What did I learn from the coalface?

1 learned the importance of watching and listening to what innovative local people were doing to improve the lives of themselves and their children, and the importance of supporting the development of organisations that had bought into this idea and were practising it.

The other important learning was that the conventional wisdom about agricultural innovation — i.e. the Green Revolution — had limitations in specific localities. While there is consensus about how the Green Revolution has increased yields, there are important variations where this does not take place, or where it takes place at the expense of other locally important benefits.

The next complication was persuading the local Ministry of Agriculture, and the government of a country that had bought into the Green Revolution, that local variations were important and worth their attention.

What happened to it all?


Looking back 20 years later, the practice of scavenging for nutritious wild plants, particularly the kecipir or winged bean, was taken up by UNICEF, by the Ministry of Health and by PKK (the welfare organisation of civil servants’ wives). It has become standard practice and education about it is a regular part of the arisan monthly meetings, along with their baby weighing.


Unfortunately, in 2019 there are very few examples of rice/fish cultivation continuing in Isam. On a return visit I was told the same story as had happened in central Thailand. More and more farmers, under pressure from the government’s Ministry of Agriculture, which is in turn under pressure from the major agricultural suppliers, have used amounts of insecticide that are poisonous to fish, bringing to an end this mutually supportive fanning system. CUSO volunteers subsequently took their knowledge and enthusiasm to Laos, where I believe it is still being practised.

What were we thinking at the time?

Development practitioners at this time were learning from each other, with occasional informal papers. Later, the fields became more fonnalised and more accessible through books and websites. The site for positive deviance is www.positivedeviance.org and a new International Positive Deviance Collective was launched in 2017 and gives interested practitioners information about the steps involved in the positive deviance approach.

The core reference book (not available to us at the time) is:

Pascale, Richard, Sternin, Jerry and Stemin, Monique. 2010. The Power of Positive Deviance: How unlikely innovators solve the world’s toughest problems. Harvard Business Review Press, Harvard MA, USA.

Similarly, information on winged beans and rice/fish was circulated informally and then established more solidly, sometimes through conference papers:

MacKay, Kenneth T., Chapman, Greg, Sollows, John and Thongpan, Niran. 1986. Rice-fish culture in north east Thailand: stability and sustainability'. Paper presented at the I FOAM 6th International Scientific Conference, University of California, Santa Cruz, USA.

National Research Council. 2011. The Winged Bean: A high-protein crop for the tropics. National Academies Press, Washington DC, USA.

The work of Dr Paulus and CD Bethesda was noted by Robert Chambers:

Chambers, Robert. 1983. Rural Development: Putting the last first. Longman, New York, USA, p. 202.

Janet Durno’s article on rice/fish practices in Thailand is:

Durno, Janet. 1987. From rice/fish to integrated farming: sustainable agriculture for resource-poor farmers in north-east Thailand. In Holloway, Richard (ed.), Doing Development: Government, NGOs, and the rural poor in Asia. Earthscan, London, UK.

And, as before, the key manual for development practitioners is:

Pratt, Brian and Boyden, Jo. 1988. The Field Directors’ Handbook: An Oxfam manual for development workers. Oxfam Publishing, Oxford, UK.


  • 1 Sternin’s book The Power of Positive Deviance points out a cross-cultural version of this: “The idea of doing so [introducing new foods] seemed as far-fetched to many as feeding garden snails (enjoyed by the French as escargots) and dandelion leaves (which garnish signature salads) to the children of Westerners.”
  • 2 See Chapter 9 in Doing Development: Government, NGOs, and the rural poor in Asia.
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