Although different in mandate and size, ACIAR and DFAT often work together towards common goals.
Both DFAT and ACIAR sit within the Foreign Affairs and Trade portfolio, with a long history of partnership and cooperation, building on each other’s strengths to deliver greater benefits to smallholder farmers in partner countries.
Australia’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) budget of around $4 billion is largely managed by DFAT, across a wide range of activities and countries in the Indo-Pacific region, South Asia and Africa regions. The ODA portfolio has the broad objective of improving lives, strengthening economies and managing the effects of poverty
ACIAR receives a smaller portion of the annual ODA budget (approximately $100 million) to fulfil its mandate to develop sustainable agricultural systems and increase food production through agricultural research.
Within DFAT, Ms Robyn Mudie has held senior roles that have allowed her to create close working relationships with ACIAR, notably her recent position as Australia’s ambassador to Vietnam. She is currently the first assistant secretary leading DFAT’s Office of Southeast Asia Regional and Mainland Division.
‘DFAT’s relationship with ACIAR has been one of close partnership and mutual benefits,’ said Ms Mudie. While DFAT works towards a bigger picture to support the development, prosperity and peace of the region, ACIAR illustrates the value and outcomes that come from the broader foreign policy relationships with Australia.
‘ACIAR allows us to walk the talk in terms of what we’re providing to a country like Vietnam,’ Ms Mudie said. ‘It has given us extremely strong ties into the agricultural and scientific communities, which gives great depth to the way we can engage with partner countries.
‘ACIAR has given us really strong insights into the needs of these countries and allowed us to develop programs in cooperation with Asia that are extremely effective.’
Ms Mudie said successful collaborations with ACIAR provided DFAT with evidence-based content for contributions to international forums, such as the United Nations Food System Summit and UN Climate Change Conference (COP).
‘We have examples of what can be applied elsewhere, and what can be achieved after scaling up projects within individual countries, or more broadly across the region. It gives us great credibility when we share lessons learned with others.’
Staple food crops
One of the most successful ACIAR–DFAT co-investments is the Seeds of Life program in Timor-Leste. Seeds of Life comprised 3 projects over 16 years and began in 2000 with a small ACIAR-funded project to reintroduce germplasm of staple food varieties (rice, maize, peanuts, sweetpotato and cassava) to Timor-Leste after disruptions to village farming during the country’s journey to independence.
The promise of improved yields for those varieties led to a second ACIAR-funded project to prove the acceptability and benefits of new or improved varieties with several thousand farmers.
Dr Harry Nesbitt was the ACIAR-funded Seeds of Life project coordinator for many years (now an Adjunct Professor at the University of Western Australia). He said DFAT could see the benefits of the early ACIAR proof-of-concept trial.
Through AusAID (now incorporated into DFAT), ACIAR greatly expanded the number of activities the project could undertake and helped to develop supporting mechanisms to sustain benefits in the longer term.
At the end of the program in 2016, 19 improved varieties had been released and an estimated 65,000 farming households had access to improved seed and planting material. Certified seed infrastructure was established with over 1,200 community seed production groups, 65 community seed houses and 3 seed laboratories. Almost half the households in surveyed districts were using improved varieties for food production at scale.
‘The impact is both economic and social,’ said Dr Nesbitt. ‘Farmers have benefited from the research program and researchers have progressed their capabilities. And as long as you have trained personnel who have the capacity to continue to do the research and seek modification if required, then you have a long-term legacy.’
ACIAR and DFAT continue to identify opportunities for this type of collaboration to maximise the benefits of Australia’s ODA investments.
A more recent co-funded project is the Sustainable Development Investment Portfolio (SDIP), which aimed to improve food, energy and water security for sustainable food systems in India, Bangladesh and Nepal. It was part of DFAT’s wider regional portfolio in South Asia that focuses on integrated food, energy and water management.
SDIP specifically investigated the potential impacts of conservation agriculture and irrigation, particularly with groundwater, and the intensification of agriculture at the farm, district, national and regional level. Strategies to increase food security were considered in conjunction with environmental impacts along with national and regional government policies.
Co-funding fish ladders
DFAT also co-invests with ACIAR to scale-out findings from long-term ACIAR-funded research.
In Laos, ACIAR has been supporting research for more than a decade to help rebuild inland fish populations by developing fish passages, also known as fish ladders or fishways. Fish passages are built into low-level irrigation dams and weirs that can otherwise block freshwater fish from travelling upstream to breeding grounds.
The research has been led by Australian researchers at Charles Sturt University (CSU) who developed fish passages to improve river connectivity in the Murray-Darling Basin. In their Laos project, the CSU researchers have also identified priority species and locations for fish ladders to achieve the most effective results for healthy fish populations.
This year DFAT and ACIAR co-funded a 3-year $5 million expansion of the fish passage work, through the Mekong-Australia Partnership – Water, Energy, Climate program. This will support the adoption of fish passages in Laos, Cambodia and Indonesia. It will also help build technical skills and capacity in Vietnam and Thailand.
‘It will allow us to scale up the technical innovation and the supportive governance needed across the broader Mekong Delta,’ said Professor Ann Fleming, ACIAR research program manager, Fisheries. DFAT’s diplomatic role in direct government-to-government discussions will also help to encourage national policies that support ‘fish friendly’ infrastructure in partner countries across the Mekong Delta, she added.
Building scientific and policy capacity in partner countries is a shared objective for ACIAR and DFAT, recognising education as essential to prosperity, resilience and stability at all levels.
DFAT administers the Australia Awards offering scholarships for tertiary education awarded to participants from partner countries as part of the ODA program. The Australia Awards provide funding for the ACIAR John Allwright Fellowships, part of the ACIAR Capacity Building Program.
These fellowships support scientists from partner countries currently or recently involved in ACIAR-funded research projects to obtain postgraduate qualifications – either a master degree or a PhD – at an Australian tertiary institution. While individual scientists benefit from the scheme, the primary aim is to build research capacity among ACIAR partner countries.
Dr Wahida Maghraby, who was awarded a John Allwright Fellowship in 2009, typifies the significant advancement and contributions scholarship recipients make. Six months after obtaining her PhD from the University of Adelaide through the fellowship, she was selected as an agriculture attaché to represent Indonesia’s Ministry of Agriculture in Europe. Dr Maghraby took up the position, moving to Brussels for 4 years between 2017 and 2020.
She credits her success to the John Allwright Fellowship. ‘Experience from the fellowship increased my confidence in engaging with stakeholders in Europe and in particular managing access to Indonesian agricultural commodities and working with different sectors to mitigate barriers that may limit market access,’ said Dr Maghraby.
DFAT engages with and provides office space for the ACIAR Country Network within embassies and posts overseas. This allows ACIAR and DFAT staff to work closely together at post, which has mutual benefits for in-country partnerships and networks.
The 2 organisations also share the expertise of staff. This is particularly the case in emerging areas of policy development and research such as ‘One Health’ initiatives focused on the interconnected health of people, animals and the environment, and also on nutrition-sensitive agriculture.
Ms Jessica Raneri joined ACIAR part-time in 2020 as a senior nutrition-sensitive agriculture adviser helping to incorporate nutritional considerations into the programs ACIAR manages as an essential component of food security. She has a similar part-time role with DFAT with a more outward-focused investment monitoring and policy development role. Ms Raneri said there is a shared recognition of the gap between growing enough food and healthy diets. Working with both organisations helps to facilitate conversions and policy and project development.
In some instances, DFAT directly engages ACIAR to develop research projects responding to a specific need. For example, a request from the Australian Government to increase investment in agricultural development in Papua New Guinea led to the Transformative Agriculture and Enterprise Development Program (TADEP).
The program allowed the 2 agencies to promote agricultural development in Papua New Guinea, scaling up successful innovations from previous ACIAR-funded projects in Papua New Guinea on cocoa, galip nut and sweetpotato. An additional project developed extension methodology through the Family Farm Teams approach.
TADEP was also an opportunity to build private sector involvement, helping projects to reach more people over larger areas and generate their own market-based momentum. Linking the 5 projects into a single program helped to provide operational efficiencies and shared benefits across the projects.
Dr Daniel Walker, ACIAR chief scientist, said DFAT support can prove crucial in helping ACIAR respond to changing priorities and new opportunities in partner countries such as the emerging agricultural industries in Papua New Guinea. It can also help resolve issues identified in longer-term collaborations.
Additional DFAT funding also allowed ACIAR to quickly introduce several short-term projects in Nepal when government changes there inadvertently introduced barriers to agricultural development in the country. This was part of the larger SDIP initiative in South Asia.
Dr Walker said many benefits also accrue for Australia from the partnership with DFAT. These include ‘public good’ outcomes such as supporting improved livelihoods in neighbouring countries and promoting regional stability.
Joint projects help to find solutions for shared issues with partner countries, building long-term relationships with governments and the research and development community through the sharing of scientific expertise.
‘Our researchers also learn from their involvement in international projects and bring that knowledge back home to support industry in Australia,’ said Dr Walker.