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People, institutions, and technology: A personal view of the role of foundations in international agricultural research and development 1960-2010

by Robert W. Herdt
Food Policy ()

Abstract

In the 1940 and 1950s, the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations initiated overseas rural and agricultural development activities in a number of countries in Asia and Latin America. They began with country programs. These programs often involved creating new institutions in the recipient countries, and while the perspective was long term - as long as it took to achieve program goals - the foundations also explicitly sought to work themselves out of a job and turn over responsibility to nationals. By 1960 the two foundations had moved beyond national assistance programs to invent a new model, the international agricultural research center, designed to improve the lives of poor rural people by increasing the productivity of developing world agriculture. Some of the national programs were morphed into international centers. The international agricultural research centers proved attractive to other donors and by the 1970s international agricultural research had become institutionalized in the form of the CGIAR and its associate centers. The 1960s India agricultural program of the Rockefeller Foundation comprised a team of about a dozen American scientists working in India assisting Indian scientists to invent new approaches to agricultural technology development. At the same time and also in India, the Ford Foundation pioneered the integrated rural development model. By the mid-1970s integrated rural development projects were the approach of choice for many donors. In the 1980s the Ford Foundation moved away from agriculture concentrating on broader social issues; the Government of India and Rockefeller Foundation decided Foundation scientists had, indeed, worked themselves out of their jobs and Rockefeller's India program was effectively closed down, although by then the international agricultural research centers, including ICRISAT in India, had attained a degree of maturity and stability. The Rockefeller Foundation invented another new model for agricultural research in the 1990s - the international rice biotechnology network, in which leading scientists from Asian countries, Western countries and the international centers worked together within a framework managed by Rockefeller scientists. In 2006, the Bill Melinda Gates Foundation entered the global agricultural scene in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation to establish AGRA, yet another new model. By 2010 the Gates Foundation was annually spending about 10. times. what the 'old' foundations did and dominating international agricultural assistance, working across the spectrum of agricultural research, extension, and policy, largely focused in Africa.Five important lessons emerge that may be useful for addressing today's primary agricultural development challenge: that of improving the lives and well-being of people in Africa. First, it is critical not to underestimate the temporal and spatial variability of the biological and physical conditions in which agriculture operates; second, it is critical not to underestimate the institutional challenges of agricultural development; third, ever-renewing agricultural technology is essential and simply transferring technology from other parts of the world or from international research centers will have limited value without local adaptive research; fourth, every country needs its own people with the capacity to conduct adaptive agricultural research and to design and implement agricultural policy; and fifth, people in assistance agencies, national organizations and in rural areas are the key to successful development assistance. These lessons all point to the need for countries to build their own capabilities to conduct agricultural research, establish policies, and design the institutions necessary for a dynamic agricultural sector to meet current and future needs.The conclusions question whether today's foundations, which have very few staff stationed in sub-Sahara Africa, will be able to achieve the depth and nuanced understanding of local actors and institutions to apply their resources optimally. Can they identify national actors who truly have the will to remake policies to ensure agricultural development? Are enough resources being devoted to educate the people needed to create and adapt agricultural technology for today and the future? Do the organizations which are receiving more than 90% of the foundations' funds have the incentive to create national capacity and work themselves out of a job? ?? 2012 Elsevier Ltd.

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