How a global network of autonomous agricultural research centers operates
Scientists are still puzzled over how a bumblebee flies, since its huge body and tiny wings defy the laws of aerodynamics. Similarly, the CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) appears to fly in the face of many traditional principles of management. This congeries of global research centers is still going strong 20 years after its founding, despite its rather loose and distant system of central management and coordination.
Consider the nature of the CGIAR:
It does not really exist in a formal sense. It has no constitution, by-laws, or written rules of procedure. Its decisions are made by consensus, following informal consultations among members (thus the name “Consultative Oroup”).
It has no direct authority over the international centers it supports. Each center is an autonomous legal entity. Thus, the CGIAR has no direct means of ensuring that its decisions are carried out by the centers it supports, though individual donors can reinforce the CGIAR’s decision by adjusting their funding.
Most of the research carried out by the centers is long term. Yet, their funding is guaranteed by donors for only a year at a time and it is often tied aid—about 40 percent is in the form of special project finance or has some other conditions attached by donors.
Each donor decides how individual centers are to be financed each year. There is no burden sharing, overhead, or contributions to a central fund. Each center competes every year against other institutions for funding from each donor.
Yet, the CGIAR is still functioning after 20 years. Why? It is a flexible and informal institution, and is much less bureaucratic than most international organizations. Its procedures can be changed quickly when they prove to be inappropriate. Although the CGIAR has no direct authority over the centers it supports, it has considerable influence over them, derived from their voluntary acceptance of decisions made by the Consultative Group. The boards of individual centers act as if they were formally accountable to the CGIAR. The CGIAR guides the centers’ boards, and its centralized oversight mechanisms (such as periodic assessment of each center’s programs and management by an international panel of experts) balance the autonomy enjoyed by the centers.
The short-term funding does produce uncertainty for the centers, thereby limiting their flexibility, but it fits well with the annual budgets of donor agencies. Most donors try to mimic long-term funding by providing assistance to a center several years in a row. In addition, the World Bank serves as a “donor of last resort,” filling in some of the funding gaps in center programs. While this introduces some distortion to the preferences of other donors, it strengthens the coherence of the CGIAR-wide research effort. Most donors like the fact that they make their own decisions about funding of individual centers, instead of having their funds pooled and allocated to the centers by a central authority. The informal consultative group mechanism provides nonbinding guidance to every donor about programs that deserve the donor’s support. For the centers, increased competition for donor financing means a push for more efficient research and related programs and better demonstration of their effectiveness.
A conceptual framework for examining the organizational performance of the CGIAR Centers
Thus, the CGIAR has unique structural features that, on the face of it, could produce inefficiencies but, instead, have helped make it a successful international venture. How has this been achieved?
Framework for management
The factors contributing to the centers’ and the system’s effectiveness can be studied with the aid of a conceptual framework (see chart) for analyzing organizational performance. This framework has been used as a template and checklist for conducting external management reviews of individual CGIAR centers. The model has five interrelated components, each focusing on an aspect of management: institutional guidance, management of resources, management of tasks, institutional environment, and management skills and teamwork. In addition, it includes four cross- cutting organizational attributes (adaptability, accountability, efficiency, and innovation) as derivatives of the five components. Taken together, these components and attributes help shape the overall performance of the organization.
Application of the preceding framework to the way in which the CGIAR functions yields the governance and management profile described below.
System guidance. The CGIAR reflects the values of the donors, who come together primarily because they share similar values about development and development assistance and the role of research in the development process. Changing values and priorities on development questions and their implications on the work of the centers are frequently discussed by the CGIAR. The recent changes in the CGIAR’s mandate to place greater priority on questions of environmental sustainability and to incorporate research in forestry, agroforestry, and fisheries reflect the adaptation of the system to changing development priorities.
The CGIAR has no separate governing body. It has been traditionally chaired by a senior official of the World Bank. The three cosponsoring organizations—the World Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)—jointly provide leadership for the network. The CGIAR’s Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) guides its technical work, while the CGIAR Secretariat handles financial and administrative matters.
Long-term plans are reflected in a priority and strategy statement that is modified about every five years after wide consultation with the CGIAR’s clients, partners, and donors. Overall, the CGIAR provides broad guidance to centers, leaving it to them to translate its advice into appropriate action according to their specific mission.
Management of resources. Since donors directly finance the work of research centers, the CGIAR has few resources at its disposal. These comprise primarily the staff in the Secretariat at the World Bank and the Technical Advisory Committee and its Secretariat at FAO. The Secretariat reports to the senior World Bank official who is the Chairman of CGIAR. Its expenses are covered by the Bank. The Bank and the other two cosponsors share the expenses of TAC and its Secretariat.
Management of tasks. The CGIAR relies on TAC and the CGIAR Secretariat for carrying out system-wide activities on its behalf. The CGIAR priorities and strategies are translated into medium-term and annual operational plans and proposals for the system by these units, based on submissions from all centers. In addition, these units manage the CGIAR’s external review process. This involves evaluation of each center’s programs and management at five-year intervals by an international panel of experts. In the intervening years, TAC and the CGIAR Secretariat monitor the centers’ program and management performance, respectively. In addition, from time to time, the CGIAR commissions reviews of the whole system. The last such review was conducted in 1981. The external review process helps provide the information necessary for central oversight. Committees and task forces are established by the CGIAR, as needed, to study specific subjects.
Governance of the centers
Most of the centers operate in very difficult sociopolitical environments. The high quality physical and administrative infrastructures that are often taken for granted in developed countries do not exist in most of the developing countries in which the centers operate. Despite these constraints, each center is expected to create and nurture an institutional environment that is highly conducive to innovation and creativity.
Each operates in a unique institutional milieu, faces different constraints, and has a different mandate, organizational culture, staff mix, funding pattern, organizational structure, and so on. This means that the formula for success in one center does not automatically apply to another. Still, some broad generalizations can be made about the management characteristics of the centers.
Center guidance. First, strong leaders have helped improve the overall management of individual centers in recent years. Second, the boards of trustees have begun to play a greater role in policymaking to supplement their traditional policy oversight role. Third, centers are increasingly preparing their strategic plans in close consultation with their clients and collaborators. This approach to strategic planning is likely to enhance the responsiveness of centers’ research agendas to the needs of their principal clients: national agricultural research systems in developing countries.
Management of resources. External reviews of the centers indicate that the centers have many first-rate scientists and administrators and good support staff. The centers encourage staff turnover, so that they can remain fully aware of recent developments in the relevant scientific disciplines as a result of induction of new and often younger international staff.
The centers have made considerable progress in improving their information management systems and procedures in recent years, by using new information technology. Progress in the management of human, financial, and physical resources has also been notable, but uneven across the centers.
Management of tasks. The centers manage their work through projects. They have a long-standing tradition of conducting annual internal reviews of their programs. Recently, they also began to conduct internal management reviews, commission peer reviews, and assess the impact of their activities. This recent emphasis on impact assessment, coupled with the new approach to strategic planning, is likely to enhance the relevance of the centers’ work. In addition, greater attention to increasing the centers’ innovation potential—by measures such as encouraging risk taking, allowing free time for scientists to foster creative thinking, insulating innovative activities from routine ones, and reducing administrative controls on staff teams working on innovative projects—can make a difference in their overall effectiveness.
Management skills and teamwork. The business of the centers requires strong interdisciplinary teamwork. The top 100 managers in the centers, including the directors, have completed an intensive management development program patterned after the World Bank’s program for its own managers.
Stakeholder relationships. The centers pay special attention to their relationships with host countries, donors, sister research institutions, and the CGIAR Their relationships with client national agricultural research institutions in developing countries have improved over the years, although tensions exist in some cases (relating, for instance, to competition for donor funds and to the need for better coordination of centers’ advice to national institutions).
The CGIAR and the centers it supports are now at an important crossroads. The system has recently been expanded from 13 to 17 centers in response to changes in donor priorities. This comes at a time when there is considerable financial uncertainty regarding funding for international agricultural research. Thus, the system faces a possibly serious mismatch between demand and supply of resources for CGIAR programs. In addition, the CGIAR is exploring alternative ways of restructuring its programs so as to be able to better serve its clients and integrate its various activities.
The CGIAR and its centers have been relatively successful in meeting such challenges in the past. But the current challenges appear much larger in magnitude than ever faced by the system. Will the CGIAR’s flexible and informal governance mechanisms enable the system to generate an appropriate response? Or, is the CGIAR’s “bumblebee” structure actually so clumsy that it can only lead to insignificant, marginal change?
The fact that it is carrying out a self-examination is a healthy sign for the CGIAR. This parallels the recently strengthened practice in the centers to conduct probing self-studies of their institutional strengths and weaknesses. When coupled with the strong signals being emitted by the donors regarding goals and directions for the system, these introspective practices are likely to generate the momentum for internal change that is necessary for the CGIAR system to continue to respond effectively and dynamically to changing circumstances.