Using participatory research to understand the effects of trade agreements on small producers and advocate for change

Eight member countries of the South East Asian Council for Food Security and Fair Trade (SEACON) carried out participatory research with small scale food producers in order to determine the effects of the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) in Southeast Asia and to empower the producers to defend their human rights.

SEACON, established in 1996, is an international organization charged with carrying out the aspirations for food security in Southeast Asia as outlined in the Balay Declaration. It serves as a liaison between the grassroots, regional, national, and international levels in questions of food security, agriculture and trade issues. To do so, it works to monitor situations, act as an advocate, and provide knowledge and alternative strategies for agro-trade based on the principles of fair trade and food sovereignty.

The AFTA agreement was initiated in 1992 with the goal of reducing tariffs to 0-5% on traded manufactured goods and processed agricultural products and the removal of non-tariffs barriers and quantitative restrictions that limit the entry of imports. The purpose of removing these obstacles to freer trade was to increase Southeast Asia’s competitiveness in regional and world markets. Yet trade liberalization changes the demands on small producers and may have unintended negative consequences that violate basic human rights such as the right to food.

SEACON wanted to advocate for appropriate policy and institutional reforms that protect the human rights of farmers and fisherfolk. Having previous experience with research related to issues of food security and wishing to conduct credible fact-finding on the ground, they chose to do participatory research. Their main goals were to assess the impacts of AFTA on the national level and for small producers, provide recommendations to address and mitigate its negative impact and enhance its positive impact, especially on rice and priority commodities such as corn, fisheries and sugar, and promote free trade in the region. In addition, the participatory nature of the research allowed the small producers themselves to take ownership of the process, gain awareness of their rights under international law, and learn new methods for improving their livelihoods.

SEACON’s research was carried out in Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Laos, the Philippines, Vietnam and Myanmar (Burma) because AFTA is a regional agreement. The research project was organized hierarchically. Each country had a National Lead Researcher who implemented the research work and ensured that research was carried out on time. SEACON had member partner organizations in each country that supervised and provided support to the lead researcher. At the international level, SEACON supervised and coordinated the research in each country, provided logistical and technical support, and financed the research and advocacy process.

Prior to beginning the project, SEACON selected research teams, trained lead researchers, and conducted field tests including mock interviews of small producers. Based on the results of these field tests, SEACON was able to perfect the interview questionnaire and anticipate other problems that might arise throughout the project.

Over a period of five months, the lead researchers and their supervisory organizations carried out the research. They conducted interviews, observations, focus group discussions, and case studies. The SEACON team visited each research group to monitor the progress of the research and provide support and assistance. This primary research was supplemented by secondary research from print and electronic sources.

In order to make the research truly participative, the SEACON teams took time during interviews to allow small producers to share the challenges they faced as well as their suggestions for how these might be solved by government policies or other means. They also sought information regarding their knowledge of AFTA and its effect on their livelihoods. During focus group discussions, researchers touched on issues of access to credit, agricultural policies, and topics related to gender and trade. These more open discussions allowed researchers to gather a great deal of data that might have been lost if only an interview approach had been adopted.

Once the research had been collected, teams edited the completed questionnaires and performed quality checks to ensure that they were answered correctly and logically. They then entered the data into a computer system and encoded it to ensure uniformity across all participant countries. Once the data was processed, it was sent back to the researchers for analysis and reporting. The lead researchers used the data to write a final research report in narrative form.

As a result of their research on AFTA, SEACON found that trade liberalization has created openings and expanded the market for goods and services. However, it has not automatically resulted in benefits as promised by the advocates of free trade. In many cases, positive macroeconomic developments such as expanded markets and higher foreign exchange earnings hide a parallel trend towards the social and economic dislocation and exclusion of millions of small scale producers and their families. This group is a vulnerable population due to their lack of education and skills, debt, and inability to wield political and economic influence.

In order to continue the participatory nature of the project, SEACON shared the results of the research with the participant communities. In many countries, the research partners organized meetings to share the results with farmers, fisherfolk, government officials, and local non-governmental organizations. Prior to this sharing process, many small producers were unaware of the implications of trade agreements on their livelihood and rights as producers but this tactic assisted them in realizing the adverse effects of their governments’ decisions to sign trade agreements on their behalf without consulting them first. Many participants also learned about better approaches to production that relied less on fertilizers and pesticides, reducing costs and improving soil quality.

SEACON and its partner organizations faced a number of challenges in conducting their research that they were able to overcome. For example, it took patience to bring all SEACON members to a consensus on the research design, methodology and key instruments with so many countries and individuals involved. This process was complicated by language barriers. The researchers recommended stationing bilingual personnel in countries where a common language such as English is not widely spoken. The large distance between research groups also meant that most communication occurred via email, rather than face-to-face. Sometimes email messages would be distorted and faulty, creating a delay in response and affecting work schedules and activities. Researchers suggested that telephone calls might have been a better means of communication.

In addition, not all partner organizations had members that were familiar with the process of interviewing respondents or writing comprehensive research reports. SEACON provided training and developed a standardized guideline for report-writing to assist them. Finally, it was sometimes challenging to get small scale food producers to cooperate with the interview process, which took approximately an hour to complete. An hour away from the fields meant an hour less of pay, so interviewers had to be capable of convincing potential respondents of the importance of the project.

To learn more about this tactic and SEACON, visit our Tactical Notebook here.


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What we can learn from this tactic: 

This tactic demonstrates how the process of conducting research on a larger topic can benefit the people on whom the research is done. SEACON could have carried out the project in a non-participatory fashion, gathering information from the small scale food producers but not including them in the process or delivering to them the results. Instead, SEACON was able to empower the producers to be aware of their own rights under international law through the interview and focus group discussion process. By sharing the results of the research with the participants, they increased producer ownership in the project and demonstrated in real terms the detrimental effect of international trade agreements. Other organizations carrying out empirical research can consider adding a participatory component to their research in order to empower local communities, connecting victims of human rights violations to the information they need to become active defenders of their rights.