GFAR blog, Transformative investments

“Research for development without an uptake pathway is dead research…..”


The future of agriculture faces many challenges. Climate change, food and nutrition security, environmental degradation and population growth, all point to the urgent need for greater investment in agri-food research and innovation, yet funding is being diverted elsewhere to meet other development needs.  So how does the sector ensure it get its fair share? Dr Mark Holderness, Executive Secretary of GFAR, has some ideas.

The migrant crisis has hit international aid budgets hard and agricultural research for development has become a casualty. It’s almost ironic, considering that food security is a root cause of the conflicts and resulting exodus.  There has never been a greater need for research and innovation to address these and other agricultural issues.

As we learned at the recent High Level Policy Dialogue in Bangkok, the entire sector continues to suffer from chronic underinvestment. FAO guidelines recommend that one percent of GDP be re-invested in agricultural research and development, but most countries are falling short of that. That’s because policymakers and donors cannot see immediate returns on such investment, and they don’t have the evidence on which to base their investment decisions.

There is a need to convince them, and the rest of society, that agriculture is the foundation for sustainable development. Yet the evidence is fragmented: we don’t really know what the private sector is investing, and there are many different measures being used to show impacts from investments. We need to get better at calculating real returns, not just in food production but in social and environmental benefits too.

The good news is that GFAR is working with a range of technical partners in this area, addressing these needs at both national and international levels.  A key theme of GCARD3 is how to attract investment and build the capacities and enabling environment needed for effective research and innovation. One outcome of the Bangkok meeting – part of the GCARD3 dialogue – is that the ASTI programme will broaden its tracking of investments and capacities, so we can get a better measure of what is happening in the Asia-Pacific region.  We are also working globally with the FAO Committee on Agriculture, to help ensure investment in agricultural research and innovation is on countries’ political agenda, in both agriculture and finance ministries, and will be gathering evidence of impacts from research and innovation to support this.

The challenge for international research

This kind of engagement becomes even more important in light of recent developments in international research. The CGIAR Fund is a multi-donor fund, supporting research undertaken by the Consortium of 15 international agricultural research centers. With recent shifts in aid priorities, the Fund Council has had to limit financing for the next phase programs to US$900 million  – much less than the US$1.4 billion proposed by the CGIAR Centers.  As a result, they have had to make some hard and fast decisions about program priorities and associated cost reductions. GFAR has a seat on the Fund Council on behalf of all Partners, and I have been part of the Working Group revising the proposed portfolio of CGIAR Research Programs (CRPs) for 2017-22 to meet this lower figure. With considerable effort this has now been achieved, at least for the project outlines.

The next stage – of turning concepts into programs of work – will be critical.  But research without an uptake pathway is dead research. Achieving impact on the ground will come down to forging effective partnerships among the public, private and civil sectors, at national, regional and international levels.

Partners in GFAR expect three conditions to be met in these programmes. First, that while funding has been scaled-down at the international level, the flow of funds to partners must continue: partners must be resourced to be partners. Second, we need to resist the temptation always to invest only in research delivery rather than developing the capacities of partners. Third, there is a need for real and deliberate attention to gender issues and the future of rural youth as crosscutting issues in everything we do. These cross-cutting elements need to be retained and valued across all programmes.

The current strategy for CGIAR assumes an ongoing role in centrally funding and implementing large international research programmes. However, just as important is the value it can add by building the capacity of national partners to undertake their own work.  An important measure of real development success is the extent to which the system has equipped national partners to address these challenges for themselves in future.

What  the Partners in GFAR are looking for from the CGIAR is a system that is not only excellent at generating new ideas and  knowledge through science, but that is also deeply committed to enabling and empowering in-country partners to use that knowledge and adapt it for themselves to achieve development impact. That requires that institutions look beyond their own focus and breaking down the walls between different sectors and institutions so they can work more effectively together.


GCARD3, currently under way, provides an essential platform for this. It is not a decision-making process. It is about ensuring all those involved in agricultural research and innovation– in farming, food, research, education, extension, and enterprise – are informed and committed to achieving the best possible outcomes for their clients,  particularly resource-poor farmers and consumers. It is also a unique opportunity to align the work of the CGIAR with national government commitments and to engage a wide range of other partners to create joint commitments to impacts. GCARD3 Regional and national dialogues are now well underway, leading up the GCARD3 Global Event in South Africa in April 2016.

Given the current migrant situation, widespread youth unemployment, protracted conflicts, and worsening food security issues, there has never been a greater need for this kind of dialogue. So much political effort seems to go into dealing with the symptoms of a world in crisis, rather than addressing the root causes of the problems. Agriculture holds a vital key to the future of humanity, but as a sector we need to be working smarter, taking a much more coherent, outcome-based approach to achieving impact, and being able to show our true value, to inspire further investment in all our futures.

Dr Mark Holderness is Executive Secretary of the Global Forum on Agricultural Research.


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