What’s next for CGIAR

If you don’t know what CGIAR is, stop reading or ask Bill Gates (“you’ve probably never heard of CGIAR, but they are essential to feeding the world”). CGIAR with its 15 research institutions around the world, mostly Global South, is on a reform path. Some old hands will smile, again? Yes, again. Some institutional reform gurus will applaud: you should never stop renewing and reinventing yourself.

CGIAR is a global research partnership for a food secure future dedicated to reducing poverty, enhancing food and nutrition security, and improving natural resources. It is basically behind the Green Revolution but has expanded post-Rio (1992) beyond the improvement of the major global food crops (and animals) to include forests and agroforestry, biodiversity and water management and general tropical agricultural systems. It is funded by a large group of donor countries and some foundations, such as the one of Bill & Melinda Gates.

Last year a working group from across the system (funders, research centers and programs) was asked to look at possible improvements to the efficiency of the system. To everybody’s surprise they agreed not to tweak the system, but suggested a complete overhaul to “One CGIAR”.

The five recommendations, now unanimously agreed by the principal funders, are the following:

  • One compelling SDG2 research strategy and program for 2022-2030 around five impact areas: nutrition, poverty, gender, climate and environment.
  • One unified governance structure around a Common Board and an empowered executive management team.
  • Institutional integration with integrated operational structures, one set of system policies and services (like HR, audits, financial management etc.), and crucially, One CGIAR at country and regional level, coming together locally to make a real difference not just around the research project, but servicing country needs and challenges.
  • All of which requires a new research modality structure.
  • And requires donors as well to behave collectively with more and pooled funding (targets 50% pooled funding by 2022 and 70% pooled funding by end 2024).

Would it stand a chance? How to agree among 15 independent research centers, chasing their own interest rather than their collective power, to trade some of their independence not only for the sheer survival of the group and several of the smaller centers, but even more importantly to live up to the impact on poverty and food security that we all need?

Moving ahead is inevitable

However, the sense of the inevitable is on the rise. The collective research budget of 15 independently governed centers (roughly USD 850 million) is not larger than that of a single advanced research institute or university. The lack of investment power starts to affect the quality of the research. Although we now have large cross-center research programs (CRPs), everybody acknowledges there is still a lot to improve on their internal coherence, let alone on joined-up impact of a set of CRPs. Coordination at the country level is inadequate. Internal competition and duplication is a problem. That leaves the potential of CGIAR’s impact underutilized, both at the global level of food system debates and the SDG challenge, as at the national level in supporting the national policy debate or creating impact on practice (like extension systems) or locally integrated innovation systems.

Funders are a problem too. Pooled and harmonized funding with the system constitutes only roughly 25% of total funding, while the rest is dispersed over 2500 projects agreed with centers. No wonder CGIAR is underperforming on its collective potential. No wonder centers are reluctant to release on their independence. But among funders the mood is changing too.

This article was first published on the Food & Business Knowledge Platform. Click to continue reading.

About the author

Wijnand van Ijssel is a senior policy officer for the knowledge agenda food security at the Inclusive Green Growth department of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affair in The Hague.

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