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
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
We know that tomorrows 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 worlds
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
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 ISNARs 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
countrys 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
governements 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
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
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
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.