Date released
22 April 2022
Man smiling looking at camera
ACIAR General Manager, Country Partnerships Dr Peter Horne

Dr Peter Horne
ACIAR General Manager, Country Partnerships

About the author

Dr Peter Horne is the ACIAR General Manager, Country Partnerships, (2012-current) and was previously an ACIAR Research Program Manager

It was also in Indonesia, where I first encountered ACIAR – when the Board and Policy Advisory Council visited my field site in 1984. As a young researcher it was a bit daunting to have science celebrities scrutinise my work, but it started a lifelong connection including through my first job, which was on an ACIAR project.

This project sought to identify forages that could stabilise acid soils in south central China to underpin a smallholder livestock industry. Long cold weeks in a stone building in remote Hunan in winter will be forever etched in my brain along with the wonderful friendships of my fellow Chinese and Australian researchers. The inevitable consequence of these experiences was a lifelong addiction to trying to make a difference to the lives of smallholder farmers through research.

Different times, same role for science

During the 1980s and ‘90s, most ACIAR partner countries had newly emerging research capability and very limited funding. On the project in China, ACIAR needed to provide every dollar for running the research. It is truly amazing to consider how our relationships with partner countries have changed since then. Many have much stronger research capabilities, and they look to Australia not for drivers of research but true collaboration, often with substantial co-investment.

Through these changing relationships, the role ACIAR played in enabling international research collaboration remained strong. I spent much of my 22 years in South-East Asia working with researchers from across the region developing and applying participatory research approaches in smallholder livestock systems. Those approaches remain as important and valid now as they were then. It isn’t just “the right thing” to involve farmers in research; it’s usually essential. They are the experts in their livelihood systems and no matter how much we study those systems we can never match that expertise. We learned that while smallholder farmers are typically outstanding observers, they do not always tell interpreters their observations. Tapping into this farmer knowledge through genuine partnerships between researchers and farmers is therefore critical to ensure a shared knowledge base upon which to undertake research and development activities together.

We also learned how important it was to be up-front with farmers that we didn’t have cash incentives for participation, nor did we have ready-made answers. But we did have ideas, interesting technologies and knowledge as well as the commitment to work with them over the long haul to seek answers to problems and develop new farming options with them.

This approach usually led to insightful relationships that, for much of the time, threw up surprising outcomes in the field. We were successful in some situations but not in others. This taught us how often the outcomes of participatory research are unanticipated. Even where we were not successful, there were important lessons so long as the engagement with farmers was committed and genuinely participatory. One of those lessons was that assumptions which I thought held true, often did not. Assuming that the ways farmers optimise their livelihood strategies is similar to ours, for example. It usually is not. In short, through many cycles of testing and reflection, we learned to evaluate our most strongly held assumptions about smallholder livelihood systems… and then test them again.

Man pointing at t-shirt with volcano in the distance
Then: Dr Peter Horne in Indonesia in 1983 before heading out on a boat to visit Krakatoa, 100 years after it erupted in 1883.
Man speaking into microphone and presenting
Now: Dr Peter Horne in his current role as ACIAR General Manager, Country Partnerships (2019).

Changing country network

In response to the rapidly changing nature of the relationships between ACIAR and its partner countries since the 1980s and ‘90s, the network of ACIAR staff employed in our partner countries (the “Country Network”) has also transformed. From initially being administrators of our international programs they are now stakeholder relationship managers and the source of strategic in-country advice and analysis.

We also now have constant cross-mentoring and support in place. Ten years ago, it was ACIAR staff in the Canberra office mentoring the network, now Kenya is supporting the Pacific region or Vietnam is supporting India. The Country Network maintains our country partnerships beyond the boundaries of individual projects and steers those partnerships to create new opportunities for collaboration.

Building research capacity

Through decades of providing formal and mentored capacity-building support to in-country researchers, there are now many hundreds of alumni across the region driving change in smallholder systems through their own governments and institutions. The ACIAR model of supporting international research collaboration is, however, increasingly challenged as Australian research institutions find it difficult to maintain the research capability we mobilise.

When I was young and first started my research career, there were 40 scientists in Australia doing the type of work I was involved in. There’s now one. This is not an uncommon story across different research sectors in Australia. ACIAR recognises we need to be more proactively engaged in supporting early- and mid-career researchers in Australia by creating opportunities for them to engage in international projects.

Perhaps the greatest strength of ACIAR support to international research collaboration is the relationships formed between people. Throughout our region, research collaboration is built on relationships, not protocols. It is a great pleasure now to often (and accidentally) meet someone who was a young researcher on an ACIAR project 30 years ago and who is now a senior manager in their own system, making a difference. These people almost always have strong and fond memories of their early research experiences and mentoring. Australia must not lose this reputation.

I was mentored by wonderful people throughout my career. To now find myself at the other end of that career coordinating the Policy Advisory Council that had daunted me so much as a young student is just one of those wonderful ironies that life throws up.