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DECEMBER 14, 2013

12:50 p.m.


About the Author:

Ruben G. Echeverría born in Uruguay, has worked on agricultural and rural development issues for over 30 years. He studied Agronomy at the University of Uruguay (BSc, 1980) and Agriculture Economics at the University of Minnesota (MSc, 1985 and PhD, 1988). In the early 1980s, Echeverría headed the extension service of the Uruguayan Land Reform Institute. In the mid-1980s, as part of his PhD thesis, he conducted field research in Mexico and Guatemala, based at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, he worked on agricultural research policy issues and strengthening national research capacities in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, based at the International Service for National Agricultural Research (ISNAR) of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), located in The Hague, Netherlands. In 1992, he joined the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in Washington, DC, where he worked at the Agriculture and Environment Divisions on several agricultural and rural development projects (loans and grants) in Latin America. From 2000 to 2004, he was Director of Agriculture and Rural Development, promoting development of a regional rural development strategy for LAC; creation of the Regional Fund for Agricultural Technology (Fontagro), an endowment that funds competitively regional research programs; and creation of the Inter-Agency Group for Rural Development in LAC. From 2004 to early 2009, he was Executive Director of the Science Council of the CGIAR, based at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in Rome. He worked with the 15 centers of the CGIAR on priorities and strategies, impact assessment, monitoring and evaluation, and the mobilization of science. Since March 2009, Dr. Echeverría has been the Director General of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), a CGIAR center based in Colombia. CIAT, established in 1967, has a global research for development mandate related to food security (rice, beans, forages, cassava, biotechnology), management of natural resources (agronomy and soils), and policy analysis (adaptation to climate change, ecosystem services, linking farmers to markets, gender analysis, impact assessment), with a staff of 850, including 200 researchers and 400 professionals working in Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean.
Festschrift for Per-Pinstrup Andersen

A Comment on the Need to Develop Institutional Capacity for Improved Performance in Agricultural Research Systems

Extended Abstract:

Abstract. Thanks to a very original and successful research conducted about forty years ago by Professor V. W. Ruttan et al., a large group of international agricultural professionals and related agencies have agreed that the rate and direction of technical change is induced by changes in relative resource endowments and by institutional innovations. In addition, and based in decades of well documented research (Pardey et al.) there is general consensus in the global agricultural development community that investing in agricultural research has high economic payoffs.

However, this historic background has usually translated into relative increases of short and medium term funding for national and international agricultural research programs per se rather than relevant investments in the much needed capacity to conduct research. That is, institutional change including developing capacities to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of policies, organizations and the management of agricultural research itself has received limited attention in the past two decades.

This brief overview argues that there is a major imbalance in research funding priorities and enquires if the current low- and middle-income public institutional set up for agricultural research for development will be equipped to respond to colossal food security challenges without an incremental investment in institutional innovation capacity.

Moreover, current public international research efforts have rightly prioritized partnerships with national research systems to achieve research for development outcomes. With the exception of about a dozen relatively strong developing country agricultural research systems and without significant investments in capacity development for the rest of national research systems in the developing world where are long term partners going to be found?

Introduction. Developing institutional capacity to conduct agricultural research and extension in developing countries seem to be a very “old” issue. That is, there has been a significant expansion of developing country agricultural research systems in the past fifty years or so and in the last twenty years a great expectation that the private sector, producers’ organizations as well as civil society organizations would fill any major gaps in producing relevant agricultural technologies. In addition, research spillovers from country to country plus regional and subregional research fora would “take care” of filling additional public research capacity gaps. And more recently with the return of agriculture into development agendas it is assumed that developing countries would follow so many recommendations to intensify their public research investments. And many countries have done so (Asti); but despite a growing global investment pattern in public agricultural research a vast number of developing countries do not have the institutional capacity to manage priority research investments nor to be able to even “absorb” technological spillovers from other countries. Without a basic local research institutional capacity perhaps those additional investments in new technologies (funded by local governments and/or by donors) may even have lower than expected returns.

When policymakers think of building research capacity they may usually think of building research laboratories or human capital by sending staff abroad to earn PhDs. Capacity development to conduct effective and efficient agricultural research also involves the institutional “space” where innovative solutions to agriculture development needs are created. For instance, learning from knowledge and farming practices coming from past generations and changing applied research priorities to cope with major challenges are essential. Yet the general interest and related funding for such type of complex innovations as well as for many other good examples of public research interventions where markets fail has been in steep decline.

Given the plurality of agricultural research systems and the multiple sources of innovation available it is essential to build national research capacity to be able to link potential technological advances with those institutional innovations that would pave the way for impacts to happen. If in addition we consider the forthcoming increasing pipeline of biotechnologies that would be available even more capacity would be needed to make sure that researchers, regulators, producers and consumers are going to make informed decisions on appropriate technologies and to regulate them in a cost-effective way for the benefit of society (Pardey et al. 2007).

According to Beintema et al. (2012) public spending on R&D, after rapidly increasing in the 1960s and 1970s, slowed in most regions in the 1980s and although there are signs of recent increased investments in the recent past the overall funding situation continues to create a divide between lower and higher income countries and in the developing world between a handful of stronger systems (Brazil, China, India) and most of the others. In addition, and very relevant for this paper, if we look at the lessons from such stronger systems in developing countries it’s clear that they established the institutional capacity to develop and transfer local technologies to farmers over at least two decades.

In the international agricultural research community capacity development is slowly coming back into research for development agendas. DFID for instance has funded a pilot project in Africa (FARA) and USAID has recently convened an expert roundtable to define precisely a way forward on the subject.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, when CGIAR centers had substantial core funding for training as well as research, many centers built strong training units. Those were among the activities that suffered most from reductions in CGIAR core funding beginning in the 1990s. Increasingly in this period, training was embedded directly into research programs. Starting in the 1990s, a major shift in the amount and type of donor funding to CGIAR had a large impact on how training was organized, funded and implemented across the system. The decline of core funding led to a reduction in most Centers of training as a stand-alone activity. The Centers relied on the ability of their scientists to attract funding for training within their research projects. The responsibility for training itself was often passed on to national or regional partners, with mixed results. On the positive side, this decentralization connected the Centers more directly with field activities, which allowed the Centers to involve extension, farmer, and market capacities (Staiger-Rivas et al. 2013).

A key challenge for the international research community is how we can better embed capacity development in agricultural research for development programs, widening the impact pathways from research products to intermediate development outcomes to system-level outcomes. The new clear outcome orientation of CGIAR research puts new demands on capacity development for partners who will be instrumental in scaling up/out research outputs (Staiger-Rivas et al. 2013).

A recent ASTI/FARA conference on key challenges for Africa’s agricultural R&D (Lynam et al. 2012) prioritized the need to strengthening institutional capacity and highlighted key actions to do so.


Beintema et al. 2012. ASTI Global Assessment of Agricultural R&D Spending. IFPRI and GFAR.

Lynam et al. 2012. ASTI Agricultural R&D. Investing in Africa’s Future. Analyzing trends, challenges and opportunities. FARA.

Pardey et al. 2007. Science, Technology and Skills. INSTEPP and Science Council of the CGIAR. Department of Applied Economics, University of Minnesota, USA.

Staiger–Rivas t al. 2013. Lessons learned and ways forward on CGIAR capacity development, a discussion paper. CGIAR.

USAID. 2013. Towards USAID re-engagement in supporting national agricultural research systems in the developing world. Washington, DC, USA.

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