5 Responses

  1. Stephen Howes
    Stephen Howes February 26, 2013 at 5:12 pm

    Ray and Bob, Thanks for your comments. I’ve been away in PNG, hence the delayed response.

    I can see now Ray that our remarks might be read as implying that ACIAR relies only on Australian researchers. I fully accept, and have long understood, that it follows a collaborative model linking Australian and developing country researchers. I agree we should have been clearer on this, so thanks for bringing that out.

    My question remains though: why should always be a requirement of involvement from some Australian institute? Perhaps the best project might involve bringing together an American and an Indonesian institute. To mandate Australian involvement smacks of protectionism. Lots of countries use protectionist arguments, especially post-GFC. That doesn’t mean we should.

    I’m glad that Bob agrees with me on this, but I also accept that it is an open question how much difference it would make. My question for Bob is this: If ACIAR has been spasmodic in promoting adoption, how does it get such high rates of return?

  2. Bob Warner
    Bob Warner February 13, 2013 at 11:33 am

    Maybe it’s a platypus.

    Stephen Howes and Robin Davies argue that ACIAR is neither fish nor fowl, and it should align itself much more with accepted good aid practice. But I wonder if the starting point ought to be whether ACIAR’s assistance is doing any good, seeing which aspects of its operations drive outcomes, and then ask if its approach could lead to improvements. And maybe we would end up concluding it’s a platypus well adapted to the rather unique environment it has to live in. (Of course, we might not, but judge first on outcomes rather than process.)

    ACIAR has a pretty strong commitment to rigorous quantitative evaluations, with methodologies develop and reviewed by the world’s best authorities.There are issues with these evaluations, of course – while they are done after projects have been completed, they are usually undertaken before all actual outcomes have been realised, – so amongst other things evaluators have to make judgments about adoption – which is the critical variable. And in the past, it wasn’t always clear that evaluations were consistently used to learn lessons: rather more to demonstrate that there were enough high return projects to justify the overall investment in ACIAR. But that is what the evaluations do show: and we don’t have similar numbers for many other parts of the aid program.

    Howes and Davies are right to target the problem with requiring demonstration of benefits to Australia. But most agricultural research activities are publicly funded, often with contributions from levies on Australian producers and, at least in the past, involving researchers employed in state government agencies. One can imagine that the adoption of the ‘Australian benefit’ doctrine was designed to help navigate the political challenge of using knowledge and skills developed to support Australian agriculture to help potential competitors. The time is probably ripe to jettison this requirement: but it might also be worth asking if it actually made much difference to what ACIAR did and how it did it.

    The biggest problem facing ACIAR, and Howes and Davies identify it, is that adoption is the critical variable, and ACIAR has been a bit spasmodic in its attempts to understand the contextual drivers of uptake of agricultural technology. It had a go with its Policy Linkages and Impact Assessment Program, but that was not sufficiently embedded in its project development systems. One might have hoped that collaboration with AusAID or other development agencies might have been integrated into projects to help fill this need: but that doesn’t seem to have occurred. To my mind, if ACIAR is to continue to operate, this is the issue it most needs to come to grips with.

  3. Stephen Howes
    Stephen Howes February 3, 2013 at 11:37 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Ray, but I must say that I couldn’t find the errors you identified, and nor do I think we wrote from a narrow (let alone an AusAID) perspective.

    Unfortunately, you make an error by saying we suggest “the mutual benefits rationale” is important “over” development. What we say is that ACIAR adopts a mutual benefits rationale (that projects should benefit both the developing country and Australia). It does this so often and so pervasively that I thought it was in its legislation. It isn’t. ACIAR is the only part of the aid program required to justify its spending in part in terms of benefits of commercial benefits to Australia. That’s unfortunate. Downer dropped the commercial objective back in 1996. ACIAR should catch up with the rest of the aid program. This is not to say that some projects won’t have commercial benefits. But it shouldn’t be the objective.

    Second, I take it you think ACIAR should continue to require the involvement of Australian researchers in all its programs. Again, the rest of the aid program has made, not complete, but considerable progress in terms of untying over the last 15 years. As we say, there are good arguments for continuing to link to Australian researchers. And there are certainly good arguments for encouraging collaborative approaches, as you show. But there are also good arguments for, as we put it, “encouraging ACIAR to seek out the best researchers wherever they are, rather than the best Australian researchers. For example, ACIAR might open a competitive funding window which would be available to researchers worldwide.” I’m surprised you implicitly dismiss this argument without considering it directly. Think of AusAID’s ADRA: the best Australians compete against the best from other countries for the Australian development research dollar.

    As you have pointed out, there are lots of good Australian agricultural economists, and there are no doubt many good Australian agricultural scientists as well. They should do well in a competitive process.

    In summary, requiring ACIAR projects to provide commercial benefits and tying all projects to the involvement of Australian researchers are unfortunate, and one might say narrowing, or even protectionist, features of ACIAR’s work. That was the argument of our submission, and I don’t see anything in your response which convinces me that we were wrong.

    None of this is to argue that ACIAR does not do good work, or that AusAID is somehow better. I have more than once argued for more funding for ACIAR. But the aim of the Farmer Review is to look at what can be improved, and that was the focus of our submission and post.

    Thanks again for your response. I’d be interested to hear what others think.


    1. Ray Trewin
      Ray Trewin February 7, 2013 at 9:22 pm

      Hi Stephen,
      Thought your response was worth a quick reply though a chat over a coffee might be more effective.
      The most evident error in your blog, which I thought was clear even from my rushed response, is that Australians need not be involved in all ACIAR funded projects. And I am not sure how a competitive process would ensure the involvement of the limited best developing country researchers as ACIAR projects have.
      On the benefits question, which I said flow automatically from the collaborative model, recently taken up in AusAID’s recent AIP Program, this is appearing in the UK aid debate at the moment. The position to not cut aid whilst domestic programs are being cut is being defended on the grounds that such aid delivers the socio-economic benefits to the UK that ACIAR requires to be estimated ex ante in its projects for all countries and formally measured by independent assessors ex post.
      Best regards

  4. Ray Trewin
    Ray Trewin January 31, 2013 at 8:57 pm

    An interesting post but written I feel from a narrow AusAID perspective and with errors.

    I was a bit confused by the suggested importance of the mutual benefits rationale over development ones in ACIAR dealings that was mentioned in the summary as I have never found this the case. Your stated estimate that only 10% of the benefits are Australian (which presumably would not change with a revision of the 50:1 rate of return which new research estimates at around a respectable 30:1) would suggest developing countries benefits dominate.

    It is hard to imagine how a standard ACIAR project would not deliver some mutual benefits given the underlying characteristics, especially the collaborative model which, unlike some other agencies, ensures the project is not made up completely of Australian consultants flying into a developing country and out with a report reflecting little collaboration with local researchers. The collaborative model of ensures the direct involvement of developing country research institutions and that all the researchers are not Australian. Often the Commissioned agency is one of the expensive CGIAR centres mentioned with any Australian involvement a minor component. The collaborating developing country institutions are free to involve non-Australian expertise from their funds and many have, along with other research agencies, NGOs, and private companies. Some of the developing country researchers involved have been amongst the world’s best and some have end up as government Ministers, or Chief Economists or candidates for heading up international agencies. The Australian collaborating institutions often involve foreign students studying for Australian PhDs within the project as part of the capacity building objective; another mutual benefit that provides greater incentives for a successful project which is not a bad thing as Adam Smith would have said.

    And what is wrong with many Australian researchers in this area? Australians have punched above their weight in the administration of international agencies despite quotas and in the more recognised work of the professional journals. Many of the people concerned have had connections with the ANU and the Crawford School in its various guises like Sir John Crawford, Ross Garnaut, Ron Duncan, Stuart Harris, Kym Anderson, John Freebairn and Peter Warr to name a few. This relatively high representation reflects what might be expected of a country with a high comparative advantage in agriculture and large agricultural-related institutions, including those involved in research such ABARES, parts CSIRO and the PC, and equivalent state agencies.

    Finally, all ACIAR project proposals have more or less from the outset included an ex ante impact assessment and many completed projects undergo a formal ex post one, the benefits of which in terms justifying its existence have been well understood long before some other agencies.

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