Assessing the role of international agricultural research in poverty alleviation from an innovation systems perspective

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Ekboir, Javier Mario
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The role of agriculture in development and poverty alleviation, including that of agricultural research, has been reevaluated in recent years (World Bank 2007). The discussion, however, has not yet fully addressed how globalization, migration and new technologies have changed the dynamics of poverty and the organization of science, and what role formal research, including the CGIAR, should play in the new juncture. The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) is an informal alliance of about 60 international donors (including governments from developed and developing countries, private foundations and multilateral organizations) that support 15 international agricultural research centers. The first two centers in the system (CIMMYT and IRRI) created the high yielding varieties that were a key factor in the Green Revolution. Poverty alleviation has two benchmarks: achieving food security and affording a healthy life. In the past, greater productivity of food crops resulting from input-intensive technologies was seen as the main tool to achieve both goals; this view was supported by the success of the Green Revolution in Asia. This is no longer the case. An increasing share of rural households derive most of their income from off-farm employment (World Bank 2007); for them food security depends more on access to labor markets and on the price of staples than on their own food production. For those households that still rely mostly on staple production, food security still depends on higher yields, but for most of them, it will not be the path out of poverty (see section 2). On the other hand, higher yields can eliminate poverty for those small farmers who can make the transition from subsistence to commercial agriculture. Recent studies seem to indicate, however, that only a small share of rural households can make this transition (Ekboir et al. 2008). The substantial reduction in poverty observed in the last two decades resulted from rapid growth enabled by integration into globalized markets and from remittances from migrants and not from the expansion of staples in small farms (World Bank 2005; IFAD 2008). Commercial agriculture played an important role in this process. Its expansion resulted from the use of commercial and production technologies generated by private firms and sometimes by NGOs. International and public research institutions contributed little to the process. As the limited contribution of public research to agricultural development became evident, donors started to question the effectiveness of their contributions to agricultural research, including the CGIAR and developing countries’ research institutions (Byerlee, Alex and Echeverria 2002). The questions about the CGIAR’s effectiveness also reflected a better understanding of the links between formal research and innovation. The literature on innovation processes and the theories of complexity have shown the limitations of the linear vision of science, and have identified new instruments to foster economic and social development. For several reasons, however, the CGIAR has not been successful enough in adapting to the new environment. First, in contrast to what happened fifty years ago, there is no clear model of what role modern technologies should play in development, in particular, because there are no clear recipes for development (Rodrik 2006). Second, it has been accepted that the joint dynamics of agriculture and poverty have changed (see section 2), but it is not clear what role the CGIAR should play in poverty alleviation. Third, because the CGIAR is composed of a large number of actors, each with his/her own agenda, it is difficult to agree on and implement substantial changes in a system with diffuse governance mechanisms. Fourth, the CGIAR’s existence was justified as a source of international public goods. When the linear model of science was shown to be incorrect, the idea of scientific public goods as a source of economic growth was also questioned (see section 3.3). The remainder of this paper is organized as follows. Section 2 reviews the new dynamics of agriculture, especially the impacts of globalization, high value markets and remittances. Section 3 examines some recent advances in the literature of innovation systems and complexity theories, while section 4 presents a stylized picture of changes in research systems. Section 5 discusses the CGIAR’s current role and section 6 presents some ideas to adapt the system to the needs of twenty first century agriculture.
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