The R4D challenge – anticipating every step

November 5, 2020

Group photo from the introduction session, we were lucky enough to have the ACIAR Assistant Country Manager to Vietnam, Mr Tran Nam Anh attend, along with the Australian Volunteers Program team.

With the significant impact of COVID-19 on overseas travel for our training and mentoring programs, the Fund has had to think of new ways of ensuring that we continue to maintain the impact of our activities. Our chairman and CEO alluded to this in their opening to our Year in Review and we have previously announced our E-mentoring Program. We are pleased to report on another new initiative we are funding for extended on-line interactive workshops, led by David McGill, Jenny Hanks and Mia Dunphy from the University of Melbourne in collaboration with Researchers in Agriculture for International Development (the RAID Network). The extended format builds on a face-to-face workshop the team conducted in October last year, but instead the format is flipped. This year it is purely online and has a number of shorter sessions over a longer period thus enabling time to establish relationships and build an interactive learning process in a virtual workshop setting.

“Failing to prepare, is preparing to fail”

For Early to Mid-Career Researchers (EMCRs) working in research for development, preparation is uniquely challenging because most may not have experienced the whole research process from start to end. Hence, it is difficult to prepare if you are unable to anticipate the next step because you may have never seen it before.

This was the strong justification for a new style of training the Fund is supporting which is just getting underway for Vietnamese and Australian EMCRs aiming to help them implement successful projects by integrating leadership with an understanding of every step of the research process.

On 19 October 2020, six Australian-based volunteers and five Vietnamese EMCRs commenced a pilot training effort involving online workshops over five weeks. The aim is to strengthen their understanding of the research process and corresponding data collection approaches, whilst gaining an appreciation of how their skills will develop as they progress through their careers in agricultural research and development. The content for the training has been curated from the experiences of the University of Melbourne team leading the workshop including David McGill, Jenny Hanks and Mia Dunphy. These draw from in-country field experience working with local partners to collect data along with a strong focus on farmer engagement and facilitating shared learning experiences. The online material being presented is also influenced by lessons from previous training, workshops and webinars that have been coordinated by the Crawford Fund and the RAID Network.

“I am excited about this project for two reasons.  First, it will provide some valuable insights about how to keep research moving forward at a time when travel bans are disrupting previous work practices.  And second, it is great to see the project leaders using the experience of our earlier training activities to build skills of EMC researchers further,” said Professor Shaun Coffey, the Fund’s Director of Capacity Building.

The University of Melbourne team and the Vietnam National University of Agriculture (VNUA, led by Dr Nguyen Nga) have developed a strong partnership over the last year, strengthened in particular by the time and effort of members of the dedicated VNUA team and RAID Network (also supported by the Fund).

The extended online format will work through the core research steps required within agriculture and development including designing surveys, tools for data collection, managing community engagement, and data visualisation but across five weeks, and in short bursts. The participants will attend three workshop presentations each week, discussing a range of critical research topics, as well as working through seven fictional scenarios. These scenarios will challenge the researchers on how they might put theory into practice, as well as learning how to engage with partners in a format which is going to be more prevalent in a post-COVID-19 world.  

“The intent here is to really create an environment where participants can learn from each other to help move their own projects and careers forward. In a classroom-based workshop, establishing relationships to enable shared learning can be difficult, and this is exacerbated in an online setting. However, this is a reality that travel restrictions have dealt us in 2020, and we need to address it, quickly! In the long-term, if we can establish learning networks like this, and share from each other at this critical point in our careers, it has a huge potential to deliver more sustainable development in our future projects, both in Australia and overseas” said David.

Engaging with the Fund’s long term partnership with the Australian Volunteers Program, six Australian volunteers have been identified and partnered with a research counterpart in Vietnam to work through scenarios and research problems. The partnering of participants is a central component of the online workshop as the partners work together on workshop materials and activities, and also provide feedback on their own research. By offering cross-cultural and often cross-disciplinary feedback to their partner, the participants have been able to engage and learn from one another, while forming friendships and professional networks.  Workshop participants have a range of experiences in agriculture and international development, from economics to animal science to horticulture. One of the most important roles was held by volunteer Anh Pham as the Senior Research Support through the Australian Volunteers Program. Anh is an Adelaide based researcher who is helping to translate complex ideas, build engagement across different cultures and bridge language gaps.  

“The participants were chosen based on their interest to engage in building strong relationships with local partners in Vietnam, and to assist in mentoring their partners as the pair build capacity in understanding research processes and their application international agricultural development,” said David.

The Australian volunteers are Anh Pham, Megan Williams, Camilla Jane Humphries, Jessica Fearnley, John Otto and Sally Jesmilly Molero Obegon.

The Vietnamese researchers are Tran The Cuong, Vang A Me, Do My Hanh, Nguyen Thi Phuong and Le Trang.

The first two weeks of the workshop has seen some impressive interactions between partners, interesting questions and stories from those participating. The smiling faces from the first workshop will hopefully continue whilst learning and building networks to support skills development for their future careers.