The road ahead

March 31, 2010

So it’s over. The first GCARD conference closed on a high, with hopes for a new era of agricultural research for development – and a ‘roadmap’ to guide the way.

Walking to the train station, I thought about how the weather had paralleled the tone of the conference. Day one (sunshine) started with optimism, tensions mounted on day two (grey and gloomy) when delegates felt they weren’t having enough of a say, frustrations came to the fore on day three (rain) when they got to air their concerns – and today was bright once again.

But it’s not all sunshine and roses. Amidst the celebrations of a conference generally considered a success, there were pertinent reminders that the work begins here.

Kathy Sierra, chair of the CGIAR fund council, urged the conference to get going sooner rather than later. “We need to move ahead and focus on results. Without that, the collaboration and communication will fade.”

GCARD global author Uma Lele echoed the urgency, with her simple but memorable mantra: “Action, action, action.”

And let’s not forget about investment. No matter how much you fine-tune research to the needs of the poor and get them involved, nothing can happen without funds. Incoming GFAR chair Monty Jones warned the conference “I will be seeking your money”, to peals of laughter. He was smiling. But he wasn’t joking.

Naomi Antony
Assistant news editor, SciDev.Net

GCARD soundbites: day 4

March 31, 2010

The final day of GCARD was a lively one, with promises of concrete change coupled with sober reminders of the task that lies ahead. We heard from a range of stakeholders, all of them united by their desire to do things differently – and put this desire into action. Here’s day 4 in quotes:

“A number of barriers have prevented us from realising agricultural research for development’s potential.” Kofi Annan, former UN secretary-general

“Are we concentrating [our] efforts on the right crops and regions?” Participants from the thematic area 8 discussion

”We should be … ashamed that we haven’t reduced hunger and poverty in the world.” Monty Jones, incoming GFAR chair

“Gender is non-negotiable.” Mary Njenga, Kenyan researcher

“[The process] ‘I research – you transfer – they adopt’ is no longer applicable.” Brazilian delegate

“Put some lights and targets on the map which will indicate the road.” Participants from the ‘Thinking forward’ session

“When it comes to a tough job, they turn to a woman.” Uma Lele, GCARD global author

“The role of partnerships has been highlighted in a way it hasn’t been before.” Carlos Perez del Castillo, chair of CGIAR’s Consortium Board

“One third of the human race are smallholder farmers.” Kathy Sierra, chair of CGIAR fund council

“We are starting a new era of agricultural research for development and all of you need to own it.” Adel El-Beltagy, outgoing GFAR chair

“Action, action, action!” Uma Lele

Naomi Antony
Assistant news editor, SciDev.Net

Are you listening, CGIAR?

March 31, 2010

Carlos Pérez del Castillo and the rest of the CGIAR must ensure stakeholders' suggestions are genuinely incorporated into the modified thematic areas. Credit: GCARD

Listening to the feedback from yesterday’s parallel sessions, I was inspired by the delegates’ genuine passion to bring about change.

All the usual suspects made an appearance. As Kevin Cleaver of the International Fund for Agricultural Development put it on day two: “There’s not a lot that’s new here in concept – what may be new is that we do it this time.”

Delegates called for research and decision-making to be bottom up, conducted for the poor with the poor. “Think local” was the overall consensus, with a reminder to the CGIAR that they need to start from the user – not the product.

Capacity strengthening must be invested in early on, delegates reminded us. “Build individual and institutional capacity strengthening from [the] beginning, across all partners and beneficiary groups,” they said.

Partnerships, though “not a pancaea or cure-all”, were also considered of great importance. But not just any partnerships – ones where the participants set the agenda.

The concern that non-food security crops are being neglected (see Are the crop world’s “big three” stealing the show?) was presented. Their place within the reforms was not discussed, and I will be interested to see how – or rather, whether – the CGIAR addresses this.

Participants also wanted the broader context of agricultural research systems – how it fits in with other sectors, for example – to be taken into consideration, as well as detailed impact pathways that link research outputs to development outcomes.

I could go on, but it would require several more posts.

Monty Jones, incoming GFAR chair, assured us that the feedback would be incorporated.

“Fine-tuning means bringing together the key partners again. We don’t want the situation where we lock ourselves in a room and make a final decision. At every stage let’s get the key partners involved.”

Provided this includes the poor, that sounds like a promising start to me.

Naomi Antony
Assistant news editor, SciDev.Net

A bull named Research

March 30, 2010

Hands up who views farmers as scientists? Despite our best efforts, most of us still associate ‘science’ with white coats, labs and passive, labyrinthine prose. And yet some farmers practice science. They develop experimental and observational techniques.

So said Louise Fortmann – a rural sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley – at the GCARD session ‘Open science’, which sought to showcase how agricultural and wider science can impact development.

“[Farmers] learn about soils by working with the same soils year after year,” said Fortmann. “They are civil scientists.”

Whether or not you agree with her, it was one of the few times – from my perspective at least – a speaker had sincerely placed farmers on an equal footing with researchers. Shame then, that the hall was so empty – this was what “experts” and participants alike needed to hear instead of rhetorical posturing.

“We need to get out of the lab, off the research station and into the field, and start talking to farmers in their own language,” Fortmann said. “I hope we can dispense with the silly and dangerous dichotomy between science and development.”

She made a plea to researchers. “[You] need to be humble and collaborate with local experts, treating them not as data sources but as colleagues with whom new research and knowledge will be created.”

Fortmann told the charming story of Mama Esther Mudoma, an African farmer who worked with CIAT scientist Robin Buruchara to develop a variety of bean resistant to root rot. Mudoma bought a bull with the money she made from selling the beans to neighbouring villages, and named him Research. “Why Research?” Buruchara asked.

“You came here, we did research together.”

Naomi Antony
Assistant news editor, SciDev.Net

Mega-programme whistle-stop tour

March 30, 2010

GCARD (credit: GCARD)

The CGIAR presented a draft version of its long-awaited mega-programmes, or thematic areas of work (TAWs) as they’re now being called, to GCARD this morning.

There are 8 TAWs and 3 ‘cross-cutting platforms’ that will be integral to all programmes—but the final numbers of both these may change.

TAW1: Agricultural systems for the poor and vulnerable

This will focus on ‘poverty hotspots’, looking at sustainable agriculture and food security, among other things. TAW1 is expected to improve the lives of more than 250 million poor people, with production increases of at least 10% over 10 years.

TAW2: Enabling agricultural incomes for the poor

The policies, institutions and markets required to boost rural incomes. TAW2 is expected to reduce the cost of taking goods to market by at least 20%.

TAW3: Sustainable crop increases for global food security

This will research options for increasing productivity of the three main cereal crops including identifying genes, accelerating the development of new varieties, improving crop management and supporting pro-poor policies.  CGIAR estimates it will affect three billion people.

Gender is one of the cross-cutting platforms (credit: USAID)

TAW4: Agriculture, nutrition and health

This is expected to reduce malnutrition, micronutrient deficiencies, and foodborne disease.

TAW5: Water, soils and ecosystems

This is expected to improve access to water for productive purposes for 200 million people within 20 years; boost ecosystem resilience and reverse trends of water degradation.

TAW6: Forests and trees

This includes objectives such as harnessing forest ecosystem services for the poor. TAW6 should help reduce deforestation by 10% by 2030; reduce carbon emissions and increase the planting of tree genetic resources on 50,000 square kilometres of agricultural and degraded lands by 2030.

TAW7: Climate change and agriculture

This  is expected to produce science-based vulnerability assessments and lead to better national and global policies for accessing and using adaptation and mitigation technologies.

TAW8: Mobilising agricultural biodiversity for food security and resilience

Research will include creating a broader range of tools in molecular characterisation and boosting the use of genetic diversity, among others. TAW8 is expected to increase agricultural productivity, broaden the coverage of gene collections and safeguard biodiversity.

CGIAR is also proposing three ‘cross-cutting platforms’ in:

1. gender in agriculture

2. capacity strengthening to promote learning and knowledge sharing; and

3. Strategic planning and intelligence

Sian Lewis
Commisioning editor, SciDev.Net

Communication counts

March 30, 2010

My editor, David Dickson, has previously highlighted the importance of effectively communicating the value of biodiversity to policymakers and the public (see Biodiversity loss matters and communication is crucial).

It seems like the world of agricultural biodiversity has cottoned on to the fact too. Delegates at the agricultural biodiversity GCARD session this morning stressed the importance of good advocacy and communication in influencing policy and convincing politicians and society that genetic resources and biodiversity are something worth saving.

delegates at agricultural biodiversity session (credit: GCARD)

Helga Rodriguez, a coffee grower in Costa Rica, said we need to increase this kind of awareness among all sectors of society.

In some instances this includes small farmers. Emile Frison, director general of Biodiversity International, said that most small farmers are well aware of the need to protect agricultural biodiversity. But, according to one delegate from Morocco, the same is not true when it comes to protecting wild species.

“At the end of the day,” said one CGIAR stakeholder, “we need a value proposition for farmers”.

But, according to Priscilla Henriquez from the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation, the priority should be creating a strategy to reach the more influential policymakers.

“We need a strategy to talk to the politicians in charge of allocating money to genebanks,” she said.

“We must talk their language,” she added. Henriquez explained that this essentially means talking about genetic resources in terms of the issues that they care about—food security, nutrition, climate change and health.

I, for one, couldn’t agree more—science communication for development is, after all, what SciDev.Net is all about.

Sian Lewis
Commisioning editor, SciDev.Net

GCARD soundbites: day 3

March 30, 2010

GCARD delegates had been eagerly anticipating today – (almost) nothing but parallel sessions, providing plenty of opportunities to vent frustrations, share ideas, and help shape the CGIAR reforms. If you had something to say, day 3 was your chance. Here’s a small selection of soundbites to give you an idea of what went on:

Heard during the CGIAR plenary:

“Change must happen in a way that involves everyone.” Carlos Perez del Castillo, Chair, CGIAR Consortium Board

Heard during the parallel discussions:

“[The CGIAR reforms] will be an evolving story, nothing is cut in stone.” Marianne Banziger, CIMMYT

“We grow rain-fed crops. If it doesn’t rain, there will be hunger.” Lydia Sasu, Farmers Organisation Network, Ghana

“We will not make a top-down plan, we are not intending to be arrogant.” Marianne Banziger, CIMMYT

“Is this a mega-programme or a giga-programme? If you try to include every aspect [of biodiversity into this mega-programme] it will turn into a giga-programme and you’ll giga nowhere.” Participant in biodiversity session

“What’s new here? From the first day [of GCARD] we’ve been saying business as usual is not acceptable. But it looks all like business as usual to me.” Neth Daño, etc group, Philippines

“We need to stop talking about linking to farmers and start talking about involving farmers.” Kwesi Atta-Krah, Deputy Director General, Biodiversity International

Heard during the ‘Open science’ session:

“I hope we can dispense with the silly and dangerous dichotomy between science and development.” Louise Fortmann, researcher, University of California, Berkley

Naomi Antony
Assistant news editor, SciDev.Net

The donors’ take on mega-programmes

March 30, 2010

Donors speaking at GCARD have already expressed some concerns about CGIAR’s proposed mega-programmes (see Agricultural mega-programmes ‘will not attract funding’).

Kathy Sierra (credit: GCARD)

Yesterday afternoon, Kathy Sierra, chair of the CGIAR Fund Council and vice president of the sustainable development network at the World Bank, talked to SciDev.Net about donors’ expectations.

Are donors really against the CGIAR reform?

No. All the donors back the idea of creating ambitious, challenging and results-oriented programmes—what some people are calling the mega-programmes.

But let’s not make ‘the perfect’ the enemy of the good. There is some feeling within the CGIAR centres that we can’t move forward until all the mega-programmes are ready. They want to make sure they have a suite of programmes that are coherent and aligned.

We’d like that too – in the medium-term. But we really want to see action now.

Why not pick 2-3 programmes that are ready and present them to us so we can get moving?

Why the urgency?

The people that we’re serving would like now to see some investment and the donors would like to invest. But we can’t invest until we have some programmes there.

We want to see some early mega-programmes so they can show the way and so that we can start showing concrete results. We believe strongly that it will build confidence if we have a few programmes ready to go and approve to demonstrate to world that this is what change looks like.

We’ve been clear about the fact that we’re looking for fast-start action. The centes and consortium are fully capable of doing that.

What would you like the new mega-programmes to look like?

What we want are big, ambitious programmes that will change the lives of people. Exactly what that means, is up to the CGIAR consortium.

We will probably have a mixed portfolio made up of some vertical programmes around, for example, key crops such as rice or cereals, and another set of programmes that are cross-cutting, for example around a landscape such as drylands.

Some things are important: we want partnership. Irrespective of how you cut the pie, we want the process to be open—we want to know who the centres are collaborating with, how they’ve listened to partners, and where they’re handing over to local research actors.

And there are a few topic areas too, such as gender or climate change, that we think are critical for development and hope to see embedded in all the programmes.

At the end of the day, the mega-programmes have to be meaningful to the ultimate beneficiaries, have to open the system up and have to involve other partners. If they do they will gain the support not just of donors but other stakeholders in the system.

Sian Lewis
Commisioning editor, SciDev.Net

Are the crop world’s “big three” stealing the show?

March 30, 2010

Star attraction: Delegates are concerned the three food security crops are leaving crops like cassava in the shade

Are key crops such as cassava and sorghum being neglected in favour of the “big three” (rice, wheat and maize)?

The CGIAR’s thematic area (formerly known as mega-programme) three, ‘Optimising productivity of global food security crops’, generated some engaging dialogue about whether the organisation is prioritising the right crops.

“Why are we ignoring sorghum, barley, millet and legumes?” APAARI’s Raj Paroda wanted to know. Lydia Sasu of the Farmers Organisation Network in Ghana agreed. “We don’t eat maize in my area!” she exclaimed, to nods of approval. “I would be very grateful if you could consider other crops.”

Marianne Banziger – deputy director general, Research and Partnership, at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, CIMMYT, – assured delegates that the CGIAR was not suggesting these were the only important crops, reminding them that this is just one area and that the crops being put forward would be addressed in other programmes. But she admitted: “It has not been covered adequately where [within the thematic areas] other crops will be taken care of”.

It was a long time before the issue was put to rest.

“If I don’t see cassava, if I don’t see plantain, it would be hard for me to support the CGIAR,” warned a delegate from the African Development Bank. And a delegate from Gabon said: “We need strong programmes for other crops in order to really address the food security of those people who depend on these crops.”

Feedback from all eight sessions will be presented tomorrow. I look forward to seeing whether the “ignored” crops have managed to find a home in the CGIAR’s reforms.

Naomi Antony
Assistant news editor, SciDev.Net

A turn for the better

March 30, 2010

In Montpellier, blue skies have given way to grey drizzle, but inside the Corum Centre, GCARD has taken a turn for the better. If this morning’s session on agricultural biodiversity is anything to go by, concerns that farmers are not being given a chance to contribute will be yesterday’s news.

“I’ve been trying to interact since yesterday and today I got the opportunity to do so”, said one Indian delegate.

The session saw lively discussion (credit:GCARD)

The session saw some lively discussion from farmers, nongovernmental organisations, researchers and policymakers, among others, on what the CGIAR’s agricultural biodiversity mega-programme should look like.

The session was led by Kwesi Atta-Krah, deputy director general of Biodiversity International.

A key message from the delegates was well summarised by Atta-Krah: “We need to stop talking about linking to farmers and start talking about involving farmers”.

This means ensuring that farmers take part in every step of the research process—from setting research agendas to monitoring the effectiveness of their results.

The same is true for CGIAR’s development partners. “What is the real role of development partners? They are not really partners—they are there to disseminate your products but they are not involved in all stages of research and development”, said Neth Daño, programme manager for the etc group in the Philippines.

Atta-Krah threw the question back on the delegates, inviting concrete proposals for addressing the issue.

A myriad of suggestions emerged, from creating advisory panels to getting involved in private extension services to setting up virtual consulting centres. One coffee-grower from Costa Rica suggested simply sending researchers out to get their hands dirty alongside farmers. “By the end of one day they will know what the problems are”.

Atta-Krah seemed dedicated to using the session to get a list of concrete actions to feed in to the agricultural biodiversity mega-programme.

What happens beyond that remains to be seen.

Sian Lewis
Commisioning editor, SciDev.Net

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