I came across a tweet a few days ago from the International Potato Center (CIP, based in Lima, Peru), reminding everyone that the center will celebrate its Golden Jubilee later this year. Fifty years of successfully bringing improved potato and sweet potato varieties and enhanced technologies to the world!
And that got me thinking about the achievements of international agricultural research in general over the past half century, and even a little longer. Let me expand.
CIP’s founding Director General (1971-1991) was Dr Richard Sawyer who envisioned a regional research [network] and collaboration with researchers around the world to develop new technologies and innovations to improve food security. He was my first boss. I joined CIP in January 1973 (when it was still a small institute finding its feet), and just after it had become one of the first international agricultural research centers (often referred to as IARCs) sponsored by the nascent Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research or CGIAR.
CGIAR? As Bill Gates wrote in 2019: Never heard of CGIAR? You’re not alone. It’s an organization that defies easy brand recognition . . . It’s too bad that more people don’t know about CGIAR. Their work to feed our hungry planet is as important now as it’s ever been.
The CGIAR was founded on 19 May 1971 and also celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. It was set up as an informal organization of countries, international development agencies and private foundations  that cooperate in underwriting a network of independent, international agricultural research institutes, and originally co-sponsored by the World Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).
The CGIAR has undergone a series of transformations since its founding and has, in my opinion, spent far too long navel gazing over the past 30 years about what its role should be—and those of the constituent centers—and how all that research effort could or should be organized. Goodness knows what the opportunity costs (and the actual costs) of interminable consultations, meetings, and the like have been.
Despite the organizational and funding bumps (and scientific challenges, sometimes failures) in the 50 year road, the CGIAR and the IARCs it supports have been incredibly successful. The return on investment in international agricultural research (particularly with regard to plant breeding) has been impressive, not only in monetary terms, but more crucially in terms of the numbers of people who were brought out of poverty or who avoided chronic food shortages.
Let me again quote Bill Gates: No other institution has done as much to feed our world as CGIAR.
Today, there are 15 IARCs in the CGIAR network in 14 (mainly tropical or sub-tropical) countries across the globe, although two, Bioversity International in Rome and the Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical (CIAT) in Cali, Colombia, have recently formed an Alliance under a single Director General and Board of Trustees.
Four of them pre-date the CGIAR, but were immediately adopted in 1971 once the CGIAR was up and running.
The oldest, at 61 years, is the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), founded in 1960  in the Philippines, where I happily (and productively) spent almost 19 years from 1991 to 2010. IRRI was responsible for the Green Revolution in Asia, releasing many high-yielding, short-strawed rice varieties (perhaps the most famous of which was IR8) that were widely adopted because they out-yielded the varieties that farmers were growing in the 1960s.
The International Wheat and Maize Improvement Center (known as CIMMYT by its Spanish acronym) is located just northeast of Mexico City, and was founded in 1966. It was the institutional home for many years of that pioneer of the Green Revolution and 1970 Nobel Peace Laureate, Dr Norman Borlaug.
Two regional centers, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA, in Ibadan, Nigeria) and CIAT, were founded in 1967 in 1970, respectively. Unlike the crop specific mandates of IRRI and CIMMYT (on rice, wheat, and maize), these two centers had a broader ecogeographic focus on a range of crop and livestock systems.
The International Centre for Research in the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT, located in Hyderabad, India) was established in 1972, and along with CIP was adopted by the CGIAR that same year.
By 1980, there were 13 centers, and five more were added by 1990. There then followed a period of consolidation. Two centers in Ethiopia and Kenya working on livestock and animal diseases merged. A banana and plantain network in France was absorbed into the genetic resources institute (IPGRI, now Bioversity International) in Rome, and in 2002 another institute, ISNAR (in The Hague, Netherlands) was shut down.
So for the past decade and a half, the CGIAR system has stabilised around 15 centers, and to quote Bill Gates once again: . . . most referred to by their own confusing acronyms . . . leaving the uninitiated feeling as if they’ve fallen into a bowl of alphabet soup.
It was a privilege to work at CIP (1973-1981) and IRRI (1991-2010), over 27 years in total. And even while I was teaching at the University of Birmingham between 1981 and 1991, I retained research links with and visited CIP, and also carried out other consultancy work with it and other centers.
Much of the early CGIAR-sponsored research was directed towards increasing crop productivity, breeding new crop varieties that yielded better than existing varieties as I mentioned above in relation to rice. And delving into the large and impressive—and genetically diverse—genebank collections that the centers had set up as a safety net to preserve heritage varieties. There was increased adoption of new varieties by farmers seeking to improve their livelihoods, and old varieties had, in many instances, been cast aside. Who could question their desire to improve their lots, to feed their families, and send their children to school with the hope and expectation that education would help bring them out of poverty and a better life than as a subsistence farmer?
Then, in the 1980s and 1990s, more attention was focused on natural resources such as soils and water, and how these could be managed sustainably. And of course, lying at the heart of everything (which I’m bound to stress, given my background in conservation and use of plant genetic resources) are the eleven center genebanks, the largest and most important network of genebanks worldwide, safely conserving more than 760,000 samples (known as genebank accessions) of cereals, grain legumes, forages, tree species, root and tuber crops, and bananas. This network is supported in part through the Crop Trust.
By the 1990s the early CGIAR model of productivity-focused research was being challenged and, as I mentioned above, research was expanding on the sustainability of natural resources. Furthermore, even the role of international centers was being questioned, whether they were needed any longer. National programs were becoming stronger and less dependent on the international centers for resources and research support, although training of agricultural research professionals remained an important partnership outcome. The centers produce what are known as international public goods, having an impact across multiple locations and sites. The sharing of breeding lines and new varieties is perhaps one of the best examples. National program research is much more site specific.
The international framework within which the centers operated was also becoming more challenging. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) came into force in 1993, followed by the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture adopted in 2004. These directly affected how centers could maintain their collections of genetic resources and share them globally. On the financial front there was growing concern about the long-term funding to support these collections that has now been resolved, in part, by the intervention of the Crop Trust and its grants to support the center collections in perpetuity from the Endowment Fund.
Then, in September 2000, at its Millennium Summit, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) setting out an ambitious agenda to be reached by 2015. A review of progress made in 2015—not as much as hoped for—culminated in the adoption of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by UN Member States.
Clearly the adoption of the MDGs, followed by the upgraded SDGs was something that the CGIAR could not ignore, it it wanted to remain relevant. Centers quickly set about explaining how CGIAR-supported researched aligned with and contributed towards achieving these important development goals.
Research across the CGIAR system was reorganized into a series of programs and other initiatives. In its latest reincarnation, One CGIAR is a dynamic reformulation of CGIAR’s partnerships, knowledge, assets, and global presence, aiming for greater integration and impact in the face of the interdependent challenges facing today’s world . . . providing scientific innovations for food, land and water systems. Here is an example how IITA . . . has participated in the unfolding plans and is strategically positioned to contribute to the One-CGIAR agenda in sub-Saharan Africa.
I should also add that, importantly, response to climate change (and its impact on agriculture and natural resources) has been an important element of the CGIAR agenda for many years now.
I don’t wish to sound cynical, but I think the jury is still out. The CGIAR hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory in its previous attempts to reorganize. When it comes to change management, it has, in my opinion, taken its collective eye off the ball in terms of the system’s greatest assets: the actual centers and their loyal staff. A former colleague recently shared with me a piece he’d written describing the various attempts to restructure the CGIAR over the years: A solid long-term programme of change management must be put in place which addresses the required culture change needed on merging institutions with long, proud histories and staff who may have served for decades becoming deeply steeped in a given institutional culture.
So, how was research organized and funded? The two are obviously not independent one from the other.
Back in the day, centers received block grants or ‘core’ funding (often referred to as ‘unrestrictive funding’) from donor countries and agencies through the CGIAR. Being independent of one another (and the CGIAR not having any legal identity then) centers set their own research agendas, reporting annually on what had been achieved (outcomes and impact being the name of the game) and how the funding had been spent. The enthusiasm for the IARC model in the 70s and 80s was reflected in the growth of support, and the expansion of the CGIAR agenda to include new centers.
But around the mid-90s, this funding model was under threat. Donors demanded more accountability for their funds, and to influence directly the actual research that centers carried out. They did this by resorting to competitive funding for defined and time-limited project grants, which also meant more time and effort to prepare, submit, and account (scientifically and financially) for these projects than centers had been accustomed to. But it was a model that was here to stay. Unrestricted funding is now almost a thing of the past.
When I left research in 2001 to become IRRI’s Director for Program Planning and Communications (DPPC) I took on responsibility for the institute’s research project portfolio. Not what we did; that was the role of the Deputy Director General-Research. My role, among other responsibilities, was to liaise with donors and keep them happy and, in doing so, grow the institute’s budget (which we did very successfully).
When centers were solely responsible, as it were, for their research agendas, they had to accommodate project funding into their research strategic plans—their research blueprints. But it’s important to emphasise that IARC research was never (or hardly ever) science for the sake of science. It was scientific research with a purpose, aimed at real-life issues and constraints. And it had to be the right science of the highest quality. Not that this lofty goal was always achieved.
When I arrived at IRRI in July 1991, its research was organized through the notoriously difficult matrix management, which does have its conceptual appeal. The research program had two axes: programs on one axis, and the contributing scientific divisions on the other. The programs set the research agenda, and the research divisions contributed the scientific expertise. Or, as another former colleague, and head of IRRI’s Plant Pathology Division, Tom Mew explained it (and here I paraphrase): the programs choose the right science (i.e., what needs to be done) and the divisions do the science right. What I soon realised was that at CIP (back in 1973) there was a form of matrix management, with the research arranged in Research Thrusts. But IRRI’s not-altogether-successful implementation of matrix management was probably the first real attempt to employ this approach. It depends on an equal balance (and some tension) between program leaders and division heads. And it was my perception that a couple of long-serving division heads didn’t take kindly to any ‘erosion’ of their influence under matrix management and therefore did not support its implementation as enthusiastically as one might have expected. I’ll say no more.
In this diagram, I have assigned illustrative percentage values of how each research division allocated its resources (particularly staff time) to each of the rice ecosystem-focused programs.
Just a few years later, as the CGIAR navel gazing began in earnest, the research agenda was being reformulated in system-wide programs, organized in a type of matrix management (read ‘centers’ for ‘divisions’) and involving many more players outside the CGIAR as full partners in the research. I should mention that healthy and extensive research partnerships between centers and other institutions had existed even from the early days. However, external players are now much more intimately involved in determining (and implementing) the research.
Since I’ve been retired for eleven years, I’ll be interested to see—from afar—how the CGIAR and its centers fare. While I feel that both have lost their way somewhat, I still have faith that the system will eventually come good, and bring about outcomes and impacts that were the signatures of the system’s heyday. Hopefully, there are better days ahead for international agricultural research. Whether that means another half century or less remains to be seen. Getting past the next decade will be challenge enough.
 The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is now one of the largest donors to the CGIAR.
 The agreement between the Government of the Philippines and the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations was signed on 9 December 1959. IRRI’s Board of Trustees met for the first time on 14 April 1960 and approved the institute’s constitution an by-laws. The 1960 date is often cited as the foundation date.
Thanks, very well articulated.
I would like to understand better how the 1 DG 1 set of BOT of the CGIAR now operates.
You and me both, Syl.