IAR4D from a theory of change perspective

  • 28th June 2017
  • by secretary

Integrated agricultural research for development (IAR4D) from a theory of change perspective

Yiheyis Maru, Ashley Sparrow, Richard Stirzaker, Jocelyn Davies
© 2016 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved. 11 pages


The research was conducted as part of CSIRO-BecA-CORAF/WECARD
Africa Food Security Initiative funded by the Australian Government’s
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.


  1. There is emerging evidence that IAR4D and its innovation platforms deliver impact.
  2. The theory of change by which IA4RD brings impact is not well articulated.
  3. Markets, social capital, institutional change, innovation capacity mediate impact.
  4. An integrative theory of change is proposed for effective IAR4D practice


Yiheyis Maru

It is now more than a decade since integrated agricultural research for development (IAR4D) was proposed as a “new approach” or “set of good practices” for organising research to address complex problems of agricultural development, food security and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.

Since then, there have been efforts to investigate its impact in comparison to traditional research and development approaches. Although a growing number of publications are testifying to positive impacts of IAR4D and related agricultural research for development (AR4D) approaches, there has been limited explicit attention on its

Jocelyn Davies

underpinning Theories of Change – the mechanisms or pathways by which it brings about impact. With the aim of contributing to a more robust grounding of the theory of change of IAR4D, this paper uses a comprehensive review of literature on IAR4D and related work experience of the authors in East and West Africa to critically engage with the implicit and explicit explanations and pathways for how and why IAR4D helps to achieve impact.

This paper finds four emerging impact pathways focused on (1) market linkage, (2) social capital, (3) institutional change or (4) innovation capacity as critical mediating factors. Acknowledging articulation of each of these mediating pathways as encouraging progress, the article suggests putting these together in an integrated theory of change that also draws on established theories such as Multi-Level Perspective and theory of adaptive change to provide clear guidance and tools for designing and implementing effective AR4D interventions.

The impact pathways we articulated: market linkage, social capital and institutional change and innovation capacity do seem to address the core categories of systems failures: market structure, interaction, institutional and capability failures (p.7)


In practice, the initiation of innovation platforms is facilitated by particular individuals or organisations, most often researchers or non-governmental organisations (NGOs) supported by funding frominternational development agencies, and thus at least implicitly predicated on a problem-  or solution-focused “entry point” chosen by the facilitating or funding institution (p. 2)  Given that innovation platforms are often initiated by agricultural researchers who have their own technological agendas, it is essential that exploration of the four pathways is conducted in parallel with efforts aimed at technological change. Attention to these social mediating factors will enable wider adoption of technologies, even for those developed through participatory processes. (p. 9) It is also important for researchers to recognise that solutions may come from surprising places. For example, crop modellers, informed by long-term simulations, may try to convince farmers to adopt improved crop varieties and use more fertiliser (p. 9) 

In a systematic search of the literature on IAR4D and other AR4D approaches informed by Agricultural Innovation Systems, we found only 13 articles that directly hypothesize howorwhy IAR4D and/or innovation platforms may work. (p. 2) 

Market orientation also gives direction to what inputs, services and research are needed to support producers and other innovation platform members. Input, research and other services that are demand driven are more relevant and cost-effective. Adoption of on-demandnewtechnologies and practices is high (p. 3)

If income is appropriated by men this may limit positive impacts on household food security. Second, a market orientation may favour a few cash crops for export, but achieve little or no increase in household food consumption due to failure to improve production of staple or specific local crops. (p.4) 

While a linear direction of change is often conceived, path dependence and inertia are such that change outcomes are not predictable. Norms and customs in which formal rules are embedded are entrenched and take time to have lasting change. For example, corruption, rent-seeking and a per diem culturemay have been so normalised that change will go against many interests (p.6) 

Key factors for innovation capacity building are (among others): (a) Investing in establishing and promoting “innovation brokers” to play an intermediary brokerage role for facilitating platforms, strategic networking, mediating and resolving conflicts links between organisations, and helping negotiate system changes through policy dialogue ; (b) Creating space that fosters entrepreneurial drive and activity, vision development, resource mobilisation (e.g. capital), market formation, building legitimacy for change and overcoming resistance to change by means of advocacy and lobbying. (p.6) 

Sustainability in IAR4D requires the scaling up of the capacity to innovate, as well as scaling up of innovations. (p.7) 

The assumption is that there is wide scope and opportunity for improvement that will be realised by bringing actors with a fragmented set of potentials together in innovation platforms. However, literature on organisational cultures, institutional path dependence inertia and rigidity and traps tells us that this assumption does not hold, and analytical tools beyond value-chain analysis are required. Therefore,Multi-Level Perspective can potentially provide conceptual input and tools for an integrated theory of change of IAR4D to articulate the dynamics of the relationship between the innovation platform, its host socio-technical regime and the wider context. (p.7) 

With increasing social capital, we might expect to see certain individuals arise and take initiative as brokers who identify opportunities and catalyse action. If brokers’ initiatives prove successful, then those small successes further might build social capital, and through this process there could be a growing realisation that the institutional settings are potential obstacles, thus creating an appetite for change at larger scales (p.8-9)