[MONTPELLIER, FRANCE] A proposed set of 'mega-programmes' aimed at transforming agricultural research has come under fire by key donors for being vague and unlikely to change the status quo.
The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a network of governments and organisations that funds 15 major research centres around the world, has drawn up eight thematic mega-programmes as part of radical reforms aimed at unifying the centres to attract more funding.
The reforms are highly significant because they will help dictate the world's priorities for agricultural research for a decade or more.
But this week, leading agricultural figures from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the World Bank criticised the programmes, which bear provisional titles such as "agricultural systems for the poor and vulnerable" and "water, soils and ecosystems".
"I'd like to see CGIAR rise above their immediate concerns of maintaining current research portfolios to think about the dozen or so major, problem-driven, results-oriented outputs that will create transformational change," Prabhu Pingali, deputy director of agricultural policy and statistics at the Gates Foundation, told the Global Conference for Agricultural Research Development (GCARD) (28—31 March).
"The current thematic programmes are not the place to start."
Pingali said the CGIAR system must be able to attract donors by putting forward a credible plan of results-oriented research.
"Will the current draft mega-programmes do that? I realise this is still early times and work in progress. But if I look at the eight, 'magic' mega-programmes, they are broad themes. They don't show what exactly will be done.
"Because they are so fuzzy they are not likely to generate enthusiasm for increased funding."
Juergen Voegele, director of the World Bank's department for Agriculture and Rural Development, also demanded more clarity.
"We would like to see [just] two concrete mega-programmes because I don't believe that we will get beyond the rhetoric otherwise." He warned that the proposals must be sufficiently detailed to attract funding.
But Katherine Sierra, chair of the CGIAR fund council, assured SciDev.Net that donors are behind the concept of rooting the reform in an ambitious strategic framework. "What I think you heard was an urgency to fast-track [the programmes] so we can start showing concrete results.
"We agree that it will build confidence if we have a few programmes ready to go — to demonstrate to the world this is what change looks like."
Colin Chartres, director of the International Water Management Institute, a CGIAR centre based in Sri Lanka, said he was confident that CGIAR could get some mega-programmes up and running by the beginning of 2011.
But he said that getting people to work together on programmes that need a high degree of integration will be a much bigger challenge.
"We can't put one up if it's not right — that's a backward step. Some will need a lot of thought. If we're clever we'll take two simple ones first and spend a little more time developing the more complex ones."
Hartmann, director-general of the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture, another CGIAR centre, said it would be more effective to have four mega-programmes based on regions rather than topic areas: tropical Americas, tropical Africa, tropical Asia and arid lands.
"Let those regions — not scientists, not centres, not donors — determine their priorities. Those are the four regions that the CGIAR has always accepted. That's how we work." He said that there would then be smaller programmes based on these regional needs.