Global Development Institute Blog

Phil Woodhouse is Professor of Environment and Development at GDI, and Director of the Rory and Elizabeth Brooks Doctoral College, and a Managing Editor of the Journal of Development Studies. He told us about his research, his science background, and of course GDI’s PhD researchers.


What is your research background?

I did a degree in Agricultural and Forest Science at Oxford, followed by a PhD in Soil Science at the University of Reading. After graduating, I went to Tanzania for a few months – partly because I just wanted to get out of England at the time – and then got a job in Mozambique working at the National Agronomy Research Institute as a soil scientist, assessing soil fertility problems in various parts of the country. I became interested in what stops farmers from being productive, trying to understand what the constraints were, specifically: (1) as a soil scientist, how to manage soils in such a way that you retain more water, for example, after intense rains that run off the surface without reaching the roots of the plants, and (2) whether the solution could come from diagnostic work of interdisciplinary teams of scientists. I joined the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) as a regional co-ordinator for a farming systems research project in Mozambique.

When I left Mozambique, I continued to look at similar issues initially focusing on Senegal, while based at the Open University, before I joined The University of Manchester in 1990. Since then I’ve been researching how farmers manage water in agriculture, and, since this is often an issue that demands management beyond the scale of an individual farm, the scope of collective action. This has led me into the social sciences: how do people organise, how do they get access to land, what are the land tenure rules, how do those rules change when people develop new technologies?

As the debates around agriculture and water have evolved over the years, the overall problem is still the same: how do you better manage water to improve productivity of farming, and what does that mean for the local communities and the benefits they receive?


You’re a Managing Editor of the Journal of Development Studies. What do you think is challenging in development studies at the moment?

One of the things that keeps coming back to me is the extent to which people in development agencies, and to a lesser extent (but still) in academic departments, still tend to see the developing world as something which is somehow static. You get this in the idea of people being “left behind”, as if something needs to be done to them in order for them to have a better life. I feel this form of saviourship can sometimes get in the way of an understanding that these societies are not static: change is happening, whether or not assistance comes from abroad. They’re not waiting, actually, for people to do things for or to them. I suspect there’s a lot of stuff – change, activity and initiative – that is happening entirely under the radar of formal actors and agencies. Of course, much of this local dynamism can create greater inequality, which raises political questions – just as it does in this country. However, we do need to beware a tendency to assume we know what the world should be like, without necessarily knowing what it is like.


What are you currently working on?

I am working with a project called SAFI – Studying African Farmer-led Irrigation – to try to evaluate the social and economic impact of farmer-led irrigation, which is where farmers invest in irrigation themselves. We are working with African and European partners undertaking work on a number of case studies in Tanzania and Mozambique to learn more about the distribution of benefits within those areas where people are developing this kind of irrigation. We’re also engaging with policymakers in those countries to see how they are approaching this phenomenon of farmer-led irrigation, what they know about it, and to discuss how policy should be developed around it, because this is not addressed in any formal way in irrigation policies.

Farmer-led irrigation has been around for a while, but a number of factors are causing it to accelerate: cheap pumps are becoming increasingly available, urban markets are expanding, and infrastructure and communications are improving in general, with a rise in mobile phones in particular.

As an example, consider farmers who are growing vegetables. They can now phone up the main traders in the local town, let them know when the crop of tomatoes is going to ready, and arrange for them to come and pick it up. This is an intensification of market access for people who, in physical terms, are actually in quite remote areas, where it can take up to an hour to get to a decent road. A phone cuts this distance. And this communications ability also improves the farmer’s ability to understand what potential there might be. Once this pattern of farming is established, people start looking at all kinds of other alternatives: the farmer may start with tomatoes, but then realise that okra is a crop that they can grow and there’s a market that makes specialisation worth the effort.

As the momentum picks up, you’ll find that businessmen diversify, and rent out land for a season, grow a commercial crop on a few hectares, and then sell it. This is commercial farming but done seasonally and with tight links to the market – but not restricted to local or even national markets. There are potatoes growing in northern Mozambique that are sold in Zambia or even Tanzania.


What challenges is the SAFI research encountering?

Government thinking about irrigation tends to be very rigid. Irrigation is seen to consist of formal irrigation schemes, such as canal infrastructures or sprinkler systems, which farmers are just inserted into. What we’re trying to discuss with governments and policymakers is how they can deal with irrigation which is already happening in farming areas without the development of lots and lots of infrastructure. In other words, there’s a lot more local initiative than government thinking generally perceives. There’s something to be done to get recognition and acknowledgement of what is going on – sometimes government statistics won’t even show any of this activity, because it’s not classified as irrigation. Will the government support these activities or suppress them, only because these farmers are irrigating in what officials see as a disorganised way?


Why is this research important?

Our SAFI research is part of a broader question on how to invest in farming. What’s the model? Is it necessary to see investment in farming as big projects and large investment, usually from overseas? Should we think of modernisation in terms of large scale agriculture and overseas investment, or is there an avenue for a smaller scale approach that is much more diverse, geared to local market opportunities, and which is made of lots and lots of smaller activities that are large in the aggregate? If you opt for the second, what should your policies be?

Most of the thinking has been in terms of the former: the concept that African agriculture is not productive and the only way to change things is to get foreign money and expertise in, and probably at large scale, ideally involving big corporations. The problem with that is it does not consider the extent of activity that is going on already, and the degree of change that is happening: this is actually quite dynamic. And that’s not always acknowledged by the government, which is sometimes too bound up with the idea that they need to bring in resources from somewhere else.

What are the patterns of investment that are (1) likely to produce an increase in food production, (2) an increase in rural incomes, and (3) do so in a way that benefits all, not just a small minority of dynamic people in rural areas. This distributional issue is important, and we have been here before: sometimes when you get a rapid technical change like this, it doesn’t benefit everybody.


How does SAFI look at global inequalities?

One of the criticisms of large scale foreign investment in agriculture is that it excludes a lot of existing users of the land from the land, displacing and impoverishing people. Yes, it gives some people jobs, but in mechanised systems there often aren’t that many jobs. Therefore, people are losing, not gaining. Inequality is a significant issue around patterns of investment in farming. But equally, the Green Revolution solved the aggregate problem of food supply in Asia as countries that were food deficit became food exporters. In aggregate terms, it massively increased the amount of food, but it also meant that there was differentiation among small scale producers, and some grew at the expense of others. Arguably, in places like India, rural inequalities still are as bad, or even worse, even after this great boon in food production. Inequality features in any kind of agrarian change: you may have a majority of poor people now, but is change going to create fewer very poor people or more very poor people, if some benefit more from the change than others?


You’re also Brooks Chair and Director of the Rory and Elizabeth Brooks Doctoral College. What do you enjoy most about the position?

We have students from all over the world here, and they’re all enthusiastic to bring about change that is positive when they go back to work. That really feels worthwhile. We see the Rory and Elizabeth Brooks Doctoral College producing people who will take up leading roles when they go onto their careers. They land in positions of genuine leadership and influence. That’s quite exciting, really.

I sat with a group of PhD researchers during a recent TA training and asked them, “What makes teaching students at GDI different?” I wasn’t expecting it, but a number of them said, “We take a much more critical approach to what we do than many other departments” – which I was very impressed by, and gratified by, because that’s exactly where we want to be.


What advice do you give to our PhD students?

You’ve got to do the reading. Not just to absorb it all, but to also be aware of what people have said and understand the “official” position – so you’re not afraid to question it. There is a tendency for researchers to fixate on one conceptual framework or another. Sometimes, it’s good to think outside the framework.


What advice would you give to PhDs new to Manchester?

I’m a Londoner, originally, but I can’t imagine going back to London. Living in Manchester is a hell of a privilege – look at all this landscape around you! The thing that I like doing is walking in the hills, and we have so many great walks within reasonable distance. It’s the thing I crave most of all when I have time off. The walk I’d recommend to any newcomer: get the train to Edale and walk from Edale into Castleton (there’s some nice pubs there), then walk up to the top of the town. There’s a little gate by some houses: open the gate and you walk out of the town and into a steep ravine – and within the space of 50 meters, you’re out in the countryside. It’s an extraordinary experience. Walk along the ravine, you’ll be able to spot the old Norman castle at the top.



Note: This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of the Global Development Institute as a whole