13. The technician or the economist
It is frequently accepted that the analysis of systems is a matter for economists. This is true when macroeconomics are involved. In this case, through an examination of documented data, it is possible to judge the economic impact or productive evolution of the animal raising industry. For instance, if there is an interest in investigating poultry, valuable information can be inferred from the registrations of slaughter houses (payments for number slaughtered), or feed factories (tons of commercial mash), or number of eggs produced by farms with laying hens (commercial invoices of sold trays). A compared cross-reference with the estimated values can check results later. At this level the economists are are quite capable of interpreting the registered data. But when the focus of the research is directed to the smallest microeconomic outputs, the economists find it difficult to understand the logic of the backyard production system.
In national statistics, backyard production is hardly considered. When an official census is performed, small units are mostly omitted, even in developed Countries. Interviewees normally deny having backyard animals and to check them directly takes too much time. To know the situation in a specific area the opinion of the bureaucrats of the central technical offices, and sometimes of the breeders, is asked, and then these opinions are reported as valuable estimations. Field technicians often ask for these estimations, but their experience suggests that the data supplied mostly look very improbable. When at all possible, figures are customarily but sensibly overestimated (keepers want to show they are good breeders). But when the owner is afraid the information will be used to fix a taxation by the Government, the tendency is to lie and even keeping animals is denied (keepers tend to say their animals have a very low production). Sometimes data are biased, simply because they are taken from old official records that continue to be reported unmodified. Records may also refer to very changed situations and in these cases production is underestimated compared with the reality of the improved situation. Some anecdotes can illustrate these problems, which are of only of importance when conditions of peculiar, local animal production systems are analysed. An example of underestimation for historical reasons comes from a Mediterranean island.
Frequently, when breeders are asked about their own animals, prudence suggests that they say production is not good suggesting that there have been many problems. Maybe it is true, maybe not. But it also happens that reasons for wrong information are completely unexpected.
This example shows the importance of choosing technicians specifically competent in the system to be analysed, particularly when the interest is in individual problems or to analyse structures, management, yield and marketing of small specific production units.
When inquiring about production of backyard species, the performances indicated by owners are frequently overestimated. This happens mainly when the technician is able establish a friendly relationship and the animal keeper is proud to show he is an informed and good breeder. Sometimes such overestimation is extremely high.
In subsistence systems it is normal to find that productions levels are very low, but they are obtained at no cost. It is sad to note that on many occasions, family members cannot remember when they last ate a product of their own backyard small animal keeping. Production levels considered completely insufficient in any industrialised Country can be reached in a developing Country, and even these only when conditions are favourable. One must be prudent before accepting any kind of figures. The expert interviewer, who is knowledgeable about the real production level of any species in a particular area, should be able to distinguish immediately whether the information that is being given is accurate and truthful. Anyhow, prudence should compare the information with the result of a rough calculation, starting from the number of young animals present (mammals or birds) according to species and season. Confirmation may be possible by asking about the numbers consumed or sold.
The latter is the only chance that might be available, and if correctly performed and repeated, to reduce the risk of tremendous mistakes being made by technicians lacking experience, or economists who imprudently dare to enter the field of specialised experts. Data obtained by simple interview or worse still, by office bureaucrats, should always be discarded as unreliable. Also simple research to ascertain the presence of some species as a component of village production systems can result in completely wrong information. In Chapter 16 (Language), there was a case in which a rigorous investigation was in danger of missing the common presence of guinea pigs in West African villages. Only when the investigators became aware of the local name of the species, did they realise that all the information they had obtained so far was completely wrong.
The inclination to give a negative answer is very common and should never be accepted as true without checking. These answers are always given with great assurance and sometimes it is difficult not to believe them, when there is no special reason to think they are not true. In an African tropical island a group of villagers was asked about the presence of rabbit keepers. One man answered immediately that rabbits were not raised in that place. When he was questioned if he was sure, he answered that he was absolutely sure since he lived in that village. When the men left, another villager said that he knew of a small keeping and surprisingly the rabbits were raised in the dwelling right next to them.
In another opportunity, a random test was performed to ascertain the presence of small animals in the backyard of a North African village. The accompanying technician had to put the question in the local language. The first answer was negative, but through a slightly open gate, the expert was able to recognise a typical structure and the technician was asked to put the question again. The answer was still negative. Then the technician was asked to inquire about the structure they could see, to which the answer was that it was used to raise rabbits. The owner explained later he thought he was being asked about animals to be sold but he did not want to sell rabbits. This is another case showing why only expert and well-trained persons must do interviews. The conclusion is that the system analyst should always control the information received but not its acquisition, which, without knowledge nor experience, will be accepted as good regardless of its quality. Some very different examples of this nature have been reported in Chapter 2.1. (Dynamics of small animal systems). Whatever analysis techniques are used, nothing can be done without common sense.
Project makers must be convinced that getting reliable data from the outset is essential. Dismissing this problem and avoiding the help of competent field technicians, means that unrealistic projects will be planned, which before long, will come up against hard reality. In Chapter 7.2.2. (Guinea pigs) there was an example about a man who lost all his wealth, setting up a guinea pig farm, because he did not analyse the production and market conditions beforehand. Unfortunately technicians really competent in simple rural backyard systems are very rare. It is common to observe surprise amongst technicians when they are led into the field or enter into backyards. They can discover a reality completely different from the one they supposed to exist. If there is a true will to develop successful food security programmes at the level of poor rural families, field analysts should be properly prepared, training them not by lessons but analysis in the field. And they must be technicians expert in small animal keeping to recognise immediately wrong data and doubtful work hypotheses. If the job is difficult for very specialised technicians, obviously it is no matter for untrained people, particularly if they intend to make or supervise projects. Candidates who wish to become consultants, advisers and field technicians should always be examined in advance. Asking the candidate to describe how they think they should behave with respect to the terms of reference should be sufficient to verify if they are too closely tied to scholarly knowledge (too doggedly moulded to the demands of high technology-based production) or have sufficiently flexibility conceive practical solutions. They should know that a system analysis is always necessary beforehand, and that account should be taken of the needs and the low-income economics of people in the villages in poorly developed areas. The candidate is expected to propose interventions based on simple technologies or, at least, they should be able to understand that it is difficult to develop sustainable systems by simply importing equipment and introducing exotic breeds. Examples and figures in this manual have been chosen to be useful to train the selected candidates.
13.1. Information about the background
Backyards in a village, or in similar villages of an homogeneous area, constitute a system which is not isolated but is located inside the hyper-system. This system is formed by all local factors which can influence the familial keeping of small animals. As discussed in Chapter 2 (The systems), these factors are very different in nature. Some of them are obvious, but others can be less evident and even unknown to the analyst. In the preliminary work the technician must identify as many of the factors as possible and their positive or negative influence. The elements can be technical as well as biological, social, economic, cultural or natural, and forgetting to look at the their positive and negative aspects can greatly influence the final result.
But exploring actual conditions to develop projects with compatible factors is not enough. The background must also be analysed because current fashions may also interfere with the work. It is necessary to see whether the system is governed only by tradition and is substantially static or if something new is developing that may interfere with the project. A strong tradition makes it difficult to introduce innovation, but if something is undergoing a spontaneous evolution, factors on which it is based must be analysed. A technological innovation, though simple, can create interest in both the backyard as well as the wider world . And where there is interest there will also be an investment in work, time and resources. Favourable or adverse conditions can be created , so the new perspectives must become factors to be considered in the preliminary phase of projects.
The socio-economic background is the second point to be examined. It is easy to observe that small animal production is more common and better organised in the backyard of a more educated person. They also have a certain wealth and, probably as a consequence, also a higher social rank. More often than not, it is these people who invite consultants to visit . This means that they make most use of the co-operative help available and as a result increase their chances of success. But, from another point of view, this can be considered as an interference which impairs the possibility of directing help to those most in need of food security . In order for the project to be accepted and the indigent villagers to be given the help they deserve, a tribute may have to be paid to the local authorities. Improving the efficiency of backyards within villages can also give confidence and show that projects can be successful. But taking the easy option of co-operating with the wealthiest should not become the rule. In fact, simple, sustainable and no-cost systems have been developed mainly to help those people who have little food, and for them to reach, or at least to approach, a minimum level of food security.
The background of technical competence is also very important. There are always villagers who are keen on breeding some animal species. To find these people is not easy but identifying them during the system analysis must be recommended. They are more interested in learning and are the most capable of teaching others through the example offered by their own activity. They can easily become "endogenous technicians" capable of sustaining the field work of projects. The analysis of the political background should show that a project for food security is at least accepted, if not supported. If the interest is only to develop industrial systems, conditions are not favourable. Some Governments have supported small animal keeping by families and lasting results have been obtained. This is a very positive situation, but it must remembered that help offered through Governments tends to be expensive. Demonstrative centres are set up and a lot of people have to be paid so that only a very small percent of the funds is actually used to improve animal keeping in the villages. The cost of the entire project should be always related to the cost of each new animal raised, or to the increase in productivity of each backyard system. Using endogenous technicians to expand co-operative programmes, is the cheapest and most efficient way of maintaining a long-lasting action at village level.
As can be seen, when the background was examined, important factors emerged. They were reciprocally interrelated in a very complex web, involving history, demography, sociology, policy, economy, technology and competence. It was necessary to analyse all these points just to understand the true nature of the problem. It can easily be understood how the work of the consultant had to transcend his specific technical knowledge. To restore the efficiency of the rabbit production system, certainly it was not enough to discuss just breeds and feeding as originally requested in the terms of reference.