From the outset, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) established a distinctive approach to research for development. ACIAR-supported projects focused on finding a scientific solution to a problem, drawing on the best Australian expertise to lead the research.
A unique feature of ACIAR projects was the benefit to Australian agriculture and Australian expertise. This enlightened and pragmatic approach has contributed to widespread respect for ACIAR and its work across the decades, not only in partner countries but within Australia as well. ACIAR has managed more than 1,500 projects across the Indo-Pacific region over 40 years. The original model, bringing Australian expertise to bear on challenges to agriculture in developing countries, has held true through the decades.
For every project supported, ACIAR has brokered a project scope and research team to address the issues at hand. Most commonly, ACIAR-supported projects have been led by scientists from Australian universities and agriculture departments, and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). Sometimes, projects have been led by a scientist from an international research institute or organisation. The research teams have been made up of scientists, often across several disciplines, from one to many Australian-based and partner-country agencies and organisations.
The scope and nature of the projects has evolved over time, with growing attention to how issues affecting smallholder farmers are interrelated. In the early days, projects tended to focus on a tightly defined technical problem, such as a particular plant or animal disease, practices affecting harvested produce, or access to good genetic stock. However, the projects also considered the economic and social aspects of the problem, and the solution.
Recognising that most agricultural problems usually have multiple and complex causes, project design involved an increasingly diverse range of stakeholders throughout the project cycle. This multidisciplinary approach has increasingly included value-chain specialists, gender specialists, climate change experts and policy experts working alongside technical experts.
Smallholder farmers, fishers and foresters, who are the beneficiaries of ACIAR investments, are also actively involved in projects, from helping to identify problems, to developing and testing solutions that work for them. The private sector and other members of civil society often contribute essential perspective and help projects deliver robust outcomes.
Flexibility and responsiveness have been a trademark of ACIAR. The project cycle has included a critical focus on monitoring, evaluating and learning. This informs continuous improvement, grows the knowledge base built by earlier projects, and provides evidence that Australia’s investment in agricultural research for development is making a difference.
The thing that strikes me most is that ACIAR has stayed true to the original objectives of basically supporting collaborative research projects between Australian and developing countries’ scientists on problems of mutual interest, and that has remained the driving force of the organisation. And secondly, the continuous revitalisation has meant that ACIAR has expanded the scope of its programs. It has included more cross-cutting areas, such as climate change and the environment, gender and diversity, sustainable agriculture and the role of agribusiness in agriculture.
Professor Gabrielle Persley AM
ACIAR Science Adviser and Research Program Coordinator (1982–1991)