Fast forwarding from 1966: a personal odyssey

15 December 2016

2016 being IDS’ 50th anniversary year has prompted me to reflect on my own fifty year odyssey. In 1966, I was in Obubra in the Cross Rover basin of Eastern Nigeria finishing up my assignment as a cadet VSO. Given that this was the start of my career, it doesn't seem momentous enough that this placement came about because of a stray comment in my interview for my undergraduate degree in agricultural science at Wye College (which required a practical year). But it did.

Richard Longhurst weighing sorghum in Northern Nigeria, 1976

On being asked my interests, I had chimed up with ‘well I am very interested in malnutrition’ whereupon the head of the panel, Principal Dunstan Skilbeck said ‘I hope this is not based on personal experience’, followed by everybody on the panel saying  “ha, ha, ho, ho” Skilbeck then said: ‘why don't you do VSO as your practical year’. It triggered a lifetime interest which has wandered in and out of my career. Conveniently, I am reminded most evenings of that time in my life, as one of my cohort was Jon Snow, the well renowned British newscaster.

Nigeria in 1966

Nigeria had been shaken up by the military coup of January of that year which had little impact deep in Obubra. But just before leaving in July I vividly remember a visit by Lieutenant Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu, the military governor of Eastern Nigeria, meeting him in a line-up and being taken aback by his ice-clear Oxbridge (or Sandhurst) accent. 

Surprisingly, or not… most of the coup leaders at the time had been classmates at Sandhurst for more see Robin Luckham’s great work on the Nigerian military. The second coup in July 1966 saw Gen Yakubu Gowan come into power, which would lead to the eventual declaration (in May 1967) of the secessionist state of Biafra under Ojukwu’s leadership.

The ‘Great Protein Fiasco’

My work at that time in Obubra was to introduce soya beans as a high protein food to grow and eat in an area of severe child malnutrition. But later I realised that with the work on soya beans I had been parachuted into what was known as the ‘Great Protein Fiasco’ (pdf). Protein was not the limiting nutrient in causing malnutrition, but rather calories, although a plausible case might be made for protein foods in tuber growing and consuming areas of West Africa.

There were two other implicit assumptions in our work at that time that were wrong but are still seen today in some research and programming:

  1. Auto-consumption – people will always eat what they grow (we had been alarmed when farmers sold the beans) 
  2. The time costs of preparation – soaking overnight and boiling – would be acceptable by women. Soya beans contain a trypsin inhibitor that reduces digestion and this could only be nullified by soaking and extensive boiling.

After Wye College my interest in agricultural economics lead me happily to the Department of Agricultural Economics in Cornell University. Again, like another ‘happy accident, I was delighted to discover Cornell’s Babcock Chair, an interdisciplinary structure jointly between nutritional sciences and agricultural economics, held then by David Call (and now by John Hoddinott).

Also it was only after I accepted to Cornell that I also found out it was not located in New York City, but in Ithaca, five hours on a Greyhound bus to the north-west – not the city lights I had anticipated. It was there however, I tried to turn into an economist and also worked on problems of hunger in the US, which have resonance today.

Field work research in July 1976

Fast forward ten years, I was back in Northern Nigeria. This time, doing my Sussex doctoral research in development economics under the watchful eye of Michael Lipton. I was living in a village on the road between Kano and Funtua, speaking Hausa, and following a sample of 120 under-fives, trying to work out how the family farm operation affected nutritional status in an area of high undernutrition.

I was measuring field areas and weighing both children and bundles of sorghum (though not at the same time). With the encouragement of my landlady, Junmade, I talked to semi-secluded Moslem women who no doubt regarded me as huge entertainment. From them I learned first-hand about their economic activities – trading in grain, selling food, farming fields, directing hired labour – which they carried out from inside the compound, and the economic exchanges between them and their husbands. And their views on feeding their children. 

Last May, at the University of East Anglia, Cecile (Sam) Jackson (who was carrying out her PhD research in 1976 about 30 miles away) and I gave an anniversary seminar where we proposed how the economic activities of women may have changed since our field work.

At IDS in July 1986

I was very fortunate to be back at IDS in a golden era of food security, agriculture and nutrition. With Michael Lipton, Robert Chambers, Simon Maxwell, Hans Singer and Jeremy Swift and others, all operating at full throttle, there was intensive research on seasonality, cash crops, food security, structural adjustment, food aid and much more.

I had returned in 1984 from a short term post in the Food and Agriculture Organization's Nutrition Division where I had been given the freedom to push forward the nutrition in agriculture agenda through programmes and projects. I was still in that gear in my brain believing that if you did good (and ‘obvious’) research work, then practitioners would be only too willing to adopt the ideas. However, I believe that the short course culture at IDS over its first 20 years laid the foundation for interpreting research into practice has really challenged that culture.

Putting it all into perspective – the last 20 years

By July 1996 I had left the world of research and joined the Commonwealth Secretariat as its evaluation manager, operating out of the rarefied atmosphere of Pall Mall in London.

I returned to IDS at the time when nutrition had returned to the world scene as an important development issue. The subject has moved on a lot since the days in Obubra and the village on the Kano road. In IDS we have research programmes including Leveraging Agriculture for Nutrition in South Asia and Transform Nutrition and evaluations such as Impact Evaluation of DFID Programme to Accelerate Improved Nutrition for the Extreme Poor in Bangladesh and Operational Research and Impact Evaluation (ORIE) Northern Nigeria.

Better understanding of how to implement is still needed but as nations improve by reducing undernutrition we learn how they did it, and continue to hope that priorities to address the problem stay high up on the research and practice agenda.

Lessons from the past help us judge how much of the complexity involved in implementation should be taken on board. As one of my fellow student cohort said a few months ago, 'the past is accelerating towards me at a fast rate'.

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Image: Richard Longhurst weighing head loads of harvested sorghum to assess grain production in the north of Nigeria, 1976 (published in 1978 IDS Annual Report)

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