What kinds of agricultural research will deliver the (public) goods?

The argument is usually made in terms of market failure: left to the market, we can expect to see less than optimal investment in crop research, and particularly in relation to the food crops on which smallholder farmers depend. From a poverty and social welfare perspective, this is all that is needed to justify public and philanthropic investment in agricultural research to generate “public goods”.

What is both interesting and troubling is that for all intents and purposes the analysis stops there: non-market intervention in the form of investment in agricultural research is justified, and the challenge is simply to secure adequate financial resources. It is as if there is a pipe labelled Agricultural Research (or better yet, Agricultural Research for Development – AR4D). If enough money is stuffed into one end, we can fully expect useful “public goods” to emerge from the other. In reality this means that the bulk of such investment continues to be channelled through national agricultural research systems, institutes and programmes on the one hand, and the CGIAR centre on the other. The potential problem is that it is these same institutes and interests that (1) make the case for greater investment in agricultural research, (2) generate and publish the evidence and success stories to support the case, and (3) expect to be the recipients of the bulk of the new investment.

Is it any wonder that different (to say nothing of radical) approaches to the conceptualisation, funding, prioritisation, organisation, management or evaluation of agricultural research are so few and far between? In relation to the renewed interest in agriculture, de Janvry and Sadoulet (2010)[i] asked whether it will result in “new beginnings” or “business-as-usual” – at least as far as agricultural research is concerned, all signs point toward the latter.

Am I grossly overstating the case?  Surely the world of agricultural research is different today than it was a decade ago – what about, for example, the influence of concepts from systems of innovation theory; the emergence of sub-regional, regional and global grouping of research stakeholders; the recent exercise to re-organise the CGIAR; and the growing importance of public-private partnerships?

The jury is still out, but one reading is that these developments have not yet, and perhaps will not, fundamentally change the structure, politics or dynamics of agricultural research. Because of this, we cannot be optimistic about the ability of research to play its full part in addressing the closely-related challenges of productivity enhancement, poverty alleviation and sustainability.

Increased investment? Yes! But, now is the time for some really creative thinking about agricultural research and how it can most effectively contribute to a sustainable and food secure future for all. This requires us asking searching questions:

–       How is “success” constructed, for whom, where and with what consequences?[ii]

–       What policy processes influence how research links to outcomes, and how is this affected by the political economy of agricultural research funding and provision in Africa (who wins, who loses, who gets heard/funded and who doesn’t)?

–       What diverse institutional arrangements for research – across scales, for different elements – deliver the best results?

–       In the context of Africa, what forms of capacity are required which will allow increased investment in agricultural research to really deliver on poverty reduction and inclusive growth?

These are the sort of questions FAC is currently debating, as it seeks a transition to FAC Africa, and a deepened commitment to building the relevant long-term capacity in Africa for linking research evidence with policy change.

What do you think? What searching questions need to be asked to move beyond “business-as-usual”?

[i] de Janvry, A., & Sadoulet, E. (2010). Agriculture for development in Africa: business-as-usual or new departures? Journal of African Economies, 19(suppl_2), ii7-39, doi:10.1093/jae/ejp028.

[ii] Sumberg, J., R. Irving, E. Adams, E. and J. Thompson. (2012). Success making and success stories: agronomic research in the spotlight. In: Sumberg, J. and J. Thompson, (eds). (2012). Contested Agronomy: Agricultural Research in a Changing World. London: Routledge.