PRCI Year 1 Annual Report

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December 23, 2020

Executive Summary

Activities and Successes

The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Security Policy Research, Capacity, & Influence (PRCI) successfully navigated a tremendously challenging first year of operation in the midst of a global pandemic, managing to make major adjustments to its way of doing business while effectively implementing the core processes needed to put each of the partner centers in charge of their own capacity development – a central goal of PRCI.

With COVID-19 disrupting activities from March, 2020, the Lab implemented all elements of its workplan, including competitive selection of three Centers for Policy Leadership; launch of the STAAARS+ program training and research and the Core Center research program, both with strong mentoring of local researchers; launch of PICA, the Lab’s institutional capacity strengthening program; selection of Asian lead centers and initiation of collaboration with them and more junior centers in the region; and launch of its webinar series with six webinars during the year.  Gender featured strongly in multiple pieces of the work. 

Going beyond its workplan, partly in response to COVID-19, the Lab undertook three very ambitious and entirely unanticipated activities: design and implementation of a Core Center technical training program with all materials available online; design and launch of a Special Topics training technical program that will segue to a research program in Year 2; and assistance to ReNAPRI to carry out a highly interactive five-year strategic planning exercise.  In keeping with the challenges of COVID-19, all this work was delivered online. 

PRCI met or exceeded four of its five agreed indicators and, at the end of Year 1, added two additional indicators in consultation with its AOR.

Selected CPLs were BAME from Senegal (l’Institut sénégalais de recherches Agricoles (ISRA) / Bureau d’analyses macro-économiques), CPEEL/DAERD from Nigeria (Center for Petroleum, Energy Economics and Law / Department of Agricultural Extension and Rural Development  – University of Ibadan), and EPRC from Uganda (Economic Policy Research Center).  All three won competitive bids for mentored research support during Year 1, along with Sokoine University of Agriculture, and 20 center researchers were paired with seven mentors from MSU and IFPRI. 

Two CPL teams – from BAME and EPRC – won competitive proposals as STAAARS+ fellows, and were joined by teams from Bahir Dar University IDRM in Ethiopia and African School of Economics in Togo.  Eight mentors from Cornell, MSU, and Syracuse University were paired with these researchers.  Both the Core Center and STAAARS+ teams made strong progress on their research with typically bi-weekly or at least monthly meetings with mentors. 

Core Center research teams engaged in nine training modules designed to prepare them for their research, and STAAARS+ teams engaged in six modules and intensive interactions across teams.  In Asia, Kasetsart University worked with the PRCI Asia lead to organize and present three 2-hour trainings on trade flow analysis related to COVID, which will segue into mentored research in Year 2. PRCI also won a $200,000 buy-in for a cross-country cellphone survey of citizen experience with COVID and its impact on their livelihoods and access to food.

The ReNAPRI secretariat was trained and guided in bringing its network together to successfully develop a five-year strategic plan entirely online.  The Lab’s institutional capacity strengthening team then led one of the CPLs (CPEEL/DAERD) through a fully redesigned PICA process and started the process with the other two CPLs.  ReNAPRI secretariat staff participated in PICA with an eye to mainstreaming it in their own network.

The Lab’s gender team organized two specialized trainings, reviewed the CPL candidate center proposals and Core Center research proposals, mentored two of the Core Center research projects, participated in the PICA process with CPEEL/DAERD, and launched a gender community of practice on Slack.

Challenges and Responses

PRCI faced challenges due to the nature of its program and the special conditions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.  By eliminating travel from early March, COVID-19 imposed three types of challenges. First, moving interactions that had been planned to be, and historically have been, in-person or in some cases a mix of online and in-person to 100% online puts real limitations on the ability to build rapport and adequately engage trainees during training sessions to maximize their learning. Second, “zoom fatigue” combined with many Lab events (training sessions, research meetings, institutional capacity strengthening sessions) exacerbates this challenge.  Third, the inability to travel meant that leadership of PRCI and STAAARS+ could not as effectively build relationships with center leadership in order to better understand their needs, identify commonalities and differences across centers, and respond appropriately in programming.

More structurally, PRCI faces two essential challenges.  First, it has a very far-flung consortium with very high coordination costs. The fact that we stress institutional capacity building together with research, and are promoting learning across platforms and continents, further increases the coordination costs.  Here, technology such as zoom provides a huge advantage, but that advantage is best grasped if it is deployed together with sufficient in-person engagement, which has not been possible since March.  Second, though PRCI is a research program, its funding available for research, after meeting its heavy human and institutional capacity building mandate and the coordination that implies, is very limited.  Beyond modest support for salaries and grants to centers, the Lab’s core budget has no room for primary data collection, which is an essential aspect of an active, responsive, relevant research program. 

PRCI has responded to these challenges in X ways.  First, the technical training teams have solicited constant feedback from trainees and made continuous adjustments in how they design and present the training sessions.  Second, PRCI leadership instituted monthly calls with its Executive Committee, with ReNAPRI, and with each of the CPL directors, in order to discuss issues and “nip problems in the bud.”  Third, PRCI late in Year 1 modified its operational structure to spread the responsibility for coordination and drive more learning across platforms. See section XI for more detail on this restructuring.  Finally, PRCI sought and won two buy-ins to its core award and continues to seek associate awards.  Such funding will provide a partial solution to the limited research funds, though synthesizing across topics and continents will continue to be a challenge.

Future Directions

PRCI intends to build on its Year 1 success and make adjustments as follows. First, at the broadest level, the Lab will work to ensure more learning, borrowing, and coordination where relevant between its various platforms.  This will include encouraging Africa-Asia joint research where interest is detected, for example in the trade flow analysis that was launched in Asia under the Special Topics program and could be very relevant for example for India and countries in East and Southern Africa; adopting aspects of the STAAARS+ approach to benchmarking and mentoring in the Core Center research program; creating platforms for STAAARS+ fellows to engage with other researchers in the consortium; familiarizing all participants with the rich set of online training materials that PRCI has developed under its Core Center, STAAARS+, and Special Topics platforms and promoting their use. 

Second, as outlined in section IX, the Lab will seek scaling of its efforts. It will do this through (a) ReNAPRI engagement with PICA for rollout in year 2 or 3 among ReNAPRI centers; (b) a more explicit training of trainers approach in year 2 and beyond in all three of its training platforms; (c) partnership with Asian lead centers with an explicit objective of building their capacity to build capacity in their subregion; and (d) fully launching R2P to achieve policy impact, which is the ultimate scaling mechanism with potential to affect all citizens in a country and, through that, many in the region. 

Third, PRCI will ramp up its research output and bring this to bear on policy deliberations. It will do this by (a) finishing the first cohorts of Core Center and STAAARS+ research outputs and organizing research- and policy outreach around them; (b) building policy outreach around COVID using results from its cross-country survey; (c) extending the mentored research model into Asia starting with the trade flow analysis for which analysts have already been trained and emphasizing mentoring from the two Asian lead centers, and (d) seeking additional buy-in and associate award funds. 

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