International agricultural development acquired a significant new player last December when the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — the biggest private foundation in the world, with US$37 billion under its control — announced that it was joining the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).
When the Gates Foundation launched its own agricultural programmes a few years ago its goal was hugely ambitious, namely to develop and introduce 400 new and improved crop varieties to help eliminate hunger in Sub-Saharan Africa, while also bringing some 15 million people out of poverty.
At the time, Bill Gates said: "No major region around the world has been able to make sustained economic gains without first making significant improvements in agricultural productivity".
The Gates Foundation's arrival on the CGIAR scene has provided a financial boost to the consultative group — an international network of governments and organisations that funds 15 renowned agricultural research centres, together credited with spearheading major improvements in crop productivity, such as those responsible for the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 70s.
The foundation's engagement may also have shored up elaborate and controversial reforms to the way that the CGIAR operates that were agreed at a CGIAR business meeting in December in Washington DC, and might otherwise have been in danger of collapsing (See Gates Foundation joins global crop research network).
But with money comes clout. Many are now wondering what degree of influence the foundation will have over the way that the CGIAR operates and spends its money, and what the net impact of this will be on strategies for using agricultural research to meet the world's need for food.
Bill Gates' impact on agricultural research through the foundation set up by him and his wife, which describes its first guiding principle as being "driven by the interests and passions of the Gates family", has had a meteoric rise.
Even before the December announcement, the foundation had channelled around US$260–270 million through the CGIAR system, in particular through grants to centres such as the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) in Mexico. A further US$1.1 billion has gone through separate channels into agriculture in developing countries.
The response to this massive injection of additional funding for agricultural research and development has ranged from delight at the possibilities for solving world food problems, to concern that the foundation's agenda will open the doors of Africa to agribusiness at the expense of the needs of the poor.
The foundation rarely discusses its strategy openly. But Prabhu Pingali, head of agriculture policy and statistics at the foundation, recently spoke to SciDev.Net about its goals and ambitions, confirming that it plans to spend more on agricultural research both through, and in addition to, CGIAR.
Under the CGIAR reforms agreed in December, a new Common Fund is in the process of being created to improve the coordination of donor funds, and with the goal of increasing the organisation's funds from US$540 million to around US$1 billion within the next four years.
During this period, says Pingali, the Gates Foundation is expected to increase its contribution to the CGIAR's income from seven to ten per cent .
The foundation's motives for joining CGIAR remain complex, and several CGIAR veterans speculate that it may be a recognition that it needs to move into 'downstream' agricultural support systems for farmers in Africa, rather than remain focussed on the more 'upstream' aspects that include research on new crops and the development of new technologies.
Already at IRRI, the Gates Foundation has been funding efforts to help poor farmers gain access to markets. But with the current recession biting into resources — and with its hugely ambitious aims — the foundation needs to scale up fast in Africa if it is to achieve its own target of eliminating hunger in Africa by 2015, in line with the Millennium Development Goals.
"There isn't a way to do that without CGIAR," says one insider. "Even the Gates Foundation has realised research is not enough; it needs a delivery mechanism."
"The big player in this game is obviously CGIAR," Pingali acknowledges. "The CGIAR has a much broader agenda than we do," a reference to the group's growing engagement with all aspects of improving agricultural productivity in the developing world.
The foundation needs to scale up fast in Africa if it is to achieve its own target of eliminating hunger in Africa by 2015 Flickr/murkas
The foundation needs to scale up fast in Africa if it is to achieve its own target of eliminating hunger in Africa by 2015
Benefits to CGIAR
There are also clear benefits for CGIAR. Indeed, by joining in December, the Gates Foundation may have saved CGIAR's radical reform plans from collapse. For it effectively shut the back door for some centres that had been unhappy with the proposed reforms, and thought they could go straight to the foundation — or elsewhere — for funding, rather than give up their autonomy through the CGIAR's proposed new consortium of centres.
According to two senior insiders, some centres had even been threatening to leave the CGIAR if the reform were agreed to. By joining the CGIAR, the Gates Foundation has effectively cut off that escape route.
Some now believe the Gates Foundation wants to directly influence the cross-cutting 'mega-programmes' that form part of the CGIAR reform, in order to ensure these included the crops that are of most interest to the foundation
Pingali acknowledges that, in joining forces with the CGIAR, the foundation had concluded that it was better to "work with [the centres] through the system, rather than afterwards when all the reforms are done and set in stone".
"The comparative advantage of the CGIAR has been crop improvement, but smallholder productivity remained comparatively underfunded," he says, adding that this situation was exacerbated when the overall CGIAR developmental agenda began to expand, while at the same time its budgets became tighter.
"One thing our funding has done has been to reverse that trend and put crop improvement back on the agenda," he says.
But this approach worries the growing army of 'Gateswatchers' in non-governmental organisations. They fear a repeat of technology-driven approach to boosting agricultural production that neglects the need to pay equal attention to broader social and economic factors — a weakness of the 'Green Revolution' approach — or, worse, that the Gates Foundation may in effect be paving the way in Africa in particular for American agribusiness to exploit the continent for profit.
"If the CGIAR and Gates were truly serious about African agriculture, they have to engage in meaningful dialogue and with civil society organisations," says Eric Holt-Gimenez, executive director of Food First, an activist NGO based in Oaklands, California.
Gates' critics complain that his foundation has concentrated excessively on a 'magic bullet' approach that has previously failed in Africa. The criticism is based on the fact that the foundation's reputation is for focusing on developing new science and technology — the classic Green Revolution formula of developing high yielding varieties and providing inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides.
Although the Green Revolution has been a success in Asia and parts of Latin America, this approach has so far failed in Africa.
The classic Green Revolution approach of developing high yielding varieties and providing inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides failed in Africa Flickr/Hugo!
The classic Green Revolution approach of developing high yielding varieties and providing inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides failed in Africa
From CGIAR's point of view, this failure has been because much of its centres' research remaining stuck in the laboratory. Poor infrastructure and extension work meant new technologies failed to reach producers and poor people.
In addition, African staples such as cassava, sorghum and millet received little attention, meaning that relatively few African farmers have been able to increase their production of such crops.
Because of this, CGIAR had already changed its approach in order to improve its chances of success in Africa.
"CGIAR has not done very well in the past [in eliminating poverty in Africa]. For more people to benefit from these organisations, [research] projects must be more directly linked to [implementation] policy," said Monty Jones, executive director of the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA).
The danger, as critics see it, is that Gates' influence could point the CGIAR back down the 'technology push' approach.
Six months ago, before Gates' CGIAR membership was on the cards, CGIAR director Ren Wang told SciDev.Net that the foundation was not supporting a holistic approach to increasing agricultural productivity, but was "cherrypicking" specific areas of the CGIAR's work to support.
Insiders point to the Gates Foundation's strong funding of IRRI and CIMMYT research as examples of this, focusing on rice and wheat production respectively, and express concern that, whatever its expressed intentions, this focus on improving the yield of selected crops may continue.
"The underlying thinking at Gates is that science can solve the problems," says Andy Hall, a researcher into rural innovation for the UN University in Maastricht in the Netherlands. "This was the way CGIAR was in the past, and the danger is that Gates is reinventing that approach."
The critics say that the tensions between those who favour a science- and technology-driven approach to increasing agricultural productivity, and others (such as Hall) who prefer to think in terms of promoting broader agricultural innovation systems, are at their acutest when it comes to genetically modified food.
They point out that Pingali now answers to a new boss, Sam Dryden, who has just been appointed director of agricultural development, and who worked for Monsanto in 2005 when the agricultural firm bought the seed company for which he worked. They claim this is evidence that Gates will be opening the door for the extensive use of GM crops in Africa and elsewhere, and say that this illustrates the flawed 'magic bullet' approach to improving agricultural productivity.
But the Gates Foundation does not see things the same way. "From the beginning we designed a strategy that looked across the entire value chain," says Pingali, who himself came to the foundation after working for many years in the CGIAR system.
That chain includes market infrastructure and the policy environment that helps farmers improve productivity. "We provide a very large amount of support for the policy environment that is needed to kick-start agriculture growth in Africa," says Pingali.
He points, for example, to the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), headed by former UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, which has received US$15 million from the Gates Foundation to influence broad aspects of agriculture policy in several African countries.
Pingali: "We provide a very large amount of support for the policy environment that is needed to kick-start agriculture growth in Africa" Flickr/Nestlé
Pingali: "We provide a very large amount of support for the policy environment that is needed to kick-start agriculture growth in Africa"
"But we also realised early in our own work that we cannot do everything, [which is why] we focused on the productivity improvement side," says Pingali. This in turn is the reason that the foundation has been funding plant breeding and crop improvement activities for rice and wheat and maize, and more recently has begun to fund research into other crops that are important in Africa, such as millet, sorghum and cassava.
For these reasons, some believe the Gates Foundation is better working within the CGIAR system rather than outside it, pulling scientists from CGIAR centres into its sphere of influence.
It may also make the private foundation more accountable — another source of criticism in the past — as it will have to work closely with organisations that are used to being held to account by governments, multilateral donors and NGOs
Finally, some argue that Gates' involvement should improve dialogue with beneficiary countries. "The CGIAR agenda is supposed to be demand-led, involving regional and national organisations, and that must involve the needs of the poor, and not just the research interests of the advanced countries," said George Rothschild, Chair of the European Forum for Agricultural Research for Development (EFARD) and a former head of IRRI.
Whichever way the partnership between the Gates Foundation and CGIAR plays out, Gates' engagement with the group has already sent a strong signal to other donors, namely that agricultural research is of global importance, and that only a huge investment will help ensure that such research makes an adequate contribution to combatting hunger.
But how much it will succeed in meeting Gates' ambition of eliminating hunger across much of Africa and the developing world, and how much it will in doing so boost the profits of large agricultural companies at the expense of small farmers and rural communities — as critics fear — remains to be seen.