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The Role of ISNAR in International Agricultural Research: Relevance to Sustainable Development in South Pacific Small Island Developing States

(Euan Fleming)

The International Service for National Agricultural Research (ISNAR) was founded in 1979, and is located in the Hague, the Netherlands. It is a member of the global network of international agricultural research institutions coordinated by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

The mandate of ISNAR is to strengthen national agricultural research in developing countries, to bring about sustained improvements in the performance of their National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS) and organizations. ISNAR responds to requests for assistance from developing countries and specializes in public sector agricultural research.

Services are provided by ISNAR in three main ways:

- generation and dissemination of knowledge and information involves all ISNAR's stakeholders, and accounts for around one-quarter of core resources;

- strengthening research policy and management components has traditionally been the major use of core resources, and involves many stakeholders;

- comprehensive institutional development involves only some of ISNAR's stakeholders.

The three programme areas of ISNAR are the following:

- research policies and system strategies;
- management of organizations and resources;
- research programme design and management.

The primary and secondary clients of ISNAR's services vary according to the programme area. The themes that unite its programme work are institutional sustainability, assessment of institutional performance, and institutional implications of increasing research on natural resource management.

ISNAR's mandate has relevance to the agenda of the Technical Consultation of the South Pacific Small Island Developing States on Sustainable Development in Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, in two important respects:
- ISNAR now places a major emphasis on managing natural resources in NARS in a sustainable way. This is in line with CGIAR's mandate to undertake research in environmental protection and ecologically sound practices in agriculture. It is also concerned that institutional performance in a NARS is sustainable. This high priority accorded to sustainability is consistent with the focus of this Consultation.

- Research is a critical component of any plan of action designed to promote sustainable development in agriculture, fisheries and forests in South Pacific Small Island Developing States.

Research issues in small NARS

ISNAR has undertaken a major project in recent years on developing innovative approaches to strategic planning in agricultural and environmental research in small developing countries such as the South Pacific Small Island Developing States. The project commenced in 1990 and entailed a number of separate studies on the special problems facing NARS in these small countries. The project culminated in the publication of a book (Eyzaguirre 1996)5. A flavour of the issues examined in this book can be gained from the following summary of some of the major findings:

- Working with small-scale and diverse institutions in NARS has some severe limitations, but these limitations can be countered by developing high-quality staff in NARS institutions. Also, small scale can be turned to advantage, in offering opportunities for innovation in the quality of research produced and advice given. Smallness need not be an over-riding obstacle to sustained contributions by NARS to agricultural development, but an innovative approach is required to accentuate the benefits while minimizing the negative impacts of small size.

- Development of a national research portfolio is crucial to a strategic framework that encourages research institutions in small NARS. Such a portfolio helps to set priorities that suit research capabilities and reflects the important agricultural problems that need to be solved. This is achieved by bringing together the research domains, functions and institutions in a decision-making process that efficiently allocates responsibilities among actors in the NARS.

- A national research portfolio is a key element in any strategy which aims to diversify into high-value non-traditional exports. Such a framework should satisfy the conditions of swift and flexible organizational responses and a commercial orientation to research work; give a leading research role to producers; avoid resource-intensive product development processes; build strong links to the policy environment; strengthen market intelligence and the capability to screen technologies; and promote research into post-harvest and marketing systems. As shown in another ISNAR study (Fleming 1996)6, these conditions have seldom been satisfied in South Pacific Small Island Developing States, either during the research, development and commercialization processes or in defending market share. The result has been a series of "boom-bust" export industries in high-value products, and a lack of momentum in building up the high-value export base. For a variety of reasons, many high-value export industries have failed after initial success.

- A small developing country can participate in biotechnology as a developer of new techniques, consumer of existing techniques or reviewer of biotechnology applications. It is wise to select a few priority areas in which biotechnology can make significant contributions to agricultural development. Policy guidance and regulation of biotechnology transfer are probably the most important contributions that research can make.

- Managing scientific information is essential to efficient and effective agricultural research in small developing countries. By gaining access to information and research results from other countries and global sources, NARS become better informed and more capable of performing their advisory and regulatory functions. By scanning external sources of information, they focus on problems for which technology and information are unavailable domestically. Differences between researchers and information staff should then become less distinct. By developing reliable and accurate information on domestic research and indigenous technical knowledge, and the state of agricultural resources within the country, it will be easier to scan and select from global scientific information and technologies.

- A regional approach to research is especially important to small developing countries. It can enhance information exchange and combine the collective experience of professionals in the same field; achieve economies of scale by concentrating resources on key national and regional problems; minimize duplication; capture the benefits of research spillover; rationalize human resource development; and mobilize research efforts on transnational problems requiring collaboration between countries. Development of effective NARS and regional coordination mechanisms are pre-requisites to establishing a supranational research institute.

- The effectiveness of research networks depends on the ability of each participating institution to produce information, participate in joint activities, and establish its own policies and structures for managing its involvement. Small NARS need the benefits provided by networks, but encounter a major conflict in managing their participation and contributions. These networks should be focused to be effective, yet any NARS can generally afford only a few intensive exchanges. It must, therefore, be very selective about the networks in which it participates.

5     Eyzaguirre, P. (1996), Agriculture and Environmental Research in Small Countries: Innovative Approaches to Strategies Planning, Wiley, Chichester.

6     Fleming, E. (1996), Research Options for High-Value Agricultural Exports in South Pacific Island Nations, Research Report, International Service for International Agricultural Research, the Hague (forthcoming).


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