This paper examines CARE's experience in West Africa in the light of recent emphasis on the role and potential of both non-governmental organisations and farmer-participatory research. After a review of almost two decades of CARE agriculture and natural resource project activities, the paper focuses on the institutional relations between the projects and government research and extension services. Three examples of relatively new projects incorporating elements of farmer participatory research are presented. The paper concludes with the proposition that further discussion of the potential contributions of farmer participatory research and NGOs must take place within the context of a more realistic analysis of the agricultural development potential of specific zones. If the combination of farmer participatory research and NGOs is promoted as a panacea for all situations where more conventional research and agricultural development activities have failed, its potential contribution will soon be marginalised.