Science and international development

Written evidence submitted by the Natural Resources Institute, University of Greenwich (Int Dev 28)

1. The Natural Resources Institute (NRI) is a specialist Institute of the University of Greenwich providing research, consultancy, training and advisory services to underpin food security, sustainable development, economic growth and poverty reduction. The majority of these activities focus on the harnessing of natural and human capital for the benefit of developing countries.

2. The Institute maintains a programme of research and technology generation in life sciences, social sciences and economics. Funding is on a full cost-recovery basis with total research funding in the order of £10 million (2010-11), approximately from one third from UK central government, primarily DFID, and the other main sources of funding being European Commission, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Since NRI joined the University of Greenwich, over 200 post-graduate students have been registered for research degrees, a high proportion of these from developing countries. Research also underpins postgraduate taught programmes in natural resources, food safety, and food technology management, as well as short courses in specialized areas carried out both in the UK and overseas. Capacity strengthening is one of NRI’s key theme areas and we lead or participate in a range of training and institutional development initiatives supported by the European Commission and DFID.

3. Each year NRI staff undertake around 600 professional overseas assignments in over 80 countries (mainly in the developing world or in countries with transitional economies) as consultants, researchers, advisors or educators.

4. NRI’s main focus is on agriculture, natural resources and food security and it is on scientific and technology capacity building in developing countries in these areas that our evidence focuses.

How does the UK Government support scientific capacity building in developing countries and how should it improve?

5. There are compelling reasons why agriculture, food and natural resource-related science and technology are important for the achievement of the MDGs. Over 70% of the world's poor live in rural areas and depend heavily on natural resources and agriculture for their livelihood and food security. But the limited institutional capacity of developing countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, to use modern science and technology in support of their development will severely constrain their chances of reducing poverty.

6. As the UK Government’s international development agency, DFID should have the lead focus for science and technology capacity building in developing countries. However, the role of DFID (and its predecessors) in this important area of development is chequered.

7. At independence in the 1950s and 1960s, there were very few agricultural research and training organisations in sub-Saharan Africa, and those that existed were heavily dependent on northern scientists, including those from the UK sponsored by the UK Government in various guises. International development agencies (including the UK) provided support for capacity development in science and technology for agriculture from the 1960s to the mid-1980s focussing largely on the establishment of public sector agricultural research stations, agricultural colleges and faculties of agriculture in universities. Priority was given to developing physical infrastructure through government funded capital projects and to the recruitment and formal training of staff.

8. During the 1980s locally provided public sector budgets for agricultural research and training in sub-Saharan Africa were substantially reduced as part of structural adjustment programmes and this led to an increasing dependence on donor funded projects and on loan programmes from the World Bank to support them. DFID was one of several agencies that actively contributed to these programmes in which there was a stronger emphasis on formal post-graduate training in universities in the North.

9. In the 1990s, bilateral and multi lateral donors lost confidence in support for agriculture, including scientific and technological research. Funding effectively came to a halt such that in many cases agricultural scientific and technological research institutes in Africa are no longer fit for purpose.

10. The loss of donor confidence in support for agriculture arose partly from the lack of clear evidence of impact and seminal studies showed that in many situations, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, disciplinary-based approaches to research and the linear model of developing and transferring agricultural technologies were not effective. This led to the recognition of the need for more nuanced alternative approaches. These included "farming systems" and "farmer first" approaches, greater use of socio-economic expertise, and an increased emphasis on linking farmers to markets and on the need to understand the "innovation system" in which the developments were grounded. However, such developments in thinking (largely in the North) have not been fully mainstreamed either in training or research institutions in sub-Saharan Africa and the problem of limited uptake of agricultural technologies remains. A related issue is that even with limited national or international funding, linkages between national agricultural research organisations, universities and other actors in putative National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS) remained very weak. There has been much discussion about the concept of NARS, in which different types of organisation contribute in different ways to agricultural research and development. However, although there have been some improvements in most countries the NARS do not function in an integrated and coherent way.

11. The current position is that the serious lack of investment in public agricultural research, extension and training organisations leaves sub-Saharan Africa in an extremely vulnerable state with respect to food security. There is little prospect in many countries in the region of meeting the Millennium Development Goals, particularly for poverty and hunger. Recruitment of new scientific research staff has been frozen in many countries for over 10 years and the age structure of existing staff is highly skewed, with a substantial proportion of staff close to retirement. Because of the low salaries and poor conditions in the workplace, there has been an exodus of staff to other organisations or professions. In countries which have undergone conflict the situation is considerably worse due to the destruction of infrastructure and the higher losses of trained staff.

12. Against this background, in 2007 DFID commissioned the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) and NRI to develop the project ‘Strengthening Capacity for Agricultural Research and Development in Africa’ (SCARDA) designed to begin to support the wider needs of national agricultural research and training organisations in Africa. SCARDA aimed to develop and test an approach which enhances the capacity of national agricultural research and training organisations to plan, manage and implement high quality and relevant research. This approach had several key features. Capacity strengthening interventions were targeted at selected ‘focal institutions’ which have a key role to play within their respective national agricultural research systems. The focal institutions were assisted to analyse their capacity needs and to develop change management plans which will help them to improve their effectiveness. Support was provided in specific priority areas identified by the focal institutions, but only if this had clear potential to enhance the overall performance of the institutions. Local partner organisations were included in selected activities and stakeholder feedback was an important means of assessing whether the performance of the focal institutions has improved.

13. The design of the SCARDA project reflected FARA’s commitment to position the initiative firmly within the framework of the Comprehensive Africa Agricultural Development Programme (CAADP) which is now the main focus of DFID’ support to agriculture in Africa. FARA provided overall coordination, whilst implementation of activities was managed by the sub-regional organisations in the three sub-regions of sub-Saharan Africa (ASARECA in East Africa, CORAF/WECARD in West Africa and SADC-FANR in Southern Africa). The active involvement of the sub-regional organisations created scope for capacity gaps common to several countries to be identified and for learning to be shared between countries. Learning was also shared across sub-regions through the establishment of knowledge networks. NRI was tasked with providing technical support to FARA and contributing specific capacity strengthening inputs in response to requests from the sub-regional organisations.

14. The SCARDA project ended on 31 March 2011 but DFID has provided additional support to 31 December 2011 to document the process and the main outcomes. DFID’s future strategy is to channel support for capacity development through the sub-regional research organizations.

15. Prior to the SCARDA programme DFID invested significant funds between 1995-2006 in the Renewable Natural Resources Research Programmes RNRRS. The component parts of these programmes generally invested in collaborative research projects involving partnerships between a range of local institutions and mainly UK partners. Although capacity building was not an overt feature of these programmes, there are numerous examples where the capacity of individuals and organisations were strengthened as part of the research and development activities. Elements of this continued in the Research into Use Programme.

16. In recent years DFID has also included a capacity strengthening component in programmes that it has jointly funded with the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). However, the proportion of funds allocated to capacity building has been limited and did not form part of the original programme design. It remains to be seen whether this rather ad hoc approach of providing small amounts of additional funds for individual grant holders will lead to measurable benefits at the organizational level.

17. DFID also supports Fellowships or studentships funded through support for organizations such as the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Entomology (ICIPE) or programmes such as the Futures Agriculture Consortium.

18. DFID support to capacity strengthening is essential if increased overall support to agricultural research for development is to have the expected level of impact.

19. Approaches for improving the situation with respect to capacity building programmes.

What are the most effective models and mechanisms for supporting research capacity in developing countries?

20. There are a number of lessons that may be drawn from the experience of capacity development of agricultural scientific research and technology organisations in sub-Saharan Africa since the 1950s; for example:

· The returns on investment in infrastructure (often donor funded) have generally been low because inadequate funding for recurrent costs (mainly national funds) has meant that new facilities have not been fully utilized.

· Because of their limited operating resources, organisations have tended to welcome external support for particular initiatives which may not always be in line with their main priorities.

· Donor initiatives have often supported the training of individuals, for example through MSc and PhD programmes often hosted by northern universities. However, the impact of this type of training has not been as great as anticipated because returning staff have not always had suitable opportunities to apply their new skills in their home environment.

· Specific projects funded by international donors may have successfully strengthened individuals, departments or programmes in research and training organisations in sub- Saharan Africa but they have not commonly been able to transform these gains into wider institutional strengthening.

21. There is a need to ensure that capacity building initiatives are coordinated to maximise their effectiveness. This needs to be done within internationally agreed mechanisms (such as CAADP – see above).

22. Through observation of other sectors, such as health and education, it seems likely that distance learning approaches and making available open educational resources may well have a role to play in the agricultural sector.

23. The requirements for successful capacity development for agricultural scientific research and technology, development and training in Africa can be narrowed down to three key factors. Capacity development needs to be:

· long term,

· locally owned, both institutionally and politically, and

· with carefully focused and nuanced interventions that address real needs of farmers and others in agricultural value chains.

24. There needs to be an appropriate balance between capacity strengthening interventions targeted at the individual, organizational and institutional levels. In particular, where support for individual training is provided, this should be directly linked to the priorities of agricultural research and education organizations.

25. The SCARDA model has considerable merit and the project generated some very useful outcomes which are currently being documented and will shortly be available on the following website: http://ruforum/a/scain. Examples of enhanced performance at the target organizations include an increased success rate in winning new research income; an increase in the number of research publications in peer-reviewed journals; the adoption of more efficient management tools and systems leading to savings in time and resources; stronger partnerships with other organizations in national agricultural research systems (in some cases leading to structural changes). However, a longer period of support is necessary to guarantee sustainable impact at the target organizations.

How does the Government monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of the scientific capacity building activities it supports? Is further assessment or oversight required?

26. DFID commissions reviews of individual projects and programmes but it is not clear how these are consolidated at a higher strategic level – could this be an issue for the Independent Commission for Aid Impact to Consider? One challenge for all donors is the lack of well defined methodologies for assessing the outcomes and impacts of capacity strengthening. Because it takes time for measurable benefits to become apparent, and as attribution of effects is often difficult, donors do not give adequate attention to evaluating the effectiveness of capacity development. Additional investment in monitoring and evaluation of capacity building would be beneficial.

27. However, more generally DFID needs to recognise capacity building for science and technology in Africa as a key theme for its programme and thus need to have in place monitoring and evaluation processes to assess these issues. DFID urgently needs to develop a strategy on capacity building for scientific and technology in developing countries.

28. NRI is currently undertaking a systematic review of capacity building for DFID that will support such strategic developments.

What role does DfID’s Chief Scientific Adviser play in determining priorities and in the development and assessment of capacity building policies?

29. In the 1970s and 80s DFID was renowned for the quality of its in-house advisory cadre particularly in the area of agriculture, science and technology. Over recent years, this has been reduced, particularly in the DFID country offices and this change is arguably one of the prime causes for the absence of a clear strategy or view within DFID on capacity building for scientific and technology in developing countries. In this context, the role of a Chief Scientific Adviser becomes very important in determining priorities and in the development and assessment of capacity building policies. In this regard, it is noted that as a result of the S&T Committee’s 2004 inquiry the first DFID Chief Scientific Adviser was appointed as an independent external candidate.

30. The role of the DFID Chief Scientific Adviser is therefore of considerable importance in the development and assessment of capacity building policies and needs to be revisited. Of particular importance would be how such a post fits into the hierarchy of DFID’s management and whether the role can be made to have real influence.

How are government activities co-ordinated with the private and voluntary sectors?

31. The UK has a long and distinguished history in capacity building for science and technology in sub-Saharan Africa. Many UK research institutes and universities, including NRI, have had links and programmes with partner organisations in Africa going back half a century or more. The private and voluntary sectors also have such links but in many cases the expertise for this is derived from individuals with initial experience gained through contacts with publicly funded programmes at the research institutes and universities noted above. The acute reduction of DFID funds for such programmes over the last 20 years has meant that the pool of UK expertise with developing country knowledge in science and technology is diminishing rapidly through retirements, and is not being replenished by recruitment of new graduates. This affects the work of UK "plc"  including the private and voluntary sectors in capacity building for science and technology in sub-Saharan Africa.

32. If the UK Government is concerned about the UK’s ability to assist in capacity building for science and technology in sub Saharan Africa then it (and particularly DFID) needs urgently to consider the extent to which it is in the UK’s interest to maintain a minimum critical mass of expertise and knowledge of science and technology in sub-Saharan Africa in order to ensure it is an intelligent customer when providing development assistance in this area.

Other comments

33. The UK has a resource base of outstanding and world leading science and technology institutions. As has been explained above, these institutions have previously been funded by the UK Government in various ways to apply their expertise to help build the capacity of developing country institutions working in the field of agricultural science and technology, and thus play an important part in development. This approach has been largely discontinued and UK public funding is now primarily directed non-competitively to a number of international research institutes where the UK's S&T expertise is poorly represented. The EU, and indeed more recently the G20, is beginning to take a more coordinated approach to both a strategic vision for Africa’s science and technology needs, particularly in agriculture, and practical ways of building capacity in this regard. The UK Government should be actively participating in these discussions and advocating for the UK’s science and technology comparative advantage as appropriate – as for example is done very strongly by countries such as France and the USA.      

Declaration of interest

The Natural Resources Institute of the University of Greenwich has received funding from DFID for capacity building initiatives.

Natural Resources Institute
University of Greenwich
16 December 2011

Prepared 22nd December 2011