Research alone won’t drive agricultural development

Agricultural development is the result of a complex system Copyright: Flickr/World Bank/Gennadiy Ratushenko

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Even focused research will not deliver agricultural progress unless donors also help join up links in the development chain.

When international development aid funds science, donors increasingly ask potential grant recipients what benefits they will achieve with the money.

And there may be many good answers! Ask 1,000 donors, policymakers, private innovators, farmers and development workers how science can best serve development, and you’re likely to come up with 1,000 different responses.

So it comes as no surprise that a major international conference, which brought such a group together last week (29 March) to thrash out a new vision for agricultural research for development, failed to agree on an overall solution for translating agricultural research into effective development.

Unreasonable demands?

The Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development (GCARD), in Montpellier, France, heard major donors to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) — a global network of 15 agricultural research centres — call loudly for results-oriented research that delivers real development impact (see Agricultural mega-programmes will not attract funding).

But is it a realistic demand? The truth is that international research alone cannot guarantee agricultural development.

Research is just one component in the complex system that produces new knowledge and puts it to use. That system includes not only national universities and research institutes, but also seed companies, extension services, small enterprises, nongovernmental organisations, markets and farmers themselves.

A new rust-resistant wheat variety, for example, may have great potential for reducing poverty and hunger. But if there are no seed policies or extension services in place to get it into the hands of farmers, it stands little chance of making a significant contribution to food production.

Enabling the system as a whole to deliver real improvements requires ‘joined-up thinking’ across the board, with all the components working together to produce a better and more effective result.

Partly, this means national governments must take responsibility for bolstering their own research infrastructure and agricultural sectors, rather than leaving it to the international community.

The GCARD flagship report calls on developing countries to increase their funding for agricultural research to 1.5 per cent of agricultural gross domestic product (see Report urges poor countries to spend more on agricultural R&D). It was authored by a global team of agricultural experts, led by Uma Lele, a former senior advisor at the World Bank.

But can this actually be achieved in countries already struggling to meet existing commitments to invest one per cent of overall GDP in research across the board?

Donors’ supporting role

The report also rightly calls on developing countries to increase investment in other parts of the agricultural system. At the end of the day, the CGIAR is not accountable for national development agendas. That is a sovereign responsibility.

Yet donors have a supporting role in such a task. The Paris Declaration, signed in 2005 by more than 100 countries, provides a framework for wider bilateral investment that is driven, at least in principle, by national demands. It represents a commitment to harmonising aid policies across donors, and encouraging strategic use of that aid by recipient governments.

But to achieve that, donors must also look to their own houses and ensure their portfolios provide a coherent ‘package’ that builds national capacity in agricultural production.

For example, to strengthen national agricultural innovation systems you must fund not only research but also national higher education institutions. This area has been sadly neglected by major donors in the past two decades, although it is slowly making its way back on to their agendas (see Aid for higher education).

And donors, through the vast array of projects they support, can and should promote the coordination needed to ensure that research delivers results. They should be facilitating networking between projects and opening up communication that builds bridges between knowledge providers and knowledge users.

First steps on a long journey

CGIAR’s past successes show how much can be achieved by joined-up thinking — not only between the donor agencies, but also between donors, governments and agricultural researchers — on what they want to achieve and how they want to achieve it.

Last week’s GCARD meeting represented an important step towards including other key stakeholders, such as farmers and nongovernmental organisations. Their engagement in setting the research agenda is essential if research goals are to be driven by real development needs.

But the tensions that surfaced in Montpellier showed that there is a long road to travel before the system works smoothly (see ‘Historic’ agricultural conference wraps up with roadmap). It will take the sustained political will and coordinated action of donors, governments, researchers and development partners to get us there.

Sian Lewis
Commissioning editor, SciDev.Net