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Funding the Good Guys

Some changes are happening for CGAIR (the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research). If you don’t know about CGAIR, they’re definitely the good guys. But don’t take my word for it. How would you classify a non-profit organization that’s been working for close to 40 years to fight hunger and poverty by improving the agricultural productivity of poor and subsistence farmers around the world. Also consider on other key fact: while plenty of people and organizations fight hungry and poverty, the effort of the CGIAR centers works.

But, like any non-profit, the work of the CGIAR centers depends on the funding they can secure. The news today is about a structural reorganization of CGIAR which, at least in theory, will make research more efficient. Previously donors who wanted a say in how their money was spent would give grants to individual researchers. Which had two undesirable consequences:

  1. Scientists at the CGIAR centers had to spend more and more of their time both applying for funding, and then writing and filing updates for their sponsors.
  2. As more and more funding transitions to individual research projects, it’s harder to pull the money together to maintain or upgrade facilities. (A charity or government organization might support the development of flood tolerant rice or stem rust resistant wheat, but it’s harder to find someone willing to pay for re-roofing an old building, or buying a new Illumina sequencer.)

Both of those are also problems that confront research at universities, but for CGIAR it’s worse because there’s no funding coming in from other sources. The reorganization creates two separate organizations, one that actually does the research and a separate trust fund. The trust raises money based on an overall set of goals put forward by the research organization. Then the money goes to the researchers who can spend more of their time working towards those goals. That’s the theory anyway, I’d welcome anyone with more insight into how these changes will impact the work of the CGIAR centers.

One of those centers, the International Rice Research Institute (based in the Philippines), is playing a key role in developing flood resistant rice which will soon be available to farmers in India and Bangladesh. To reemphasize the point, neither the IRRI or CGIAR makes any money from such new rice varieties.

Another is CIMMYT (a spanish acronym) in Mexico which actually predates the organization of CGIAR. CIMMYT develops new varieties of maize and wheat, and was the home or Norman Borlaug during his work sparking the Green Revolution.

A third, ICRISAT (International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics) employed Gebisa Ejeta, who went on to win the World Food Prize this year. While at ICRISAT he developed new drought-tolerant varieties of sorghum (with yields up to four times as high) which are now grown throughout Sub-Saharan Africa.

Also of note, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has already made a new pledge of $80 million a year in funding for the new reorganized CGIAR. (More than 15% of CGIAR’s total funding last year).

The reorganization has been covered by both Science and Nature

2 Comments

  1. Matt says:

    Nice post. Any idea if they’re losing ground with this move? or is it just an efficiency reorganization?

    1. James says:

      The reorganization will involve the expense of paying for a new layer of bureaucracy at CGIAR itself, so there definitely is a cost involved. The test will be if the increases donations and higher productivity of researchers will be enough to justify those costs.

      Since CGIAR’s members voted for the change, hopefully they believed it would, on the balance, be a net positive financially, but we won’t know for sure until the new system has been up an running for at least a year.

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