"The eradication of hunger and malnutrition is humankind's oldest quest as well as its most elusive goal. Why is it that after centuries of effort there is still not enough food for everyone; and that despite the tremendous advances in our capacity to productively utilize resources, millions die each year of starvation and malnutrition?" This question asked in the foreword of the 1984 FAO/UNDP thematic study report entitled "National Agricultural Research" is still valid after three decades and was again raised at the 1996 World Food Summit. The problem of food insecurity is still pervasive for 800 million people.
Agricultural research has played a crucial role in food security and agricultural development by increasing agricultural production to meet the food needs of a rapidly growing population. The green revolution of the 1960s and 1970s can be considered a yardstick of this impact. Notwithstanding the achievements, the challenges of feeding 8.3 billion people by the year 2025, remains great. More than ever, science-based agricultural technologies, developed through agricultural research, are essential to increasing productivity while maintaining or, better, improving the sustainability of natural resources and the environment.
The agricultural research agenda must respond to these challenges. The choices made by governments and institutions now, both in developed and developing countries, will determine whether these challenges will be met. The National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS) are and will continue to be the cornerstone of the global agricultural research system. They alone can be responsible for addressing the range of productivity and sustainability issues in their own countries. Given the diverse nature of agro-ecological conditions, the location-specificity of small-scale production and the pervasive natural resource management problems, NARS must play an even larger role in the interface between the global agricultural research system and the producers.
The challenges faced by NARS in developing countries are many and in particular those related to institutional development and sustainability. Foreign assistance has played a key role in agricultural research in all developing countries and particularly in Africa. Funding in the form of loans and grants from bilateral and international donors accounted for about 34 percent of total research expenditure in sub-Saharan Africa in the early 1960s. African NARS have become increasingly reliable on foreign funding, reaching about 43 percent of their total funding in 1991.
Analysts of foreign assistance to agricultural research, particularly in Africa, are very critical of the role of foreign assistance. A flaw in external donor aid and assistance in the last two decades are noted to be high tolerance for defective institutional structures, which were supported with loan and grant funds but yielded little dividend. In particular, the interrelated issues of the size, performance and sustainability of NARS are not being addressed by African policy-makers, NARS leaders and donors.
These are issues that plague NARS of developing countries, despite more than four decades of heavy foreign investments. This constitutes the background and rationale of the present study. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in its quest and mandate to help and better understand the developing countries' NARS development problems, launched, in partnership with the Special Programme for African Agricultural Research (SPAAR), this global study. The transition from SPAAR to FARA was completed on 31 December 2001 when the former stopped existing. The main purpose was to investigate to what extent institutional development has been truly and properly dealt with in foreign assistance programmes and projects.
The study covered the four major developing countries' regions: sub-Saharan Africa, West Asia and North Africa, Asia and the Pacific and Latin America and the Caribbean. More emphasis was given to sub-Saharan Africa. The findings for this region are presented in this publication.
Overall, the conclusion for the study is that the basis for institutional development is present in all countries, albeit after experiencing various periods of expansion, contraction, restructuring and downsizing. Agricultural research management has been improved at all levels (policy formulation, planning, organizing, evaluation and controlling, etc.). Adequate bodies have been established, but proper functioning of these is more uncertain. Human resources have improved in quality and quantity. Most governments have also striven to improve incentive schemes as well as a better research environment. Staff attrition is, however, still high. Strategic planning, priority setting and programme budgeting and management are routinely performed in the national agricultural research institutions (NARIs). The master-planning process has had an important and significant effect in institutionalizing priority-setting mechanisms in NARS. It has also been helpful in aligning agricultural research with national development objectives.
However, sustainable funding remains the Achilles' heel of NARS, particularly for non-staff related costs. After four decades of NARS development through expansion, restructuring and downsizing, the time has come for consolidation. This cannot take place without sustainable funding. Sole reliance on donor funding is not a long-term solution. Diversifying domestic sources of funding through resolute evaluation of all potential sources of funding mechanisms, could be one option. This, however, depends on African resolve, African political leadership and aggressive indigenous resource mobilization.
It is expected that recommendations made to government national policy-makers, NARS leaders and their development partners, at all levels, will have a positive impact on their continued effort to built sustainable national agricultural research institutions, capable of delivering the needed environmentally friendly technologies to eradicate hunger and malnutrition.