Q&A: Bringing Australia's 'best kept secret' on food security into the open

14 August 2017
Date Released: 

By Lisa Cornish

Original article curtesy of devex.com

CANBERRA — The Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research is an Australian government agency tasked with brokering and funding agricultural research partnerships between Australian scientists and their counterparts in developing countries.

For 35 years, ACIAR has been an important part of Australia’s aid program. But despite its longevity, it is not widely known, even within government circles.

Andrew Campbell has been chief executive officer of ACIAR for a little over a year. In that time, he has been able to see the impact of ACIAR’s work — and is now working on a strategy to highlight the value his agency brings to Australia’s foreign policy, the lives of people in developing countries and the creation of a food-secure world.

At the 2017 Crawford Fund Annual Conference, held in Australia’s Parliament House on August 8, Campbell spoke with Devex about his plans. Here is the interview, edited for length and clarity.

ACIAR have recently advertised for services to develop and implement a communication and stakeholder engagement plan. Why do you need these services now, and how will you be using the plan to promote ACIAR and its work?

My boss, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, has described ACIAR as “the best kept secret.” That’s not a situation she is happy with. I have been told to fix it.

We think that we are sitting on a treasure trove of Australian stories and not enough of them are in mainstream media. We want to change that. As the media has downsized in recent years, there is no shortage of retrenched or ex-journalists around who can help us to try and get more of our content into the mainstream media.

We also want to leverage our amazing publications to generate more online content, including exciting YouTube videos accessible from an interactive map, and we want to translate a lot of our drier material into more accessible products for a wider audience.

Our researchers — whether there are from university, government or elsewhere — are still expected to deliver scientific journal articles. We can’t change that. But the question is how we can add value to that. That could be supporting a film crew to produce video, getting great photographs from the field, and creating social media content to reach a wider audience. We will be making this message accessible across a wide range of platforms including mobile, tablets and so on.

We also want to be running more events. We want to build a much more comprehensive, dynamic and interactive alumni network, instead of just an Excel spreadsheet with a list of names. We want to have ongoing contact with people after they have received an ACIAR scholarship or fellowship, because it is amazing the number of people who have partnered in our projects over 35 years. Many of them are from countries where there is a very strong sense of reciprocal obligation, and they want to give something back for that transformative experience in their careers. Some are frustrated that we never contact them.

We are also set to introduce a new fellowship targeting women in research leadership in developing countries. There are a lot of ways we are looking to expand our footprint and make us and our work widely known within Australia, and Australian politics.

Do you have targets in terms of analyzing the impact of your new communication strategy?

To be frank, the Parliamentary Triangle [Parliament House and key government departments surrounding it] is the center of the onion. Members of parliament across all parties continue to ask why we are doing foreign aid, and we need to explain the case for it.

We are also aware that ACIAR is not widely known within the Australian public service. Building awareness among these groups is a priority target.

A lot of my predecessors, probably for good reason, ran a below-the-radar strategy. For them, communications was seen as an overhead. But as Julie Bishop is now saying, in 2017, getting the message out is not an overhead but core business. And as one of our core functions is to promote research, this needs to change.

So we’re radically overhauling our website as a start. It will be a lot more point and clink with interactivity, translating a lot of our research into short-form information packages to share easily. And we will be jointly promoting work with universities and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation for wider reach.

In two years, I am hoping ACIAR’s profile will be through the roof.

Attracting younger people to the agricultural sector is a problem globally — in developed as well as developing countries. Will ACIAR’s new communications strategy aim to help with this?

Absolutely. Agriculture suffers from some unfortunate image problems in the urban setting. We now have more than half of the world’s population living in cities and people are losing contact with farms.

When they think of agriculture, especially in Australia, they think of really hard work — 24/7, with risks of drought, flood, fire and more — you’re essentially not in control of your own destiny with no salary. It’s seen as an old-fashioned, old economy which is too laborious and not what you want your kids to go into.

I think the reality for a lot of people is quite different.

It is high tech, they are much more in touch with their customers than they used to be. There are less jobs at the absolute farm level, and more jobs instead in the value chain, in agribusinesses, in finance, in insurance, in marketing, in processing and in value adding. There are many parts of rural Australia that are traveling better than we give them credit for.

That’s the case, too, in some of our partner countries.

We are coming across very exciting projects in agribusiness, value adding — even, for example, women in north-west Vietnam growing vegetables for markets in Hanoi using quick response codes to get their product straight to market. These are potentially very exciting and rewarding careers, but this is not the message being received by young people today.

I would say you will have a much more exciting career in agriculture than you would in a bank or an accounting firm. If you are going to university now, you may not have contact with the farming community but agriculture is an area that has higher total factor productivity growth than almost any other area of the economy, because it makes higher use of science and innovation and is changing all the time.

“Being a farmer” is the wrong way to think about a career in agriculture. “Feeding the world” is a much more noble thing, and we’re going to have to feed people with less land and less input in harsher conditions. This is an amazing science and policy challenge and will be an exciting and rewarding journey for people to build their career around.

This is the challenge of our age.