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close this bookThe Courier N° 123 Sept - October 1990 - Dossier Higher Education - Country Reports: Barbados - (EC Courier, 1990, 104 p.)
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Agricultural research in developing countries

Efficiency is the requisite for the cash-tight ‘90s

by Howard ELLIOT and Gerry TOOMEY

The Green Revolution of the late 1960s and ‘70s created widespread optimism and faith in the enormous potential of science-driven agriculture. By the mid-1980s, hundreds of laboratories and research stations had been built in the developing countries, many with the help of donor funding. Manning them was a huge cohort of enthusiastic young agricultural scientists and technicians, returned home after advanced training abroad.

However, in most regions, especially sub-Saharan Africa, public funding to support and nurture this growing pool of trained people and facilities has not kept pace. Indeed, national agricultural research systems (NARS) today face a financial crisis that could affect food production for years to come.

If investments in research over the past 25 years are to pay off in the form of improved rural incomes and food security, then developing countries will have to sharpen the focus of their research, concentrating on the most important problems. And they will have to conduct it more efficiently. All this calls for well thought out policies and better organisation and management of research institutes.

This article examines some global trends in national agricultural research and briefly describes how changes in one critical area - information management - can improve the efficiency of research systems. The trends have emerged from data collected and analysed by the International Service for National Agricultural Research (see box), an independent advisory institute in The Hague which this year celebrates its 10th anniversary.

In much of the world, agricultural productivity, both per unit of land and per unit of labour, has advanced markedly during the past three decades. The striking exception to this positive trend has been sub-Saharan Africa.

We know that tomorrow’s agricultural output, whether in Africa, Asia or elsewhere, will depend increasingly on the rational application of science. Investments today in agricultural research, both at the national and international levels, will determine future agriculture trends. Gone are the days when, in order to feed its growing population, a nation could rely solely on bringing new, often marginal lands under cultivation.

Over the last 30 years, the human and financial face of the global agricultural research mosaic has changed dramatically, reflecting the growing reliance on science-based agriculture. In the period 1960-64, the NARS of the developing countries accounted for only 21 % of the world’s scientists working in publicly funded agricultural research institutes, including universities. By the early 1980s this share had more than doubled to 45 % of the world total (see figures I and 2).

In hard numbers, the developing-country research work force grew from roughly 10000 scientists in the early 1960s (of a world total of some 50 000), to about 45 000 scientists in the early 1980s (of a world total of about 100 000). In effect, most national agricultural research systems now fall in the range of 50 to 200 scientists. Thus, for most countries, there are enough scientists to ensure effective problem-solving - as long as they concentrate their resources on a restricted number of priorities.

During the same period, the developing world as a whole also boosted its share of total world expenditures on national agricultural research, from 24 % to 35 % (see Figure 3). However - and this is crucial to understanding the current state of research in much of the developing world - these expenditures have not been rising as fast as the numbers of scientists (see Figure 4).

Take sub-Saharan Africa, for example. The annual compound rate of growth of the number of agricultural scientists between the early 1960s and the early 1980s was about 7.5% in that region. The growth rate for expenditures on their research, however, was less than 6 %. Of all the developing regions, only Asia and the Pacific had a higher growth rate for expenditures than for numbers of scientists. In general, then, the financial resources allocated per scientist have declined.

This imbalance between growth in human versus financial resources gives rise to another major mismatch: operational expenditures on research infrastructure (equipment, laboratories, and buildings) have not grown as fast as the infrastructure itself. This is largely because the salaries of the growing numbers of scientists eat up a large proportion of research budgets. Paradoxically, research systems are losing scientists because of low pay, while the high total cost of salaries is crippling those research systems. With little money available for operations and maintenance, buildings and equipment begin to deteriorate, scientists are unable to travel to important meetings and experimental sites, libraries’ journal collections become quickly outdated, and important research work is left undone.

Figure 1 - Global increase in the numbers of researchers in NARS

Commitment to research

One indicator of research effort often cited by donors is agricultural research intensity (ARI), the amount of money a country spends on agricultural research expressed as a percentage of agricultural gross domestic product (AgGDP). Trends in this ratio can be discerned in ISNAR’s Indicator Series data. In the early 1960s, the ARI ratio for the industrialised countries was a little less than I %, while for the developing countries it was only 0.18%, about one-fifth as much. By the period 1980-85, the figure for industrialised and developing countries had risen to 2.01% and 0.42%, respectively. In other words, although the ratios have grown substantially for both rich and poor countries, the latter still lag far behind the former in the share of agricultural product invested in research.

This fact leads some observers to the erroneous conclusion that many developing countries lack the necessary political will to promote research-based agriculture. Indeed, we frequently hear that these countries should give research more attention. The flaw in this view is that it confuses a country’s lack of fiscal capacity to fund research with lack of political commitment to research.

The ARI ratio now achieved by the richer nations as a whole, roughly 2 % of AgGDP, has been cited by the World Bank as a desirable target for developing countries. ISNAR believes this is unrealistically high given the current structure and fiscal capacity of developing countries. Moreover, the conceptual and empirical basis for such a rule of thumb has not been clearly established. A more important point perhaps is that this indicator (research expenditures as a fraction of AgGDP), when considered in isolation, is not an accurate reflection of the priority a nation accords to agricultural research and, by extension, to agriculture. Indeed, a decomposition of the ratio into its components reveals that developing countries, though far short of the 2 % target, are in fact committed to spending on science-based agriculture.

To begin with, a more precise indicator of political commitment to agriculture may be the proportion of the overall budget that a government spends on agriculture. For the low-income countries, it works out to an average of 9 to 10%; for the high-income countries, which of course are much less agricultural, the figure is around 4%. The point is that the developing countries are spending a much bigger proportion of their budgets on agriculture than are the industrial countries. This contribution is substantial, especially given the compelling needs of other sectors like health and education.

Secondly, the proportion of the national agricultural budget that a country devotes to research is a good indicator of commitment to agricultural research. A comparison between low- and high-income countries is revealing. Analysis of data from the ISNAR Indicator Series shows that the developing countries are spending about the same proportion of their agricultural budgets on agricultural research as the high-income countries. The figure is between 10 % and I I %. This strongly suggests that developing-country governments are solidly committed to agricultural research or at least as much as the industrial countries.

Figure 2 - Numbers of rechearches in NARS of developing regions 1980-85

A final point relates to low fiscal capacity a governement’s ability to pay for the services it must provide its citizens. On average, the overall government revenue of a low-income country is less than 16% of its gross domestic product (GDP). In the richer, industrialised countries the average budget is proportionately much bigger, about 25%. But when it comes to size of the agricultural sector to be serviced from these budgets, the tables are turned. The poorer countries are heavily agricultural, with AgGDP accounting for over one-third of GDP. In the high-income, more industrialised countries, AgGDP makes up only about 6% of GDP. Moreover, the greater the success a developing country has in raising its agricultural product, the more difficulty it has in reaching its research expenditure target. Thus, donors should not consider a low ARI ratio as evidence of low commitment to research.

Figure 3 - Global increase in expeditures on national agricultural research


These sharply contrasting economic structures point up the magnitude of the task faced by agricultural research systems in developing countries - with fewer resources they have a larger sector and proportionately more farmers to service than the richer countries. The richer, industrialised countries are able to tax a large nonagricultural sector (the main beneficiaries of cheap food and agricultural raw materials) to help fund the research that contributed to the low costs. In contrast, developing countries must extract more of their fiscal resources from agriculture and use them for all other competing needs. This explains why, in a sample of high- and low-income countries, the expenditure per active person in agriculture was $239 in the rich countries and only $3 in the poor countries.

Figure 4 - Annual compound growth rates of agricultural researchers and expenditures on national agricultural research

In the developing countries, then, raising the ratio (even up to only 1% of AgGDP) will depend on structural change accompanied by fiscal reform. In such a situation it is essential for the international donor community to continue supporting the NARS until they are past this economic hurdle.

In the meantime, agricultural research leaders in the developing countries face tough times. New, pressing concerns have appeared on the agendas of the traditional donor countries, creating competition for funds. Protection of the global environment and support for the newly democratised countries of Eastern Europe are two examples. So-called “ donor fatigue “ disillusionment with the track record of development assistance in general complicates the equation. Within research, there is concern that growth in size of the national systems (that is, numbers of scientists) without an accompanying increase in the resources per scientist will only replicate the currently inadequate situation.

Increased international competition for donor funds, combined with chronic problems of national indebtedness, puts immense pressure on developing-country NARS to operate more efficiently and to demonstrate this to their governments and donors. Indeed, efficiency, transparency, and better management might well be the watchwords of agricultural research in the cash-tight 1990s.

ISNAR, in its advisory work with some 40 developing countries over the past 10 years, has identified a number of factors crucial to the effectiveness and efficiency of NARS. These fall into three general categories: policyrelated, organisational, and managerial. Let us consider one example of a critical factor - information management - and show how ISNAR can help research systems improve their performance of important tasks.

Good planning, programming, monitoring, and evaluation require good information. Yet ISNAR has continually found that few senior NARS managers can find quick and useful answers to questions about the precise content of research, the people involved, and the exact costs. In human resources management, for example, many NARS leaders do not possess information on their own personnel strength. It is actually the exceptional research manager who is able to say quickly and accurately how many scientists there are on the payroll. Beyond that, few managers can describe the educational and career backgrounds of their people, and, more important, what exactly they are working on. Such information may exist in individual personnel files, but managers cannot get at it easily when they need to make important planning decisions.

ISNAR has therefore devoted considerable effort to helping NARS to better manage their information - not only in the area of human resources but also in that of physical and financial resources. In Sudan, for example, it has been working with the Agricultural Research Corporation to develop a computerised programme budgetary system. Managers can use this to plan and monitor expenditures on their research activities.

Leaner and fitter NARS

Information management is just one of at least a dozen critical factors in building and maintaining successful agricultural research systems. Today, the need for better management of NARS and for an agency such as ISNAR to assist with that improvement, is greater than ever. Ten or 15 years ago, the problem was mainly one of operational necessity - making sure that fledgling research institutes had resources in place to carry out their work agendas effectively. Today, the problem of doing it efficiently is paramount: we have entered an era of restricted funding, so NARS have no choice but to be leaner and fitter structurally and administratively.

Referring to agricultural research in Africa generally, the Honourable Maina Wanjigi, former minister for agriculture of Kenya, recently put it this way to an international audience of CGIAR donors in The Hague: “ In a period of resource scarcity, we have to be sure that we are making optimal use of the people, facilities, and funds which we do have available. A legitimate question which we must ask ourselves is: Are we doing so? My judgment is that we are not. We definitely have room for improvement”.

H.E. and G.T.