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The success of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) started with the Australian economist, Sir John Crawford. He had a vision of sharing Australia’s expertise and knowledge in agricultural sciences to contribute to global efforts to address food insecurity and poverty.

Throughout the 1970s and into the early 1980s, Sir John and several prominent scientists, academics and public servants developed the concept of an Australian Government centre to realise this potential.

In 1982, the vision of an Australian international agricultural research centre became reality. The Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research Act 1982 was passed in both houses of the Australian Parliament with bipartisan support and the Act was proclaimed by the Governor-General on 3 June 1982.

The science partnerships and projects that were required to address the challenges faced by smallholder farmers, fishers and foresters were envisaged to yield mutual benefits for the partner countries and Australia. That success has been consolidated and built upon by many people over four decades across four regions of the Indo-Pacific: Eastern and Southern Africa, East and South-East Asia, South and West Asia, and the Pacific.

This account of the establishment of ACIAR is brief. Many people advocated, championed and guided ACIAR to where it is today, however it was not possible to name them all in this book. The contributions of everyone involved in the establishment of ACIAR are highly valued and gratefully acknowledged.

ACIAR started with a distinct advantage of credibility and importance because of the reputation of Sir John Crawford. As the first Director of ACIAR, I had the privileged but daunting task of turning a concept into a functioning and successful organisation.

Sir John, as the first Chair of the ACIAR Board of Management, made very few demands but was always ready to offer support and influence. His directive was simple: get quality people and produce quality results, quickly.

The most important characteristic we wanted to establish for ACIAR was that it was an organisation that built true partnerships. That started with asking scientists in developing countries ‘how can we help?’

Collaborative research was not a new concept but our approach of working with developing country research teams to develop and transfer appropriate technology and to build their own research capability, did represent a new approach to development. It was a model that soon started delivering sustained benefits and ultimately, stimulating agricultural economies.

Our approach was underpinned by engaging quality people. We had no trouble attracting distinguished scientists to lead projects. That immediately gave us gravitas in the partner country and ensured robust research was instigated.
We also appointed quality people within ACIAR. From those who managed the research program – internationally recognised scientists with strong networks and a passion for research for development – to those we needed to develop and manage rigorous administration and finance systems.

Professor Jim McWilliam AO
ACIAR Director (1982–1989)

A government agency borne of vision and goodwill

Australian agriculturalists have found many opportunities over the years to share their expertise with developing countries.

The Colombo Plan, launched in 1950, provided one avenue to contribute to development in Asia. As well as supporting students to study in Australia, the plan facilitated technical assistance to developing countries.

Scientists of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) worked on agricultural projects from the late 1950s in India, Thailand and Vietnam, and hosted visiting scientists in its own laboratories in Australia.

The Australian Government overseas aid program supported agricultural and rural development projects, mainly in Asia, from the 1960s onwards. These were primarily technical assistance projects, delivered overseas by Australian agricultural consulting companies.

There was, however, limited institutional engagement from Australian agricultural scientists, who were developing new technologies such as improved crop varieties, pest and disease control, and animal vaccines to increase the productivity of Australian agriculture, which were also of potential benefit to farmers in the developing world.

Increasingly, a growing number of Australians with experience in international agriculture could see the potential benefit of formal arrangements for sharing Australian expertise in agricultural science with researchers and farmers in developing countries.

The seeds from which ACIAR developed were sown during the 1970s, and a proposal evolved for an agency to facilitate the contribution of Australian agricultural science and innovation to global efforts to reduce food insecurity and poverty.

The proposal took flight in 1981 when the Australian Prime Minister, the Honourable Malcolm Fraser, sought ideas from his department (the department of Prime Minister and Cabinet) and the Australian Development Assistance Bureau (ADAB) for an aid initiative that he could present at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).

Professor Gabrielle Persley had the unique experience of working on both sides of the proposal.

Returning to Australia from a research position in West Africa in 1980, the then Dr Persley joined the Science and Technology Unit of ADAB. In early 1981, she was seconded to be science adviser on a task force established to prepare a Cabinet submission, legislation and implementation plans for a new agricultural research initiative within the Australian aid program. The end result was a new government agency to be called the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.


Head shot of Professor Gabrielle Persley. She has short hair and is wearing glasses.

Professor Gabrielle Persley AM has a distinguished career in international agricultural research, food security and biotechnology. First she worked as a plant pathologist in Australia, the United Kingdom and West Africa, focusing on the improvement of tropical crops. She joined the Australian Development Assistance Bureau (ADAB) in 1980. Professor Persley was the first staff appointment to ACIAR in 1982, as Scientific Adviser, and then Program Coordinator (1983–1991).

From 1991, Professor Persley worked with several multilateral organisations, including as Biotechnology Manager at the World Bank and Senior Adviser to the Director-General of the International Livestock Research Institute. Professor Persley has served on many Australian and international boards, including Australia’s Commission for International Agricultural Research (2017–2020) and the Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International (CABI) in the United Kingdom. She is currently Honorary Professor at the School of Agriculture and Food Sciences, University of Queensland, and Chair of the Doyle Foundation, Scotland, which advocates the role of science and technology in development.


The genesis of ACIAR

Australian economist Sir John Crawford could see the unique potential of Australian agricultural science in contributing to global efforts to address food insecurity and poverty. During the 1970s, Sir John was serving on the Board of Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) – a government agency in the foreign affairs portfolio focused on improving the lives of people in developing countries through research, and one which strongly influenced the model for ACIAR.

Sir John’s vision of Australia playing a more prominent role in agricultural research for development was the subject of several studies, most of which he led.

In 1974, he prepared a ‘Proposal for an Institute of Development Studies’ for the Advisory Board of ADAB. Subsequently, he convened a small private study committee to address the question, ‘Would Australia’s aid to developing countries in science and technology be more effective if it were managed by an independent body?’

Together with Mr Alban Gurnett-Smith, Mr Guy Gresford and Mr Anthony Neylan, Sir John prepared a report to the Australian Government in 1975 entitled ‘Proposal to establish an International Research Assistance Foundation’. The committee reported in 1976 that the idea had merit and recommended a more comprehensive study.

A remarkable Australian

A black-and-white head shot of Sir John Crawford. He is wearing a suit and a tie.

Sir John Crawford AC (1910–1984)

Sir John was a remarkable Australian who contributed at the highest levels to the economic development of Australia and other countries. He was also a passionate supporter of international agricultural research for development.

Among his many achievements and appointments, Sir John was:

  • an architect of Australia’s postwar growth from the late 1940s and through the 1950s
  • instrumental in establishing the Bureau of Agricultural Economics (now Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences) in 1945 and was its founding Director until 1950
  • Secretary of the Department of Commerce and Agriculture (1950–1956), and after a reorganisation of government departments, Secretary of the new Department of Trade (1956–1960)
  • inaugural Director of the Research School of Pacific Studies and Professor of Economics, from 1960, Vice-Chancellor (1968–1973) and Chancellor (1976–1984) at the Australian National University
  • a strong advocate for the development of a global partnership of organisations engaged in research for a food-secured future, which resulted in CGIAR (formerly known as Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) – Sir John was the first Chair of the CGIAR Technical Advisory Committee (1971–1976)
  • a member of the inaugural Board of Governors for the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Canada (1970–1980)
  • instrumental in the establishment of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in 1975 and served as its first Chair (1975–1981)
  • lead architect of the proposal to establish the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) and served as the first Chair of the ACIAR Board (1982–1984).
The Crawford Fund, a not-for-profit organisation that highlights, promotes and supports Australia’s engagement in international agricultural research for development, is named in honour of Sir John Crawford. The Fund is a close partner of ACIAR and is described in more detail here.


At the same time that Sir John was developing his proposal, Mr Jim Ingram, head of Australia’s overseas aid agency, was concerned about the limited engagement of science institutions in overseas aid programs and committed to enhancing the role of science and technology in the Australian aid program.

In 1977, Mr Ingram established the Science and Technology Unit within ADAB and the Consultative Committee on Research for Development (CCRD).

Sir John was asked to chair CCRD, which brought together senior figures in the Australian Public Service and the Australian research community and quickly came to the attention of the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Dr Denis Blight, who was working at the Department of Foreign Affairs at the time, was seconded to ADAB as head of the new Science and Technology Unit and appointed Secretary to the CCRD.

At the first meeting of CCRD in November 1977, Sir John said, ‘For many years, a number of us have felt that Australia has much to offer developing countries in the field of research and that a concerted effort should be made in this direction.’

The task for CCRD was to find ways to increase the engagement of the Australian scientific community in the Australian overseas aid program, including (but not limited to) agricultural research and development. The agricultural subgroup of CCRD, chaired by Dr Ted Henzell, Chief of the CSIRO Division of Tropical Crops and Pastures, was particularly concerned with how Australia’s expertise in agricultural research could contribute towards improving agriculture in neighbouring countries in a more enduring, systematic way than by a project-by-project basis.

ADAB commissioned a study, led by Professor Helen Hughes of the Australian National University, on the feasibility of Australia establishing an agency, similar to the Canadian IDRC addressing agriculture, health and education. Thus, when the timing was right, a plan for an agricultural research initiative within the overseas aid program had been conceived.

Head shot Mr Jim Ingram. He is balding with grey hair.

A distinguished diplomat and humanitarian

Mr James (Jim) Ingram AO (1928–2023)

Mr Jim Ingram had a long and distinguished career as an Australian diplomat. He attained a diplomatic cadetship with the Department of External Affairs in 1946, and from 1950 held
many diplomatic positions. In 1964, Mr Ingram returned to Australia as Assistant Secretary in the Department for Foreign Affairs with oversight of Australia’s relationships with the countries of East and South Asia, the Americas, the South Pacific and of the Asia Pacific Council.

In 1973 he was appointed Australian High Commissioner to Canada, and concurrently non-resident High Commissioner to several newly independent Caribbean nations. During his time in Canada, Mr Ingram observed the creation of the Canadian International Development Assistance Agency and its sister organisation, the International Development Research Centre (IDRC). This planted seeds for his thinking on comparable reforms to Australia’s aid structures.

In 1975, Mr Ingram was appointed head of the Australian Development Assistance Agency, which became the Australian Development Assistance Bureau (ADAB) in 1977. The appointment was an opportunity to put into practice his deep, personal commitment to equity, efficiency and international peace through economic development.

Jointly with Sir John Crawford, and supported by others, he worked to improve the quality of Australia’s bilateral and multilateral aid programs. With the support of Sir John, he carefully managed engagement and negotiations with politicians, scientists, bureaucrats and state governments that led to the creation of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) in 1982.

In 1982, Mr Ingram started two terms as Executive Director of the United Nations World Food Program. His work there was described by former Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Honourable Gareth Evans: ‘The World Food Program is now not only the world’s biggest humanitarian agency, but one of its most respected and effective. That it became so is very much the legacy of Jim Ingram.’

Inspiration becomes legislation

A black-and-white photo of five men in suits and one woman sitting around a board table. Their hands are on the table and they are holding pens, and there is paper scattered across the table.
The first professional scientific staff of ACIAR, in July 1983. Left to right: Dr Gabrielle Persley (Program Coordinator, Plant Protection and Plant Improvement), Dr John Copland (Program Coordinator, Animal Sciences and Fisheries), Dr Jim Ryan (Deputy Director and Program Coordinator, Socio-economics and Farming Systems), Professor Jim McWilliam (Director), Dr Denis Blight (Centre Secretary) and Dr Eric Craswell (Program Coordinator, Soil Science and Plant Nutrition). Photo: ACIAR Newsletter No. 1, 1983


The 1981 meeting of CHOGM was to focus on global economic disparities. In preparation for the meeting to be held in Melbourne in October of that year, Prime Minister Fraser sought ideas for an aid initiative that he could present to the meeting from his department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and from ADAB.

Sir John and Mr Ingram put forward the idea of an agricultural research initiative, based on the recognition and discussions of CCRD that agricultural research for development was an area where the Australian aid program could achieve more. The concept was to create an Australian international agricultural research centre that would support partnerships between scientists in Australia and developing countries to solve problems of joint interest.

‘The concept of Australia supporting research partnerships with neighbouring countries to solve problems for mutual benefit to Australia and the partner countries was the critical distinguishing feature of the initiative,’ said Professor Persley.

‘A task force was formed within ADAB in January 1981, chaired by Dr John Baker, to develop the initiative further. As the only agricultural scientist working in ADAB at the time, I was seconded to work on the task force as science adviser. In February 1981, the Prime Minister decided he would announce the initiative at CHOGM. That basically gave us nine months to prepare a submission to the Australian Government.’

The Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Honourable Tony Street, was also crucial in supporting the vision of ACIAR and the legislation that would create it. Under his direction, Mr Ingram and Dr Baker established and drove the task force to develop a Cabinet submission.

The Cabinet of the Australian Government approved the initiative in July 1981 and made a financial commitment of A$25 million. Prime Minister Fraser announced the formation of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research at CHOGM in October 1981.

‘In later years, some people, within and beyond Australia, have spoken as though the Australian international agricultural research initiative was a great idea and that ACIAR was born overnight. But it wasn’t!’ said Professor Persley.

‘There were years of lobbying by Sir John and other members of the CCRD to gain political support, and there was the recognition by ADAB leadership of the window of opportunity presented with Australia hosting CHOGM for the first time in 1981. And then there were many months of work by ADAB and the Department of Foreign Affairs within the public service, including convincing Treasury officials that we were not about to break the bank – a task that John Baker accomplished with aplomb!

‘The success of the proposal reflected the value of having the calibre of people like Sir John and Jim Ingram involved to get others to engage. Getting the engagement of the Australian agricultural research community and the farming community was also really important. Ted Henzell from CSIRO and Graham Alexander, then Director-General of the Queensland Department of Primary Industries, were critical players in that regard. The other thing that was important was making sure that there was early bipartisan support. The concept of an agricultural research initiative was soon supported by both the major parties, and both parties supported the legislation when it came before the House of Representatives and the Senate, ensuring its smooth passage through the Parliament.’

The legislation that established ACIAR as a statutory authority, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research Act 1982 (ACIAR Act), was passed with bipartisan support by the House of Representatives in October 1981 and the Senate in May 1982. The ACIAR Act was proclaimed by the Governor-General on 3 June 1982.

A black-and-white group photo of about 30 men and women in business atire.
Scientific and administrative staff of ACIAR, with Director, Professor Jim McWilliam, centre of the seated row. The ACIAR office was located at 10 Moore Street, Canberra. Photo: ACIAR | c. 1985

Sir John Crawford was the first Chair of the Board of Management for ACIAR. Dr Denis Blight was recalled from his position as First Secretary at the Australian High Commission in London to be appointed as interim Director of ACIAR and Dr Gabrielle Persley transferred from ADAB to be appointed Science Adviser of ACIAR. Sir John oversaw the recruitment of Professor Jim McWilliam as the first permanent Director in September 1982. Sir John and the newly appointed members of the ACIAR Board of Management then worked with the incoming ACIAR Director to recruit a core group of scientific staff from 1982 to 1983.

When the ACIAR Act was established in 1982, it included a clause that the Act would expire in 1994, should the operations and effectiveness of ACIAR prove not to be worthwhile. A review of ACIAR, colloquially referred to as the Sunset Review, by the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade was tabled in both houses of the Australian Parliament in April 1992.

The review found that ACIAR ‘has had remarkable success in solving major agricultural problems and has brought much goodwill and benefits for Australia’. It made 21 recommendations, including considerations for management and operations, extending the ACIAR mandate and increasing public awareness of ACIAR. It also recommended an increase in the ACIAR share of the foreign aid budget from about 1.5 to 3.5% by 1997.

The Sunset Review concluded that ACIAR had established itself successfully around its core mandate, and thus its responsibilities could safely be extended to allied areas such as research-related training, development activities to disseminate research results, and managing Australian support to the international agricultural research centres (first initiated in 1971 at the formation of CGIAR).

The Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research Amendment Bill 1992 was passed by Parliament on 19 August 1992, with strong and universal endorsement of the Parliament. The bill amended the 1982 ACIAR Act by removing the sunset clause and extending the ACIAR mandate.


The legislation for the Australian Centre for International Agriculture Act 1982 is described as ‘an Act to encourage research for the purpose of identifying, or finding solutions to, agricultural problems of developing countries’.

The ACIAR Act establishes the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, and sets out its functions, under the direction of the Chief Executive Officer. Following are the key functions as set out in the ACIAR Act, as amended in 1992:

a) to formulate programs and policies with respect to agricultural research for either or both of the following purposes:
    i) identifying agricultural problems of developing countries;
    ii) finding solutions to agricultural problems of developing countries;

b) to commission agricultural research by persons or institutions (whether the research is to be conducted in Australia or overseas) in accordance with such programs and policies; and

c) to communicate to persons and institutions the results of such agricultural research; and

d) to establish and fund training schemes related to the research programs referred to in paragraph (a); and

e) to conduct and fund development activities related to those research programs; and

f) to fund international agricultural research centres.

Partnerships from the start

A group of seven men, most of whom are wearing suits and ties, are standing together on what looks like a construction site. The two men who are not wearing suits and ties are wearing formal button-up jackets.
ACIAR Director, Professor Jim McWilliam, centre and back, travelled to China in 1984 to establish the identity of ACIAR with appropriate ministries and officials, and match China’s agricultural research priorities with Australian research expertise. Professor McWilliam is pictured with, from left, forester Professor Lindsay Pryor, entomologist Dr Douglas Waterhouse, Dr John Copland (ACIAR), Chinese hosts, and at back, Dr Eric Craswell (ACIAR). Photo: Partners magazine, 30th Anniversary edition, 2012


The foundations for a culture of mutual benefit and partnership at ACIAR were laid from the very start by Sir John, Professor McWilliam and ACIAR staff.

ACIAR was clearly and deliberately established to commission scientists from Australian research institutes, such as CSIRO, state government departments of agriculture and universities, and from the private sector, to lead research partnerships – it was not mandated to conduct research in its own right.

ACIAR was to serve as a research and partnership broker, bringing together research organisations and investing funding in order to facilitate collaborative projects of mutual benefit to Australian and overseas partners in the Indo-Pacific region.

‘Developing the idea of partnerships was quite a new approach at the time. It was not just about aid or technical assistance flowing in one direction. It was really a true commitment to developing partnerships with scientists and farmers and communities in the partner country and in Australia, for mutual benefit,’ Professor Persley recalled.

As a small government agency within the portfolio of Foreign Affairs and Trade, led by agricultural science professionals, ACIAR was unique and had a relatively high degree of autonomy compared with other government agencies.

The partnership model of operation continues 40 years later, enabling ACIAR to bring together the best people in the country to co-design research projects with scientists from Australia and partner countries to address a specific issue or opportunity. As a result, ACIAR has a widely and highly regarded reputation for building unique, innovative and agile teams that make a positive and significant impact.

After experiencing the genesis, establishment and ongoing development of ACIAR, Professor Persley concluded, ‘Myriad people have contributed to ACIAR to create an institution that has improved the lives of millions of people in the developing world, and of which all Australians can be proud.’

Further reading

There is much greater depth to the origins of ACIAR and Australia’s involvement in agricultural research for development than is possible to recount in this chapter of 40 years of ACIAR. A list of some of the publications, essays and articles written by and about those involved with ACIAR can be found here

ACIAR governance

The governance structure of ACIAR 1982 to 2007 shows the Minister for Foreign Affairs at the top with the Policy Advisory Council pointing towards the Minister. The ACIAR Board of Management and the ACIAR Director sit below the Minister. The structure of ACIAR 2007 to current shows the Minister for Foreign Affairs on the top row; the Policy Advisory Council pointing towards the Minister with the Commission for International Agricultural Research on the top row. Below is the ACIAR CEO and ACIAR Executive.
The original and current governance structure of ACIAR and bodies established under the Australian Centre for International Agriculture Act 1982


The ACIAR Act established that ACIAR would be governed by a Board of Management, which was responsible for the conduct and control of the affairs of the centre. The Board was answerable to the minister responsible for ACIAR, the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

In addition to establishing the functions of a centre to manage Australia’s contributions to international agricultural research, the ACIAR Act also established the Policy Advisory Council. The function of the council was to advise the Minister for Foreign Affairs on agricultural problems of developing countries and on agricultural research programs and policies to identify and find solutions to these problems.

The President of the Policy Advisory Council would also serve as the Chair of the ACIAR Board of Management. The Director of ACIAR and the Director of ADAB were ex-officio members of both the board and the council.

The Australian Government commissioned a review of corporate governance of statutory authorities in 2002. Headed by Mr John Uhrig, the review examined the relationships between statutory authorities and the responsible minister, to identify ways to improve performance without compromising statutory functions.

The Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research Amendment Bill 2007 changed the original governance arrangements to reflect the executive management model recommended in the Uhrig Review. Key changes involved abolishing the Board of Management and the office of Director.

The amendment established the Commission for International Agricultural Research, to provide expert advice to the Minister on specific aspects of the centre’s operations, including program formulation, priority setting and funding. Responsibility for the administrative and financial management of the centre was conferred on the new position of Chief Executive Officer, directly accountable to the Minister.

Expert advice for the Minister

The Policy Advisory Council was established by the ACIAR Act to advise the Minister responsible for ACIAR on the agricultural problems of developing countries and to identify and find solutions to these problems.

Members of the council are appointed by the Minister and comprise outstanding international agricultural research leaders from partner countries and international research organisations, as well as leading Australian agriculturalists and economists.

A substantial number of council members are required to reside in countries other than Australia and have expertise in agricultural problems of developing countries or experience in organising or conducting agricultural research.

The Commission for International Agricultural Research was established by the 2007 amendment of the ACIAR Act to provide expert advice on international agricultural research to the Minister.

Eminent Australians from the farming and agricultural research sectors are appointed to the Commission by the Governor-General. Specifically, the members of the Commission provide recommendations on program formulation for agricultural research and development, priority setting, funding and other matters as requested by the Minister.

A group photo of 17 men. The men are dressed semiformally, most are wearing ties or jackets. They are standing behind a desk that has several microphones on it. Behind them is a wooden board with the text Policy Advisory Council Meeting written on it.
Members of the Policy Advisory Council and ACIAR staff at the fourth meeting of the Policy Advisory Council in Bogor, Indonesia, 30 January to 1 February 1984. Front row (left to right): Professor ME Nairn (Murdoch University), Mr Tauiliili Uili Meredith (Western Samoa), Dr Tim Bhannasira (Thailand), Mr SW Sadikim (Indonesia), Sir John Crawford (President Policy Advisory Council), Dr HK Jain (India), Mr PA Oram (ISNAR), Mr AJ Satrapa (ACIAR), Dr P Chigaru (Zimbabwe); back row (left to right): Dr JG Ryan (ACIAR Deputy Director), Dr LT Evans (CSIRO), Dr RB Dun (ADAB), Dr J Copland (ACIAR), Professor JR McWilliam (ACIAR Director), Dr NK Boardman (CSIRO), Sir Samuel Burston (Australia), Dr EF Henzell (CSIRO), Dr ET Craswell (ACIAR), Dr DG Blight (ACIAR). Mr Brown Bai (Papua New Guinea) not in frame. Photo: ACIAR | 1984
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