result of the learning cycle they had acquired enough understanding of investment principles and practice, the policy and institutional context and the motivations of the private sector actors to engage with them effectively.
“We need to work with all actors, under an inclusive structure, to inculcate a culture of common understanding, tolerance, and collective leadership. By engaging and talking frequently, we are promoting dialogue for change. The learning cycle has enabled me now to actually come closer to negotiation with private sector investments than ever before”, said a participant from Sierra Leone.
everal participating platforms have developed case studies of key experiences of private sector engagement, to illustrate what can be achieved in practice, the channels that can be used and the challenges ahead. These include experiences of engaging with the private sector through a government convened technical working group to improve investment approval procedures in Sierra Leone; the outcomes of community – investor – local government forums in Ethiopia; efforts to establish effective grievance mechanisms to address legacy problems in forest concessions in Laos; and systematic engagement with cross border rubber investors to improve their community engagement and consultation in the Mekong region.
Building on challenges and lessons learned
The learning cycle faced a number of challenges.
Learning activities took place entirely on-line, and complementary in-person engagement was not possible. The COVID pandemic inevitably restricted participants contact and engagement with other stakeholders including private companies themselves. Lengthy online learning sessions, in different time zones, often at the end or beginning of the working day, proved challenging to fit in. Although the online delivery modality was broadly effective, participants proposed that follow up face-to-face learning sessions in each country for larger country teams and stakeholder groups.
Overall, the emphasis on real-time learning was welcomed however participants started developing country situation analyses using the diagnostic tool without being necessarily familiar with the concepts and skills needed. It was later noted that learning sessions could have begun immediately to fill this gap and, as a result, the tool was restructured into a modular format and linked to the learning materials developed. In future, supporting participants in practical issue-based social learning activities in-country should receive even greater emphasis, to feed directly into practical situation analysis and strategic action planning.
More extended mentoring relationships with country teams as they try out new activities develop and implement strategic action plans, and additional webinars involving private sector actors as resource people, would also have been useful. Non-English speakers had to make particular efforts to follow all the learning sessions and apply the tools. In future learning materials in French and other languages should be provided.