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An Integrated Systems Approach

Cattle fattening by women (Mi'eso)
Cattle fattening by women (Mi'eso), in the Oromia Region, Ethiopia. Photo credit: ILRI/Apollo Habtamu.

Dryland ecosystems are incredibly varied and diverse in terms of both biophysical elements and political and socio-economic issues. A sound understanding of the system complexity and dynamics is critical in order to help rural dryland communities achieve viable pathways to development, prosperity, health, and well-being.

For many years researchers have tended to focus on particular aspects of dryland agriculture, such as crops or irrigation, rather than on the agro-ecosystem as a whole.

The CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems builds on traditional improvement programs for crops and livestock to promote a holistic ‘systems’ research approach, which seeks to understand the interactions and trade-offs between the whole spectrum of elements that constrain or improve dryland agricultural productivity and identify the most appropriate research-in-development interventions. 

INTEGRATED SYSTEMS RESEARCH: A holistic and interdisciplinary research approach that integrates components of human and agro-ecological systems across all dimensions to improve agricultural livelihoods in drylands.

Our program combines scientific evidence and indigenous knowledge to address and increase the visibility of dryland issues that have a considerable impact on emerging global issues such as food security, land degradation, and climate change. Our research aims to provide the evidence required to help put dryland issues firmly on the development agenda at national, regional, and global levels.

Our research informs the development interventions required by providing international public goods – tools, methods, practices, policies, and technologies – to enhance the economic and social well-being of rural dryland communities, enhance their resilience in the face of climate variability and change, and strengthen their adaptive capacity to manage natural resources in an equitable and sustainable fashion. Gender and youth issues, as well as options for alternative and diverse livelihoods, direct our research efforts to understand and support sustainable dryland ecosystems in the long term.

What does the Integrated Systems Research entail?

  • Developing and testing – with farming households and development partners – feasible combinations of technical, market, governance, and policy options to improve agricultural livelihood systems
  • Focusing on total farm productivity – including closing yield gaps of system components
  • Monitoring and evaluating appropriate system-level indicators that capture change and the rate of change (for whom, where, to what extent and how) to support land users’ adaptive capacity and management
  • Continuous learning and knowledge sharing across various scientific disciplines

What is the value of the Integrated Systems Research?

  • Offers a comprehensive understanding of drylands development challenges by examining place-based social, financial, technical, and environmental contexts
  • Develops and formulates appropriate technologies, practices, institutions, and policies for solving those challenges
  • Facilitates scaling-out and scaling-up for greater development impact
  • Allows multi-stakeholder engagement for greater ownership of impact
  • Builds capacities to innovate for more sustainable development impact
  • Applies continuous monitoring, evaluation, and learning
  • Strengthens the science–policy interface that has prevented governments and international bodies from delivering changes on the ground to rural communities
  • Provides credible evidence for increased investment in drylands.

How does it differ from conventional research approaches?


Conventional research approaches

Integrated systems research approach

Focus is placed on single commodities and single livelihood components

Focus is placed on farming systems and livelihood portfolios

Aimed at improving productivity and closing yield gaps, regardless of risk

Explicit consideration of trade-offs among multiple aims — improving productivity, reducing risk, and social, economic, and environmental sustainability. Aimed at multiple wins where possible, or balance among trade-offs where not

Focus is placed on discrete value chains, overlooking externalities

Attention is given to interactions between value chains, explicitly considering externalities

Focus is placed on innovations and investments responding to specific drivers of change within sectors at discrete scales

Focus is placed on interactions between multiple drivers of change, and innovation and investment options across sectors and scales

Linear, research-for-development approaches

Iterative research-in-development approach

Mono- or multi-disciplinary

Inter- or trans-disciplinary

A systems approach for dealing with diversity

Drylands are diverse both within and between dry regions; they vary climatically, topographically, environmentally, economically, socially, and culturally. For example, the steppes of Central Asia and African savannas are very different from the Mediterranean littoral and plains of India and Pakistan. Despite this diversity, drylands face common challenges.

To deal with both differences and similarities, the program has various ‘action sites’ that represent the main agriclultural livelihood systems encountered across 3 billion ha in five geographical regions: West Africa Sahel and the Dry Savannas; North Africa and West Asia; East and Southern Africa; Central Asia; and South Asia.

The extensive network of Dryland Systems partners then rapidly scalesout technologies and practices that have proved successful across similar dryland environments.