Institutional Innovation for Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Resources Management: Changing the rules of the game

J. Santamaria Guerra

    Research output: Thesisexternal PhD, WU


    This study was carried out to critically examine the state of the art of institutional innovation and to identify the theories of action informing it in rural research and development (R&D) organisations.

    The study was carried out in three cases. The selected case studies are different in their organisational configuration and in the scope of their interventions. On the other hand, they are similar with regard to their basic function as rural R&D organisations, aiming to contribute to rural development. The three studied cases were:

    • The National Agricultural Research Institute of Panama : It is a public R&D organisation in charge of agricultural research and responsible for 'transferring' its results to extension agents.
    • Environmental NGOs in Panama : Considering the role that NGOs have been occupying in the rural R&D effort and the voluntary character of their membership, two ENGOs that have received support from the USAID's and NATURA's institutional strengthening programs were studied: FUNDICCEP and APASAN.
    • The ISNAR New Paradigm project : It is a capacity-building project carried out by ISNAR in LAC. Working with pilot cases at the regional level, mainly of agricultural science and technology organisations, the project has not only supported institutional change processes, but has also innovated itself.

    The methodological strategy was based mainly on qualitative methods, such as: participatory action-reflection, in which the roles of the researcher-observer and of the actor-facilitator in the researching system are intertwined. In addition, interpretative content analysis was the guiding method for analysing organisational documents that were considered to be a product of social construction.

    According to the analysis of the context of institutional innovation presented in the second chapter, there is evidence to show that the ongoing changes in the rural context are a situated expression of an on-going change of epoch. While the new epoch establishes itself, the current rules of the development experience a crisis of legitimacy and individual and collective actors experience a crisis of perception and interpretation. Under these circumstances, it is impossible to get out of the organisational vulnerability under the same rules of the game, worldviews and theories of action, which have created it.

    In the third chapter the state of the art of institutional innovation is presented and discussed. Outcomes of this review indicate that innovation in the rural milieu is no longer the outcome of applying a science focused on delivering " the best technicalmeans " to achieve the given goals of productivity and competitiveness. Instead of just being the product of fundamental and/or applied research by agricultural scientists, innovation is increasingly seen as the emergent property of the interaction among not only researchers, extension workers and farmers, but also increasingly concerned NGOs, other resource users, consumers and industries, among others.

    According to the study, there is always more than one way to achieve the same purpose and therefore there is always more than one theory of action to inform it. A theory of action is defined as: a set of principles of behaviour, shaped by paradigms, worldviews, theoretical and methodological premises to inform the way a given organisational purpose must be achieved in an effective way . Different theories of action reveal different values, meanings and interests that are reflected in the principles, premises, promises and commitments that mould the practices that they inform. The study of the different theories of action that inform institutional innovation processes is referred to in this research as the praxeology of institutional innovation . The praxeology of institutional innovation within the three case studies is presented in chapters 5, 6 and 7. For each studied case, a specific research design and set of questions are followed.

    The analytical synthesis of the three case studies is presented in chapter 8. An alternative explanatory model of institutional innovation including the interrelationships of the organisational mode of interpretation , value frameworks , perception of the context , basis for interactions and internal rules of the game is proposed. These five elements tend to be internally and externally consistent. The requisite for internal consistency is called institutional coherence and its external consistency with the external operational context is defined as the correspondence requisite. The proposed model is used for the analyses of the three studied cases. Regarding the main objective of the study, two sets, each comprising two theories of action, were identified:

    1. Two well-established theories of action called here mechanistic-instrumental and economic-strategic . Under these theories of action, institutional innovation is a deliberate, explicit, simple and controlled process of searching for new opportunities for conceiving new strategies, and for implementing changes in the organisation's products and services; and
    2. Two emergent theories of action for institutional innovation in rural R&D organisations were identified: evolutionary-strategic and contextual-communicative theories of action.

    As part of the research findings it is argued that institutional innovation processes of rural R&D organisations under contextual-communicative theory of action should go through the following tasks:

    • Past-present (de)construction : an analysis of premises and underlying assumptions behind their current theory of action, to know what involved actors need to unlearn ;
    • Present-future (re)construction: collective construction of new premises and assumptions that will undergird the new theory of action - what involved actors need to learn ; and

    The reported study concludes with some implication of research findings for capacity-building interventions in rural development. In particular is argued that if capacity building for institutional innovation is to contribute to the strengthening of the organisational sustainability of rural R&D organisations, then a new collaborative approach should be advanced beyond the " fish and hook-giving " models. In their search for organisational sustainability, rural R&D organisations need neither fish nor hooks; they need to master the art of hook-making to develop and strengthen their conceptual, methodological and cultural capacities .

    Original languageEnglish
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • Wageningen University
    • Röling, N.G., Promotor
    Award date30 Jun 2003
    Place of Publication[S.I.]
    Print ISBNs9789058088291
    Publication statusPublished - 2003


    • innovation adoption
    • research institutes
    • institutions
    • organizations
    • agricultural research
    • resource management
    • sustainability
    • panama


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