The Challenges of Assessing Collaborative Impact

It would be extremely difficult – if not impossible – for an organization like the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) to document all of its impacts since its inception 50 years ago.

Nevertheless, impact assessment is a necessary exercise, both in the interest of accountability to donors and other stakeholders, as well as to inform strategic decisions and investments in the future.

When CIAT was created in 1967, it focused first on increasing the productivity of smallholder farmers to achieve its mission to “accelerate agricultural and economic development and to increase agricultural production and productivity in order to improve the diets and welfare of the people of the world [….]”. But as new challenges arose – and especially concerns about the sustainability of food production – CIAT has been concerned with nearly every aspect of tropical agriculture: the crop varieties that farmers grow, the production systems they manage, the agricultural landscapes they inhabit, the markets in which they participate and the policies that influence their options and decisions.

Over the course of 50 years, CIAT has led the development and dissemination of technologies (including improved crop varieties), produced innovative methods, and expanded knowledge. But the impacts of this work do not come solely from CIAT’s research.  Rather, it is the result of joint efforts by partners who, for instance, took a specific technology, adapted it and disseminated it locally.

The impact assessment team at CIAT has devoted considerable effort to measuring the economic impact of CIAT’s collaborative agricultural research for development, reviewing more than 300 publications and surveying over 17,000 farming households. Most impacts documented so far are related to commodity research on CIAT’s four mandate crops: common beans, cassava, rice, and tropical forages.

CIAT 1
89% of CIAT’s total investment has been devoted to crop commodity research

In the case of common beans, the impact assessment team found that CIAT has invested a total of US$668.8 million globally over 50 years. Simultaneously, it appears that CIAT partners have further invested US$3.9 billion in Latin America and US$0.8 billion in sub-Saharan Africa over the same period, to validate and disseminate new bean varieties, amongst others actions. This combined investment has generated a cumulative return of US$17.4 billion, or US$3.22 for each dollar invested.

In the case of cassava, the biggest impact can be seen in Southeast Asia, where 66% of cassava fields in the region are planted to CIAT-related varieties. While CIAT has invested a total US$378.4 million in cassava research globally since the 1970s, its partners have further invested some US$3.7 billion in Latin America and the Caribbean and in Southeast Asia during the same period. This combined investment by CIAT and its partners has resulted in a cumulative return of US$9.2 billion, or US$2.28 for each dollar invested globally – and up to US$5.27 for each dollar invested in Southeast Asia.

CIAT 2
Cassava variety KU50 alone generated US$393.5 million in Thailand and Vietnam between 1992 and 2010

A recent brief “The impacts of CIAT’s Collaborative Research” reveals that US$1.8 billion invested by CIAT in bean, cassava, rice and forage research have allowed to generate US$39 billion in economic benefits globally.

Research investments (US$)
Beans Cassava Forages Rice
CIAT 668.8 million 378.4 million 407.7 million 361 million
Partners 4.7 billion 3.7 billion 440.7 million 3.15 billion
Economic benefits (US$)
17.4 billion 9.2 billion 1.6 billion 10.8 billion

Measuring impacts beyond commodity research

So far, 89% of CIAT’s total investment has been devoted to commodity research and enough time has passed to observe the impacts related to this work. The methodologies for measuring the outcomes and impacts of genetic crop improvement and crop management practices have also improved greatly.

Meanwhile, over the last 20 years, other research areas have become priorities too for CIAT and are starting to show evidence of outcomes and impacts. While this presents an opportunity to document CIAT’s impacts beyond commodity crops, the assessment of the impacts of research related to genetic resource conservation, natural resource management, development of business models, and policy incidence, poses a number of challenges.

Establishing a clear cause and effect between CIAT research and the impacts observed is not always straightforward. Moreover, many initiatives are still in their early stages and might need more time to exhibit observable changes. Impacts also often depend on factors that are beyond the control of CIAT and its partners, and measuring the specific effects of CIAT research might require further methodological developments.

CIAT impact assessment research acknowledges the importance of strategic partnerships to improve assessment methods and procedures. In order to continuously strengthen its capacity to effectively document its outcomes and impacts, and respond to the CGIAR System requirements, CIAT is working with other CGIAR Centers, US universities, advanced research institutes, HarvestPlus, and a network of national partners.

PARTNER SPOTLIGHT logoThis story is part of our Partner Spotlight on the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). Join us this week as we feature the stories from of one of the leading CGIAR international research centers, whose mission is to reduce hunger and poverty, and improve human nutrition in the tropics through research aimed at increasing the eco-efficiency of agriculture.

Metrics is a very relevant area of inquiry for the Partners in GFAR, who are embarking on a Collective Action to develop an “Innovative Approach to New SDG Metrics for Agri-food Innovation.” During our Partner Spotlight on the Committee on Sustainability Assessment (COSAfrom 23-27 October 2017, we examined pragmatic ways COSA metrics are driving innovations and sustainability practices, through the applications of tools ranging from impact assessments to performance monitoring. 

GFAR Secretariat is turning the spotlight on the work and Collective Actions of Partners in GFAR who share in our mission to strengthen and transform agri-food research and innovation systems globally. Not a GFAR partner yet? Join now!

Photo credits: 1-Neil Palmer/CIAT; 2-Stefanie Neno/CIAT

 


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