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Cultivating participatory policy processes for genetic resources policy: lessons from the Genetic Resources Policy Initiative (GRPI) project


The purpose of the paper is to draw lessons and document experiences from the Genetic Resources Policy Initiative (GRPI) project, a project which has been underway in six countries and two sub-regions during the last 5 years. Its focus has been to experiment an approach to participatory policy processes, coined by the project, called the multi-stakeholder, multi-disciplinary and multi-sector or in short the 3M. This approach, which was demand-driven due to the nature of the policy problems being examined, aims to create a platform to address competing interests inherent in genetic resources issues from multiple perspectives. It is meant to enable different stakeholders to balance issues they diverge and/or converge upon in genetic resources management, thereby harmonizing trade-offs, objectives and strategies. Experiences from the project in applying the 3M in Egypt, Nepal, Vietnam Peru and Zambia highlight several lessons in participatory policy processes. The experiences show that the success or otherwise of participatory policy making processes is dependent on various factors that have to do with stakeholder capacities, process orientation, shared understanding versus vested interests and institutional functions. They highlight that the most effective approach to stakeholder engagement in policy processes is to construct them around an actively engaged ‘process leader’ that possesses, or has the potential to champion the process by mobilising the required cognitive knowledge and institutional engagement. They further suggest that since genetic resources policy issues are cross-cutting, they will demand a more holistic approach with a clear identification of impact pathways through which policy changes can be expected to influence the outcome variables. Since policy making processes are perpetual, the question of sustaining project ideas and recommendations beyond the life of a project has to be part of the planning exercise in any participatory genetic resources policy research and formulation.

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  1. Biological diversity (or biodiversity in short) is the number, variety and variability of all living organisms in terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are parts (UNCED 1992). Conceptually, it encompasses both the number (stock) and variability dimensions. Agro-biodiversity is a subset of biodiversity which is relevant for agriculture. Crop diversity is a subset of agro-biodiversity relevant for crop production. Genetic resources mainly refer to the stock (and information contained therein) dimension of biodiversity. All these terms have been used in this paper as relevant.

  2. ‘Legal positivist’ in the sense of being derived exclusively from the existing principles or body of law rather than seeking to develop more specifically appropriate approaches. The authors recognise that the understanding of positivism varies significantly within and between disciplines and use this definition for the purposes of this article. For a discussion on positivism see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy at Website last viewed 25th April 2008.

  3. The experiences used as the basis of this article are drawn from across the project. However, due to its unique nature, experiences from work in Ethiopia are only incidentally considered here and have, instead, been documented in Wale (2008).

  4. This is economically important stimulant cash crop in South and Eastern part of Ethiopia. Consumers chew the leaves and get stimulated.

  5. GRPI is partly based on the implicit assumption that, today, policy, and particularly the jurisprudential aspects of policy, inevitably require state participation and action. They are no longer something that can be coordinated at a purely local level (Seidman 1975).

  6. It is recognized that ‘quality’ can be a very subjective term. A logical approach would be to judge it in terms of the intended purpose or objective, which would imply considering it in terms of the effectiveness of a given policy. However, GRPI’s 5 years experience is of too short a lifespan to undertake such a task. The project’s underlying assumption can be seen as being that better informed policy processes using broadly founded evidence based decision making approaches will be of a higher ‘quality’ i.e. in the long-term more effective in their intended objectives, than those which are more closed or abstract.

  7. It should also be noted that GRPI’s 3M contributes to the implementation of Paragraph 9.2(c) of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (Anonymous 2001), which is clearly of a normative nature in its recognition of farmers’ “right to participate in making decisions, at the national level…”.

  8. It is possible that this may have been exacerbated by GRPI’s typical entry points into most of the countries in which it operated. These were usually either ministries of agriculture and environment or biodiversity conservation institutes (gene banks) or national agricultural research organisations, which tended to be dominated by a variety of biological scientists.

  9. ‘The orthodox attribution of stakeholder cognitive competence’ refers to the assumption that stakeholders possess particular knowledge of their own fields and interests that enables them to act in an informed and effective manner in any given participatory process.

  10. “In most cooperative situations, it is difficult to over emphasise the importance of charismatic leaders, or dedicated staff with the attitude, time and resources to maintain momentum and seek new opportunities. Cooperative actions and partnerships are fundamentally about people and social relationships.” (Davies et al. 2004).



Multi-disciplinary, Multi-sectoral and Multi-stakeholder participatory methodology


Genetic Resources Policy Initiative


Task Force


Non Governmental Organisations


Access and Benefit Sharing


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The authors would like to acknowledge the support of the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, BMZ/GTZ, IDRC and the Rockefeller Foundation. Through GRPI, this support has provided opportunities to experiment with participatory approaches to genetic resources policy. We are very grateful for the collaboration of the many individuals and institutions engaged with the project and for the exciting, demanding, and at times challenging, experiences shared. Research support from Muthoni Ndonga, GRPI Program Assistant, is also highly appreciated. Needless to say, the authors equally share both the credit and responsibility for viewpoints and any remaining errors.

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Correspondence to Robert Lewis-Lettington.

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Wale, E., Chishakwe, N. & Lewis-Lettington, R. Cultivating participatory policy processes for genetic resources policy: lessons from the Genetic Resources Policy Initiative (GRPI) project. Biodivers Conserv 18, 1–18 (2009).

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