March 17, 2020

Meet our fellows: Robin Marsh

Amanda RubioEcoAgriculture Partners Manon KoningsteinEcoAgriculture Partners

Robin Marsh is a socio-economist with over 25 years of experience in international agriculture and rural development. Since 2003, Marsh has been affiliated with the international non-profit organization, EcoAgriculture Partners, collaborating on leadership development for integrated landscape management in Central America and East Africa. Time to ask Robin all about her experience as a fellow with EcoAgriculture Partners.

Q1. Could you tell us a bit more about yourself and how you got involved with EcoAgriculture Partners?

I met Sara Scherr (now the president and CEO of EcoAgriculture Partners) while we were assigned to act as rapporteurs at a US-Mexico bi-lateral conference. Back then I was a doctoral student in 1982 at Stanford University and she was a recent Post-Doc at Cornell University.  It was an interesting time in Mexico because they had just discovered large reserves of petroleum, and the government was interested to take the oil profits and invest in their agriculture sector to make Mexico food self-reliant. So basically, we were looking at a country where, with the right motivation, they could use the petroleum revenues to diversify and to become food secure. As we know, things didn’t quite go that way.

It was when working at the World Vegetable Centre based in Taiwan that I first got into small-scale agriculture, community gardens and home gardens. This has been the thread throughout the rest of my career, as up until today I keep working with nutritional home gardens in East Africa and small-scale farmers in California, working with how vegetable gardens can address the many micro-nutrient deficiencies we still have. We see that it is especially women and children who benefit from such gardens: when women tend these gardens they have more control over income earned which is usually used for basic needs for their families. Furthermore, these gardens improve nutrition, children’s school attendance, saving possibilities and, as a back-up plan when, for example, the millet or maize harvests fail, there is always the garden to rely on. It’s not a way out of poverty but it can be a crucial enterprise.

Robin conducting interviews with para-social workers in Kasese District, Uganda, July 2019.
Robin conducting interviews with para-social workers in Kasese District, Uganda, July 2019.

I have also worked both with the Sustainable Livelihood Approach (SLA) and the Population Health and Environment (PHE) approach in Latin America, Asia and Africa. These approaches brought me to women living in rural areas and to their demands for safe reproductive health information and services as necessary to fulfill their roles as mothers, farmers, and entrepreneurs.

It was after I joined UC Berkeley in 2000 and became the director of the Beahrs Environmental Leadership Program (until 2013), that I really became engaged with EcoAgriculture Partners. Sara asked me to lead the Leadership Program at EcoAgriculture Partners for a few years. So, I was involved from its start in 2002.

Q2. Could you tell us a bit about the work you did on leadership development with EcoAgriculture Partners?

During my initial years at Berkeley I was learning a lot about building collaborative leadership skills with environmental leaders. At the same time EcoAgriculture Partners felt that the landscape approach and the multi-sectoral governance platforms needed ‘champions’. Basically: training landscape leaders to understand how to work across diverse interests and needs, how to come up with a collaborative landscape plan, and how to then develop management tools.

Robin with the Kasese District research team after a workshop in Fort Portal, Uganda, July 2019.
Robin with the Kasese District research team after a workshop in Fort Portal, Uganda, July 2019.

So, my role was to help develop facilitation skills such as tools for communication, conflict management, active listening and roleplaying in order for ‘ecoagriculture champions’ to be able to facilitate a positive outcome in landscape initiatives. These tools are particularly important when you have tradeoffs and not everything is of equal importance and interest for all stakeholders. We led two courses in Costa Rica and two in East Africa (one in Kenya and one in Uganda). The courses were quite successful and memorable, both for us and especially for them.

Q3. Could you tell us a bit about your work on gender?

Right now I’m working with the Makerere University in Uganda and the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania conducting primary field research on the PHE approach and on women’s economic empowerment, in particular. One of our key research questions is the following: is women’s participation in income generation leading to their economic empowerment? 

So, we are trying to understand whether their participation in remunerative work has other beneficial outcomes in the domestic and community spheres.  Does it influence the starting shift in gender norms with respect to women’s rights and access to resources? Are we seeing additional benefits when the woman has an income of her own?

Much of the literature and donors take it for granted that when women have an income, she becomes empowered. However, we find that in very poor environments and insecure marriage situations, women are often doing what we call ‘survival work’. They are out working at any job in order to put food on the table. However, this may be just one more burden, a double-sided sword. In some cases where there are facilitating circumstances, we do see income as an empowerment stepping stone, for example through having a garden which can be one such positive circumstance.

Hopefully, once we learn more about women’s socio-economic empowerment in these contexts, we’ll be able to write a more nuanced narrative about it. So, whoever is funding women’s economic empowerment projects will also have this empirical research to draw on. 

Robin giving a presentation on Population, Health and Environment approach at Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda, July 2019.
Q4. What motivates you to do this work?

Right now I’m motivated by working with young single mothers to develop new sorts of small industries to become more economically stable. Even though we need to work on psychosocial health and on reproductive health, they do in the meantime need to make a living and sustain themselves and their children. I also like working with grandmothers taking care of their grandchildren and with women in the middle who are trying to start a business or to start a farm. I want to understand the patriarchy that they live with, in California or in Uganda, but seeing the ways within that where change can be made.

Q5. Anything else you would like to add?

I’m very excited about the 1000 Landscapes for 1 Billion people initiative. I want to learn more about it and I want to learn how I can be useful in it. I am a longtime, lifetime supporter of EcoAg so if I’m called upon to be useful I will certainly take that up.

This blog is part of the ´Meet our fellows´ blog series. Stay tuned for Q&A´s with more of our fellows.

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