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Measuring economic and social benefits of development projects in agriculture – Field study of a young Researcher in Vietnam

Rahel Wyss, HAFL (Bern University of Applied Sciences, School of Agricultural, Forest and Food Sciences)

rice irrigation - VietnamHow can available resources for development cooperation be used in the most useful and sus­tainable way for people in developing countries? Implementing agencies put much effort into show­ing their results to donors. Impact assessment is not a new term, but governments and donors wish for clearer proof and tangible results of their money flowing into developing projects.

On the other hand voices rise against a sophisticated analysis of effects of development projects:  Should we really talk about ‘profitability in development cooperation’? Is it not a dangerous act which tends to ex­clude the poorest people?

My Bachelor Field study seeks to identify the effects of investments into two types of small scale infrastructures (irrigation canal and clean water supply system) in rural Vietnam, by elaborating a cost and benefit analysis at local level.

My task in the project

During five months, I was a team member of Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation in Vietnam. The programme I worked in is called Public Service Provision Improvement Program in Agriculture and Rural Development (PS-ARD). PS-ARD contributes to the improvement of livelihoods in the upland and ethnic minority areas of Hoa Binh and Cao Bang provinces in rural Vietnam in terms of food security, poverty reduction and environmental sustainability.

My task was to improve the knowledge about costs and benefits of small scale infrastructures in rural development at local level. For this a survey with farmers was conducted to question them about the changes in their costs and benefits that they experienced due to the new infrastructure (before to after comparison). We had a total of about 40 household interviews, several Focus Group Discussions and interviews with each village head.

Rahel and her team in VietnamResults from field work

An irrigation canal and several clean water supply systems were analysed in the study. The cost for material is paid by the programme; the construction itself (labour cost) is done by the community. The study shows, that the extension of the irrigation canal contributes to an increased water supply in farmers’ rice fields. This enables a more efficient use of fertilizer and leads to higher yields.

In the same time, farmers experience work release because the ploughing and planting becomes easier with moister fields. But not all beneficiaries can benefit to the same extent. That is partly due to the fact, that not all fields are in the same favourable position (the closer the fields are to the source, the more water is available).

There are three major reasons for building a clean water supply system: the availability, the quan­tity and the quality of the household water. Women do not need to fetch the daily water from a faraway source anymore. This means a daily work relief for them in terms of work load and time saved. Availability and quantity could be improved in all analysed infrastructures (n=6), the quality of the water however was not satisfying to the people in all sites.

These investments under PS-ARD project brought measurable benefits to the local communities and the analysed infrastructures clearly contribute towards improved livelihood in terms of more income, higher food security and improved health of the local communities. Different benefits result from the two types of infrastructures, but we have different environments, different livelihoods and necessities.

Potential of the economic analysis (CBA)

A Cost and Benefit Analysis (CBA) is not a tool to work on transversal topics as poverty or gender issues. It remains economic and is based on numbers from surveys or assumptions made. The CBA helps finding potentials to improve project activities and make it more efficient, but Net Present Value (NPV) or Internal Rate of Return should not be the deciding factor in development cooperation if it is worth investing into an infrastructure or not.

With help of a sensitivity analysis, a CBA provides insight in individual and aggregated effects, provides a framework to weigh effects with each other, to communicate and ex­plain why results are as presented, opens discussion among stakeholders and decision makers and improves transparency decision making.

However, the field study should not exclude transversal issues. For instance questions about who is doing the work in the rice field before and after the new infrastructure was built are valuable. As such also socio-economic changes due to the investment can be traced.

Personal reflection

What I learnt personally in this field study is how important it is to have a flexible attitude in general. If things in the field look quite different than they looked like from the office point of view that should not hinder researchers to go on and try to get the best out of the situation. But one has to find the balance between wanting to stick to the own ideas and remaining open to changes in the same time.

Difficult for me was sometimes to feel the high expectations of the local people in me. When NGO’s come to the field, often something is going to change; at least it was like that in the past. Some investments were made into water tanks or canals. My task was only to question them, there will not necessary be a new investment following my visit. So maybe that disappointed the people. But still they acted very friendly and interested to what I do and many farmers were keen to take part in the follow-up presentation of my results in the commune.

Photo 1: Irrigation Canal in a rice field in Hoa Binh province

Photo 2: Working with community members on water supply systems in Cao Bang

This blog post is an abstract of the article published on World Farmers''Organisation newsletter of May 2013, with eponym name, p.20.