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INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF SCIENTIFIC & TECHNOLOGY RESEARCH VOLUME 5, ISSUE 04, APRIL 2016ISSN 2277-8616A Participatory Systemic Approach To RuralCommunity Development In VietnamTuan M. Ha, Ockie J.H. Bosch, Nam C. NguyenAbstract: Various failures of the traditional approach in community development in developing countries have led to the development of a moreappropriate and holistic approach to address complex development issues. Systems approaches and cutting-edge tools have recently been embraced todeal with such complexities under contexts of interwoven relationships amongst social, economic, political, cultural and environmental factors. Thispaper provides reflections on practical value of the Evolutionary Learning Laboratory (ELLab) through a case study on improving the quality of life forwomen farmers in northern Vietnam, where gender-bias labour hardship and poor living-standard are evident. The first five steps of the participatorysystems-based ELLab were implemented during 2013-2014 providing valuable results that have made both practical and theoretical contributions withsubstantial implications to community development. Our study finds that the context-based results reshaped the original project goal. The approach andframework helped to identify and engage right stakeholders in problem analyses and decision making activities. Fuzzy problems within the complex webof life of the women and rural households were uncovered using relevant systems tools to develop a big picture (systems model) of the current situation,defining levers for systemic interventions. The ELLab helps to build capacity of local people for taking ownership of the process and outcomes toguarantee sustainability and long-term impacts. It also facilitates true participation and co-learning amongst stakeholders, triggering transformativelearning. Contributions to action research and an innovative mechanism for sharing reflections and lessons at both local and global levels via the onlineThink2ImpactTM are discussed.Keywords: Action research, Rural community development, Evolutionary Learning Laboratory, Stakeholders, Systems approaches, — ——————————1 INTRODUCTIONMany community development efforts around the world havebeen focused on supporting resource-poor communities indeveloping countries where agriculture provides majorlivelihoods for the rural poor [1-3]. Income of smallholderfarmers in these countries is mainly reliant on labor-intensiveproduction and rural employment [4, 5]. People in these regions,particularly women smallholder farmers, have to face variouschallenges which involve multiple stakeholders, aremultidimensional and interconnected [6, 7]. Those include, forinstance, production risks, capital shortage, poor access toproductive resources and services, limited access to lucrativemarkets, low literacy level, discrimination against women, andother cultural barriers [7, 8]. Development efforts through thetraditional approach of linear thinking, which tends to solveimmediate (visible) problems in isolation without anunderstanding of the local contexts and participation of directbeneficiaries and related stakeholders, have posed many flaws,leading to various failures and even counterproductiveoutcomes [9-12]. Tuan M. Ha: Systems Design and ComplexityManagement Alliance (SDCM), the University of [email protected] Ockie J.H. Bosch: (1) SDCM, the University of AdelaideBusiness School, Adelaide, Australia. (2) SysPrac PtyLtd., Adelaide, Australia; (3) Systemic Excellence Group,Berlin, Germany; E-mail: [email protected] Nam C. Nguyen: (1) SDCM, the University of AdelaideBusiness School, Adelaide, Australia; (2) SysPrac PtyLtd., Adelaide, Australia; (3) Malik Institute, St Gallen,Switzerland. E-mail: [email protected] example, a study by Doss [13] revealed that failures indisseminating technological devices for African women weredue to the lack of awareness of ―the complexity of women‘sroles, responsibilities within the households and communities‖and their ―dynamics‖ in responding to different contexts.Consequently, chronic poverty, malnutrition, health problemsand gender gap issues, etc. still persist in these regions,particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia [7]. Inreality, a community possesses its own characteristics, interests,challenges, needs and culture [14, 15]. It is a system ofinteractions amongst its constituent parts, including both humanand non-human factors [16]. All problems always emerge withina ―complex web‖ of interconnected factors [17]. Differentenvironmental, economic, political, social and cultural elementsare intertwined and interdependent within a community [18].Environmental conditions, local cultures, values and spiritualbeliefs, household capacity, socio-economic and politicalsettings clearly influence agricultural systems and croppingstructures in a certain rural community [19, 20]. Similarly, theseinfluence decision making of farmers at a household farm level[21-23]. Chronic poverty and food insecurity cannot simply beaddressed by introducing new production technologies or newvarieties without understanding the local conditions, human andfinancial capacities, production habits, and specific challengesand needs of local people, etc. [24, 25]. Similarly, solvingcommunity issues such as resource conflicts and sustainableresource management cannot be resolved by a singleorganization or a sector. It requires coordinated planning andnegotiations amongst different stakeholders at local, nationaland regional (inter-country) levels [26, 27]. The so called ―darkage of pest control‖ during the 1940s-1960s was an evidentfailure and serious consequences of ―quick fixes‖ and/or―treating the symptoms‖ in the agricultural development historydue to an inappropriate understanding of the interactionsamongst different components of agro-ecosystems [28].Therefore, sustainable development entails the need foraddressing all economic, social and environmental facets in anintegrated way [29, 30] since one can lend strength to anotherand vice versa [31]. Such complex problems should be ratherresolved through a more holistic approach. In which, an issue is53IJSTR 2016www.ijstr.org

INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF SCIENTIFIC & TECHNOLOGY RESEARCH VOLUME 5, ISSUE 04, APRIL 2016analyzed within its ―interrelationships‖ with others and within asystem where different factors are interdependent and manyactors are involved [18, 32]. The root causes of a perceivedproblem need to be determined to define systemic interventions,while unintended consequences can be envisaged and thusavoided by using a systems approach and systems thinking.The failures of the so called ―reductionist‖ approach have led towider adoption of systems thinking around the world [e.g. 33,34-41]. The approach provides a ―new way of thinking‖ towardsunderstanding and managing complex problems [42, 43]. In thislight, the systems-based Evolutionary Learning Laboratory(ELLab) has been developed and successfully applied in anumber of contexts around the world [35, 44-46], particularly indevelopment fields in Vietnam [17, 47, 48]. The purpose of thispaper is to provide initial reflections on the practical value of theELLab through a case study on improving the quality of life forwomen small farmers in rural Haiphong, northern Vietnam.2 THE ELLAB APPROACH, PROCESS STEPSAND KEY FINDINGS2.1 The systems-based ELLab framework and processsteps carried out in HaiphongUnder the auspices of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundationthrough the Grand Challenge Exploration Grant, the projectwas initially conducted in 2013 with an ―original goal‖ to seeklabour saving strategies and innovations for womensmallholder farmers in rural Haiphong, northern Vietnam [49,50]. A seven-step ELLab and its built-in systems tools(Vensim and NeticaTM) were employed through the first fivesteps (Figure 1) to define the real challenges and needs of thetarget group and to formulate a systemic management plan toaddress the defined difficulties the women are facing. The firststep (issue identification) includes a baseline survey and anumber of issue workshops and forums with women smallfarmers in four rural districts and relevant presentatives of the stakeholders were engaged in practical―capacity building‖ activities (Step 2). Some of the trainedmembers from a previous project in Haiphong [51] wereinvolved to assist the skills training. The purpose of this stepwas to improve understanding and to facilitate takingownership of the process and thus outcomes [10, 17]. UsingVensim software [52] enabled the working group to integrateall inputs (mental models) of the participants from the previousworkshops into an interim ―systems model‖ (Step 3). Byexploring and defining ―patterns of relationships‖ amongstvariables within the system, potential ―levers for systemicinterventions‖ were defined (Step 4). Thereafter, the modelwas presented at a plenary workshop for feedback andmodifications and/or validation.ISSN 2277-8616Fig. 1. Applying an ELLab for improving the lives of women in smallscale agriculture in Vietnam – A case study for sharing reflections atboth local and global levels. Notes: the red dotted vertical arrowindicates lessons learned at the global level would further enhanceapproaches and performance at local levels.The refined model was then used to identify ―systemicinterventions‖ and develop a ―master management plan‖ (Step5) through Bayesian Belief Network (BBN) modelling [53] toachieve the defined objectives from the previous steps. As itturned out raising income via improved market access wasdefined as the most prominent issue of the women farmers.This cannot be addressed if potential agribusinesses are notengaged in the problem structuring and decision makingprocesses [10]. Therefore, follow-up market surveys and anumber of workshops with agribusiness companies and theaforementioned stakeholders were conducted to understandthe context in more depth and to redefine systemicinterventions, particularly possible actions to facilitate contractfarming and to improve production organization amongstindividual farmers. Many studies have proven positive effect ofcontract farming on income of smallholder farmers indeveloping countries [e.g. 54, 55-59] and in Vietnam [60, 61].It is therefore feasible in the research area due to the ease ofland consolidation and current supporting policies of the localgovernment [62]. In addition, public-private partnership hasbeen proven as a key strategy to sustain market access andprofitability of smallholder farmers [63].2.2 Key findings from implementing the first five stepsThe baseline survey [64] showed various difficulties that thewomen are facing. These include their burdens of houseworkand production tasks, poor health and a relatively high level ofdomestic violence. These difficulties were found to bemultidimensional and interdependent. It means addressingonly work burdens of the women cannot warrant theirimproved quality of life. The challenges are presented below inorder of importance.1. Poor income as a result of market access constraintsand limited capital to invest in production (the women‘smain livelihood);2. Lack of production implements and unsafe workingconditions/practices that engender heavy workload andpoor health; and3. Limited production knowledge and skills that influenceproduction efficiency and thus poor income and healthdue to high labour input.54IJSTR 2016www.ijstr.org

INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF SCIENTIFIC & TECHNOLOGY RESEARCH VOLUME 5, ISSUE 04, APRIL 2016Issue workshops and follow-up activities of the ELLab process(capacity building and developing systems models) helped toproduce a ―big picture‖ of the current situation that revealsdifferent determinants of the women‘s lives under causalrelationships (Figure 2). Raising income turned out to be themost urgent need, followed by reducing workload andimproving health. Variables determining these three factorswere found to be interlinked. The developed systems modelenabled participants to explore patterns of relationshipsamongst the variables within the system and to determineleverage points for systemic interventions. Details aredescribed in Ha et al. [24].Fig. 2. CLD model for improving the lives of women smallholders inrural Haiphong. Red colored variables represent potential levers forsystemic interventions identified by participants during modelinterpretation. Legend: S - same direction; O - opposite direction; R- reinforcing (feedback loop); B – Balancing (loop); [Source:adapted from 24].Bayesian Belief Network (BBN) modelling enabled theparticipants to define systemic interventions in achieving threeobjectives, namely, improving income, reducing work pressureand improving health. Details of this step are discussed in Haet al. [24]. The BBN modelling comprised sensitivity analysesand testing of future scenarios, which allow the participatingmembers to identify strategic actions for development of anoverall systemic management plan. These actions include:1. Improve income through improving market access,reducing production costs, and creating opportunitiesfor secondary jobs;2. Reduce work pressure by enhancing productionefficiency through supporting production implements,capacity building, infrastructure, and production servicegroups.3. Form and strengthen cooperatives/producer groups forenhanced market linkages, product volume and quality,reduced production costs, and many other benefits.See Ha et al. [62] for more details.4. Improve health via reducing work pressure, improvingand facilitating wider adoption of eco-friendlyproduction facilities and practices, and enhancing ruralhygiene and access to healthcare services.ISSN 2277-8616prioritized actions and allocation of responsibilities in eachdistrict will be formulated based on each particular context.3 PRACTICAL VALUE OF THE ELLAB3.1 Reshaping management for impacts using contextbased systems approachesMany authors have highlighted the importance of context inmanagement and development studies [e.g. 65, 66-69]. Thecontext is essential for explaining and comprehending aphenomenon within it [68]. It is also an important basis forestablishing and/or reframing theories [66, 67, 70]. However,its role and influence are often overlooked or underestimated[69]. Tsui [68] and Shapiro et al. [67] underline the plurality ofcontext, which consists of both ―verbal and non-verbalnuances‖, inducing challenges in observations and studies.The former authors also stated the need for effective tools torecord and analyze data, whereas Whetten [69] recommendedusing graphical models and/or modelling for the ease ofunderstanding and communications. In other words, ―a pictureis worth a thousand words‖ [67]. In the present study, contextspecific analyses were paid with high attentions. In addition,systems approaches and the cutting-edge tools wereemployed to understand the context in more depth, providing arational basis for informed systemic interventions to developan overall management plan. This case study also providedpractical evidence on how the context-based and participatoryapproach helps reshape conventional theories anddevelopment practices in the situated context. This is in linewith the recommendations of Lewin [71] and George [66]. Thisstudy has proven the ELLab to be a powerful systems-basedframework in managing such complex problems in ruralcommunities due to its multiple practical applications andvalue. The systems approach employed does not merely seeksolutions to the perceived (visible) problems of the targetgroup, but it provides an opportunity to explore a ―biggerpicture‖ of the context (Figure 2). Places of interventions canbe defined to improve performance of the whole system (i.e.rural households and communities) rather than the traditionalpalliative approach, which tends to solve immediate problemsin isolation, due to the so called ―silo and/or linear thinking‖ asstated by Bosch et al. [35]. By using systems approachesthrough the ELLab process, the project has identified the realproblems that the target group is facing. The ―perceived‖prominent issue (labor hardship) as assumed by the fundingbody [49] was not identified as the uttermost difficult hurdle forthe women to overcome and was ranked second after poorincome. The third factor determining their quality of life washealth. The factors affecting these three determinants werefound to be intrinsically interlinked with each other. Theseinterrelationships and interplays reflect the reality of thewomen‘s lives, which is complex and is influenced by allsocial, economic, political and cultural factors under thestudied (environmental) setting (Figure 2). Therefore, seekingseparate solutions to the defined heavy workload of thewomen cannot warrant their improved quality of life. Rather, asystems-based approach is needed to determine solutions toaddress the complex challenges and real needs in acoordinated manner.Separate BBN models for the three component objectiveswere combined to develop a master systemic managementplan (Step 5, Figure 1). Specific implementation plans with55IJSTR 2016www.ijstr.org

INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF SCIENTIFIC & TECHNOLOGY RESEARCH VOLUME 5, ISSUE 04, APRIL 2016ISSN 2277-8616communities in broad terms (Figure 3a). By utilizing all thecapital assets and developing strategic actions to reinforce thecapitals, spiraling-up of the capital assets are expected (Figure3b). Although the defined strategic actions through the CCFassist local farmers in mapping of all available and potentialresources for mobilization, the actions are howeveroverlapping due to the interconnectedness amongst thecapitals and ―domino effects‖ while taking actions [18]. Inaddition, separate interventions to reinforce a certain capitalwould not result in sustainable outcomes of the whole(community) system. Therefore, coordinated actions with thesupport of the built-in systems modeling tools of the ELLab willhelp address these shortcomings (see details in Section 3.2below).Fig. 3a. Spiraling down of capital assets leading to poor quality oflife of the rural women, farming households and unsustainablecommunitiesFig. 3b. Strategic actions for upswing spiral of capital assetstoward a sustainable and resilient community [Source: 18].The outcomes of this study served as feedback and arationale for reframing the project goal and objectives toaddress the ‗real issues‘, ‗real needs‘ and thus appropriatesystemic intervention strategies to address the identifiedchallenges of the local women farmers. The findings have notonly brought about practical solutions for the women (socialimpacts on gender equality and rural lives), but alsoformulated context-based recommendations for fundingagencies and local governments. Evident advantages of thesystems approach over the traditional one are also presentedin et al. [24]. The systems approach also enabled participantsto explore and mobilize available local and potential externalresources to address their challenges [18]. In terms of acapital asset-based approach, a high level of bridging andbonding social capital is required for sustainable developmentand resiliency of a community [72, 73]. Assessment of differentcommunity assets through the holistic lens of a communitycapitals framework (CCF) [74-76] have revealed that all theseven community capitals are currently in poor conditions inthe localities. This have caused the spiraling down of capitalassets, leading to poor quality of life of the rural women andfarming households in particular, and unsustainable3.2 The generic problem-solving framework with itsbuilt-in systems tools and a capacity buildingcomponentAs a generic framework, the ELLab enables a large degree offlexibility to employ other management tools to supportanalyses of emerging stakeholders during the implementationphase. This helps to engage the right stakeholders forunderstanding the context in more depth, serving as a basisfor defining appropriate interventions. Since improving marketaccess via enhanced market actor linkages were determinedas one of the important preconditions for raised income(Figure 2), follow-up activities were conducted, including areanalysis of stakeholders (Figure 4), a market survey of mainagricultural produce, and engagement of agribusinesses inproblem analyses and decision making processes. Theinvolvement of potential agribusinesses provided essentialinsights of the market potentials and current challenges toagribusiness success. Those consist of fragmented anduncoordinated production, low awareness and short-sightedvisions amongst individual small farmers, and unfavorablepolicies for local agribusinesses [10]. Discussions amongst thestakeholders have shaped a bigger picture of the requirementsfor agribusiness success of the smallholder farmers, whichentail coordinated actions amongst the production services,organization and market access (Figure 5).Fig. 4. Stakeholder analysis for improving market access andincome for women smallholder farmers in Haiphong [Source: 10].Notes: DARD: Department of Agriculture & Rural Development;DIP: Department of Planning & Investment; DOST: Department ofScience & Technology.56IJSTR 2016www.ijstr.org

INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF SCIENTIFIC & TECHNOLOGY RESEARCH VOLUME 5, ISSUE 04, APRIL 2016Fig. 5. Requirements for agribusiness success in the rural districtsof Haiphong – Vietnam [62].―Capacity building‖ for key stakeholders does not only occur inStep 2 as shown in Figure 1. It is designed in the form oflearning by doing and Training of Trainers (ToT) throughout theentire guided process from problem structuring to systemicdecision making and implementation. The purpose of thiscomponent is to ensure ownership of the approach, processand outcomes by the local people and thereby sustainabilityand long-lasting impacts. Thanks to the continued endeavorsin embracing and institutionalizing systems thinking in practicein the situated context at both micro (community development)and macro (local government) levels, evident shifts inperspectives and therefore informed actions of the localgovernment, related stakeholders and community membershave been reported in Nguyen et al. [48] and Ha et al. [10].The built-in user-friendly systems tools in the ELLab enable allstakeholders to understand different issues and their patternsof relationships for defining leverage points for systemicinterventions (Steps 3 & 4, Figure 1), while impacts andpossible unintended consequences could be envisagedthrough scenario testing using the BBN modeling (Step 5,Figure 1). These are clearly more time and cost efficient thantraditional problem solving approaches.3.3 Facilitating true participation and co-learningtowards joint action through the cyclic ELLabframeworkThe ELLab framework embraces a ―bottom-up approach‖ and―true participation‖ since opinions of disadvantaged groups,local people and all other stakeholders are embedded in thesystems models (Figure 2) that reflect their actual issues,concerns and expectations. Drivers and barriers to theirdefined goals are fully explored in the relationships. Theframework ensures the ―inclusiveness‖ of not only all relevantstakeholders (Figure 4), but also a holistic view on hierarchicalsystems relationships (i.e. women farmers, rural householdsand farming community), and different dimensions ofsustainable development (i.e. economic, environmental, socialand cultural) (Figure 2). The latter is consistent with findings ofMidgley and Reynolds [29] and Flints [77]. Participation alsoenhance ―a sense of community and empowerment‖ [78],ownership and control of development efforts [79], groupperformance, transparency and accountability [80]. Accordingto Kulig et al. [81], participation is also critical to communityresilience. The ELLab creates a ―co-learning environment‖ forall stakeholders [17]. This was evident in this case studyISSN 2277-8616through triggering mutual and transformative learning amongstparticipants and thus appropriate systemically based actionsby all the stakeholder groups (policy makers, government staff,agribusinesses and local farmers) towards strong collaborationand joint actions. It also helps to change the mindset offunding agencies [10]. Regular reflections and sharing oflessons and experience at both local and global levels t in learning and performance around the world(Figure 6). The participatory systems-based ELLab frameworkalso reinforces action research (AR) through reflectiveactivities, making sense of practical experience, andtransforming viewpoints of stakeholders, resulting in moreinformed and justifiable actions. These are consistent withfindings of Reason and Bradbury [82], Coghlan [83], Kemmis[84] and Flood [85]. It is, however, important to point out howthe ELLab process differs from the traditional AR process.Sankaran et al. [86] illustrate AR through a general model thatlinks between ―action‖ and ―critical reflection‖. According tothese authors, the latter helps to gain better understandingand thus more knowledgeable action. AR is very oftenparticipatory and is conducted through a repeating cyclic orspiral process. The ELLab framework resembles AR in thisregard. Nonetheless, due to its integration of systems toolsand reflection mechanisms at both local and global levelsthrough the global knowledge platform Think2ImpactTM, thesystems-based ELLab is a powerful tool that further embracesand reinforces AR in dealing with complex problems in acollaborative and systemic manner. This is consistent with thestatement of Ison [40] with regards to the role of systems tools,techniques and methods in facilitating AR.Fig. 6. New levels of learning and performance amongstakeholders at local and global levels from an adaptivemanagement perspective [Source: 7].The philosophy behind the AR would be that there is a gapbetween the theory (knowledge) and practice (experience)worlds [87]. Reflections are essential to generate and reframepersonal knowledge and perspectives about the real world andtherefore appropriate approaches and actions (Figure 7). tstakeholders [70, 88]. Through this case study, mental modelsand/or tacit knowledge of relevant stakeholders about theissues under consideration are uncovered and become visible57IJSTR 2016www.ijstr.org

INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF SCIENTIFIC & TECHNOLOGY RESEARCH VOLUME 5, ISSUE 04, APRIL 2016as emergent (new) knowledge for sharing through thesocialised setting of the ELLab process. The co-creation ofknowledge helps to better understand the context andexpectations of all stakeholders involved, leading toappropriate actions. The nature of continuous reflectionsthrough the ELLab process triggers transformative learningthrough transforming their perceived worldviews (Figure 8).Planning of actionsTheory World(Knowledge)TransformativelearningPractice World(Experience)Reflections(thatgenerateBridging& reframe)Fig. 7. Transformativelearning:the gap between theory &practice in professional fields [Source: adapted from 70].ISSN 2277-86164 CONCLUSIONThis paper has summarised the key value of the systemsbased ELLab in dealing with complex community problems inVietnam through the reported case study. Outcomes of thisstudy clearly show the validity and advantages of systemsapproaches employed in the ELLab over the traditional supplydriven approach in solving intricate problems. The flexibility ofits approach has enabled the project team to reanalyse andengage the right stakeholders during the issue identificationand decision making process. The built-in systems tools alsotrigger the process‘s effectiveness. The ELLab‘s capacitybuilding component is designed to ensure ownership of theprocess, outcomes by local people and thereby sustainabilityand expanding impacts. Thanks to the nature of its genericprocess, the ELLab framework could be applied in dealing withcomplex issues in many professional fields across the world.Successes of its applications have been evident in Australia,Japan, Africa and Vietnam. This study also confirms that thesystems-based ELLab further enriches and reinforces actionresearch through employing relevant systems tools andcreating a participative co-learning environment amongststakeholders. This helps to transform their perspectives andactions, making action research in development fields a truly―practice-changing practice‖ as stated by Kemmis [84]. Thefurther development of the ELLab to Think2ImpactTM willexpect to bring experience sharing amongst similarapplications using systems approaches to a new level ofcollaborative learning and actions amongst researchers,development practitioners and other stakeholders at both localand global levels. Currently, reflections from two similar casestudies between Vietnam and Ghana, the two typical poorcountries in Southeast Asia and Sub Saharan Africa, are beingshared to learn from one another [7]. Such knowledge andexperience sharing mechanism would be expected to furtherexpand at global scale via sharing insights and lessons fromdifferent case studies around the world. Therefore, adoptableapproaches, practices and their impacts would be widelydisseminated in the foreseeable future.ACKNOWLEDGMENTFig. 8. The knowledge creation process and transformationallearning amongst stakeholders through the ELLab process[Source: 70].The ELLab framework process significantly contributes toorganisational learning theory via enhanced reflective changesin perceptions and thus the actions amongst stakeholders. Inaddition to the continuous effort to disseminate systemsscience at the local government level [48], this particularprojec

environmental, economic, political, social and cultural elements are intertwined and interdependent within a community [18]. Environmental conditions, local cultures, values and spiritual . addressing all economic, social and environmental facets in an integrated way [29, 30] since one can lend strength to another

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