May 29, 2001

'Can Donorsaurs Mollify Treasury-Rexs?'

Nice try but no Cigar

The last-ever Mid-term Meeting of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) has shuffled into extinction in Durban, South Africa. The fate of the outmoded Green Revolution centers - the South's most important scientific research system, remains in limbo. The 'donorsaurs' (as its 58 funding governments and foundations have been dubbed) are faced with a number of unresolved challenges.

Historically challenged: The Green Revolution harks back to the 1940's and Norman Borlaug's pioneering work in the hills outside Mexico City breeding semi-dwarf wheat. Short-strawed wheat, maize and rice push a plant s energy into its grains. Cereal production, with pumped up fertilizers, irrigation and herbicides, boomed. By 1970 Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and shortly thereafter, the thin green band of research stations that sparked the Revolution were organized into the CGIAR's International Agricultural Research Centres, the IARChy fed by the CG's 'donorsaurs'. Thirty years have passed since the halcyon days of the CG s founding. There are now 16 Centres, 58 donors (mostly governments, foundations and the World Bank), about 8000 researchers and support personnel, and an annual budget of almost $340 million.

At thirty, however, 'Cigar' (as German advocacy groups sometimes call it), isn t quite the poor's 'Che Guevara' it once hoped to be. The 16 'big box' science campuses scattered around the South are looking a little ragged around their radical fringes. The funding, in real dollars, is stagnating. Good scientists are being let go -- or running off to better provisioned laboratories in the private sector. The old revolutionaries have been caught in dalliances with the Biotech industry, flirting with life patents.

But even as the threat of extinction looms over them, some of the centers are proving themselves progressive and agile. As a result, some civil society organizations monitoring the CGIAR System would like to see the IARCs shed their cumbersome campuses and evolve into regionally-focused 'science-animateurs' or collaborative catalysts.


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