Date released
27 April 2022

By Dr Brendan Brown
Community Development Researcher, International Centre for Maize and Wheat Improvement (CIMMYT)

About the author

Dr Brendan Brown is a Community Development Researcher based in
Nepal working for the International Centre for Maize and Wheat
Improvement (CIMMYT), as part of the CGIAR. His current projects
focus on sustainable intensification across the Eastern Gangetic Plains
of South Asia and Cambodia. Dr Brown also participated in the ACIAR
graduate program.

Man smiling at camera wearing a hat

As someone who has observed, participated in, led, and evaluated ACIAR investments across Asia, Africa and the Middle East for more than a decade, ACIAR holds a special place in my heart. Working across other development funders such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and USAID has also given me a perspective of and pride in Australia’s special place in the global agricultural research sphere.

It is interesting to speculate about what the next decades hold for a small, targeted agency like ACIAR, which has built a niche in funding research for development as opposed to specific development interventions. This model has paved the way for investment in scientifically rigorous projects alongside the development of local research capacity, building a solid foundation for the future.

However, we must not kid ourselves about what we now face. Thanks to climate change, the coming years – not decades – will test the resiliency of smallholder agricultural systems. Add in layers of cultural and dietary change, urban migration and sustained societal pressure to drive down food prices, and the viability of smallholder agriculture is more challenged than ever. In an era that may no longer value farming as a meaningful and viable livelihood, it remains to be seen who the farmers of the next generation will be.

Even with emerging genetic innovations it is unlikely we will witness a ‘Green Revolution 2.0’ driven by genetic innovation. Future system intensification will be more complex; productivity gains will need to involve practice change and wider diversity within farming units, and profitability will need to be driven by wider integration beyond the farming unit (not forgetting that not all smallholder farmers want both, which will make it progressively more complex for extension and research programming).

There is a justified focus on ensuring no one is left behind by grounding our work in fairness and equity, raising difficult questions about where to focus our energies in a morally responsible way.

So, what does this mean for the future of ACIAR? What are the ‘big-picture’ activities that might transform ACIAR to new heights.

A pathway for research outputs

How might projects move away from the mad rush to ‘scale’ our research outputs in the final year? I often wonder if we could achieve more by not solely focusing on local policy integration but obtaining ‘buy-in’ from development partners like the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the International Fund for Agricultural Development. I would love to see a more formalised relationship between ACIAR, as a knowledge creator, and development partners, as knowledge extenders. This would also consolidate the important niche ACIAR fills as a discoverer of new science to inform development and policy activities, while ensuring knowledge transitions into use on a wider scale with the far greater resources available to development partners. Perhaps a ‘scaling’ research program could fulfil this role.

ACIAR Learn as a renowned and respected learning zone

It is encouraging to see ACIAR Learn emerging as a space for ACIAR alumni to learn new skills. I can imagine a world where, if you want to learn how to conduct an element of agricultural research for development, ACIAR Learn has a module for you. This might be anything from grant writing to agronomy trial design, from semi-structured impact assessment to data analysis and policy engagement.

This would help standardise ACIAR projects and promote cross learning and regional interaction, and could be used by others, such as students from Australian and overseas universities, to upskill. We could also predicate projects on staff becoming accredited as ‘master-trainers’ to extend the knowledge beyond direct online participants.

Person wearing hat stand outside holding handfuls of plants

Funding mentoring and knowledge transfer

As a graduate of the Australia Youth Ambassadors for Development program, I recognise that one of its key design features is pairing recruits with in-country individuals, who then work together daily. The aim is that by the end of a posting, in-country skills have been raised to a level that makes the youth ambassador role redundant.

What if a similar model became a focus within ACIAR projects, especially given the high proportion of tertiary educators that are part of the ACIAR system? The aim would be not only to create research outputs but also to build local capacity so that local institutions can continue working after the project is completed.

Relationship brokers – but not just the Asia-Pacific

I feel blessed to have worked around multiple global geographies and I have benefitted from sharing experiences and comparisons between them. While funding and politics dictate the need to prioritise South-East Asia and the Pacific region, ACIAR could fill a global role brokering relationships, including with Africa and Latin America. 

Diverse relationships nurture new ideas and connections that are often long-lasting. This does not imply a global ACIAR research agenda, but that ACIAR could support new relationships and interactions by bringing together diverse audiences to learn and interact.

Cross-cutting research programs

Every ACIAR project will need to measure its impact and explore intended and unintended outcomes and contextual barriers. Given this, I would love to see ‘social systems’ and ‘impact assessment’ research programs as overarching and cross-cutting programs within the ACIAR organisational structure. This would start to harmonise the broad investments from ACIAR to enable a much deeper understanding of how to plan, monitor and measure research activities and impact.

This does not mean these programs do not warrant their own research projects; but there is so much more we could learn through a synergised approach. How much more powerful would the investments from ACIAR be if we had a standardised impact assessment and could talk about the relevant social implications of our work? This would also help transition scaling work much earlier in the project cycle and open broader research questions to plan for impact.

Strengthening already strong links to tertiary education

We know the Australian tertiary sector underpins ACIAR activities, but this could be expanded. Some undergraduate agriculture courses already include overseas trips, but some ACIAR projects could formalise this for annual study trips to collaborate directly with projects.

ACIAR could also provide more networking opportunities for postgraduate researchers working on ACIAR projects, such as with a bi-annual ACIAR postgraduate conference. The networks formed would ensure and strengthen the Crawford Fund’s Researchers in Agriculture for International Development network, and beyond.

It’s all food for thought. Happy 40th birthday ACIAR and congratulations to everyone who contributes to our collective vision for more productive, sustainable and meaningful smallholder livelihoods.