Gates and CGIAR

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the wealthiest private foundation in the world, joined the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) in December 2009CGIAR is funds a set of research groups – IWMI, CIFOR, etc – that do a big chunk of the research and development for developing world agriculture.  For the last few years they have been experiencing problems with defining their goals, funding, and operation style.  The Gates foundation has just recently made developing world agriculture one of its priority areas, and is investing large amounts of money.

A recent article on ask people what the Gates Foundation involvement in CGIAR will mean for Africa in Are Gates and CGIAR a good mix for Africa?

The critics say that the tensions between those who favour a science- and technology-driven approach to increasing agricultural productivity, and others … who prefer to think in terms of promoting broader agricultural innovation systems, are at their acutest when it comes to genetically modified food.

They point out that [Prabu] Pingali now answers to a new boss, Sam Dryden, who has just been appointed director of agricultural development, and who worked for Monsanto in 2005 when the agricultural firm bought the seed company for which he worked. They claim this is evidence that Gates will be opening the door for the extensive use of GM crops in Africa and elsewhere, and say that this illustrates the flawed “magic bullet” approach to improving agricultural productivity.

But the Gates Foundation does not see things the same way. “From the beginning we designed a strategy that looked across the entire value chain,” says Pingali, who himself came to the foundation after working for many years in the CGIAR system.That chain includes market infrastructure and the policy environment that helps farmers improve productivity. “We provide a very large amount of support for the policy environment that is needed to kick-start agriculture growth in Africa,” says Pingali.

He points, for example, to the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), headed by former UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, which has received US$15 million from the Gates Foundation to influence broad aspects of agriculture policy in several African countries.

Pingali: “We provide a very large amount of support for the policy environment that is needed to kick-start agriculture growth in Africa”

“But we also realised early in our own work that we cannot do everything, [which is why] we focused on the productivity improvement side,” says Pingali. This in turn is the reason that the foundation has been funding plant breeding and crop improvement activities for rice and wheat and maize, and more recently has begun to fund research into other crops that are important in Africa, such as millet, sorghum and cassava.For these reasons, some believe the Gates Foundation is better working within the CGIAR system rather than outside it, pulling scientists from CGIAR centres into its sphere of influence.

It may also make the private foundation more accountable — another source of criticism in the past — as it will have to work closely with organisations that are used to being held to account by governments, multilateral donors and NGOs

Finally, some argue that Gates’s; involvement should improve dialogue with beneficiary countries. “The CGIAR agenda is supposed to be demand-led, involving regional and national organisations, and that must involve the needs of the poor, and not just the research interests of the advanced countries,” said George Rothschild, Chair of the European Forum for Agricultural Research for Development (EFARD) and a former head of IRRI.

Whichever way the partnership between the Gates Foundation and CGIAR plays out, Gates’s engagement with the group has already sent a strong signal to other donors, namely that agricultural research is of global importance, and that only a huge investment will help ensure that such research makes an adequate contribution to combatting hunger.

But how much it will succeed in meeting Gates’s ambition of eliminating hunger across much of Africa and the developing world, and how much it will in doing so boost the profits of large agricultural companies at the expense of small farmers and rural communities — as critics fear — remains to be seen.

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