Newsletter 2016

Dear colleagues,

Our Indonesian research project, funded by the Netherlands Royal Academy of Science and Arts and the Indonesian Ministry of Education, with 4 PhD students and a postdoc is in its last year and has started to come up with several publications. With this introduction to our newsletter I would like to share some observations about doing research in Indonesia and the first results of our research.

Much more than in our earlier partnership research, the cultural characteristics play an important role in the process of data-gathering. In Indonesia, the front door is often not the way to come in for interviews.

Civil servants are inclined not to answer emails from someone they do not know. It is also extremely difficult to make appointments for interviews. It is not rare that our PhD students need to go to an office, just to wait till the person they want to talk to arrives, in the hope to get some time for a talk. Fortunately, we have Indonesian supervisors and advisors who help them a lot to make contacts for interviews through the back door.

Relevant documents are also difficult to get. Bureaucratic inertia is common and relevant documents are regarded secret for unclear reasons or not available anymore. The positive thing is that smallholder farmers, although often in remote and sometimes not very safe regions, are easy to contact and very open in the interviews.

The results of our research have made me more skeptical about the transformative capacity of private attempts to realize a more sustainable agriculture while at the same time improving the livelihood of the smallholders. I particularly became aware that most partnership research on sustainability standards and certifications regarding coffee, palm oil, tea, cocoa etc. has a Northern bias. Taking the objectives of the certifying arrangements as a starting point, they implicitly accept a specific problem definition; one that fits the interests of multinationals and international NGOs.

These interests are not necessarily aligned with the needs, interests and preferences of the smallholder farmers in a developing context. Our research among smallholder farmers in Indonesia shows that a global partnership not automatically results in a partnership at the local level because of different interpretations of the problems.  

Smallholder farmers are primarily interested in economic improvements. But certified farmers are not much better off than non-certified farmer who follow Good Agricultural Practices. Certified farmers are always uncertain about the premium and face an overproduction of certified agricultural commodities. Moreover, the higher rents because of the better quality of the certified product go almost all to the trader and processor and not to the farmers. Thus, the power relations in the value chains do not change with certification.

In December there will be a final workshop on ‘Tracing Governance in Indonesia’ of all three Dutch-Indonesian research projects in Yogyakarta; February next year there will be a workshop in the Netherlands on ‘Sustainable Pathways in Agriculture Beyond Certification’ with SUSPENSE, a similar research group of Wageningen University (coordinators Otto Hospes and Greetje Schouten). We are looking forward to these meetings and preparing presentations.

Last year, Astrid Offermans and I worked on a new perspective on partnerships, conceptualizing them as boundary organizations. We applied the approach to The Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil. Our feeling is that this is a promising approach for further partnership research.

With two other PhD students in our program - Laura Kurth and Ceren Pekdemir - who will also finish their theses next year, we are heading to a busy but bright last year of our MUNPOP program. Laura published about private governance of Halal, which is also not a sunny story. Ceren works on fragmentation and cohesion in global governance. After research on Fair Labor and meta-governors, she is currently analyzing the very complex world of organic governance.

As always we are very open to comments, both encouraging and critical ones.

Pieter Glasbergen

Chair Maastricht-Utrecht-Nijmegen Program on Partnerships