Collaborate, Create, Communicate

Finally, a CGIAR Reform Initiative with Legs

From the length and breadth of the CGIAR they came, communication experts eager to be reunited as a group and keen to examine collective possibilities together. Despite their obvious enthusiasm, though, many of them admitted to a certain cynicism about another item on their agenda: a dialog session with the Transition Management Team (TMT) charged with overseeing the revitalization of the CGIAR . Such was the mood as day two of the CGIAR Strategic Communications Workshop began in Penang, Malaysia.

All of the core members of the TMT were present at the meeting: Stephen Hall (CGIAR Alliance Executive Chair, Director General, WorldFish Center), Mark Holderness (Executive Director, Global Forum for Agricultural Research), Jonathan Wadsworth (Senior Agriculture Research Advisor, Department for International Development, UK), and Ren Wang (CGIAR Director).

Ren Wang got things underway with a brief overview of the strategic objectives of the new CGIAR. Then Ellen Wilson, Burness Communications, kicked off the Q&A session by asking the first question.

Who asked for this reform?
Jonathon Wadsworth: The call for change in the CGIAR was largely driven by a shift among key members of the donor community who feel that the CGIAR could and should do more but that the complexity of the current System undermines efficiency and effectiveness. Indeed, under the present System, donors are not harmonized and long-term funding is not guaranteed. Although the two previous CGIAR attempts at reform failed, the new change initiative is tackling these issues head on.

Ellen Wilson: “Is this a more profound reform, then?”

Jonathan Wadsworth: “It is the first one with legs. The other reforms were very academic and looked good on paper, but there was no real systematic follow-through.”

The floor was then turned over to the participants. The following are some of the questions and answers from that session:

What’s being eliminated from the old (present) CGIAR?
Jonathan Wadsworth: Some things in the present CGIAR will be replaced to make the System more efficient. The component parts that make up the CGIAR won’t necessarily change, but how they fit together will. Also, the way in which the CGIAR functions as a System needs to be streamlined and clearly defined.

Stephen Hall: There’s a leadership vacuum in the CGIAR: the whole notion of strategic leadership is missing. It’s not yet known exactly how the 15 Centers will fit together into a collective whole, but what is known is that by working together there will be less individual scrounging around for resources in the future.

Ren Wang: We are still developing the Consortium and don’t have all the answers. The ultimate goal of this reform or change is not to reduce the number of Centers, it’s to improve the competence of the System. The number of committees will be reduced; the reporting process for M&E will be more harmonized; and the accountability framework of the Fund and the System will be simplified.

What are the major risk factors that could possibly derail the change process?
Stephen Hall: Establishing the centralized Fund, a process that could affect cash flow at the Centers, obviously involves a certain amount of risk. However, the TMT is working to develop plans for the transition to ensure funding will not be disrupted while the new CGIAR becomes fully functional.

Scientists are not onboard, because the reform is not clear. How will they get their research funds?
Stephen Hall: We don’t even know the answer to that ourselves yet. We do know that we will ensure their work is not negatively affected by the transition and that a driver for the reform is to build a well-resourced and exciting research agenda that attracts and retains the best scientists in the world. As this becomes clearer and the reform changes start having a tangible impact on the research agenda, scientists will certainly be brought onboard.

What’s the partners’ take on the reform initiative?
Mark Holderness: The key risk is “business as usual.” Partners are not satisfied with the CGIAR’s impact or value when it comes to meeting partner demands. There are other players emerging, such as those in Brazil, India, and China, who are enabling national development outcomes. The CGIAR needs to recognize that there is a bigger game going on out there and it needs to be player. Partners want to see a CGIAR that is more open and more partnership-based; a System that focuses on development outcomes and not just technological fixes and research outcomes.

Are donors still behind the CGIAR despite the Financial Crisis?
Stephen Hall: The donors are expecting the CGIAR to change and if there isn’t change, regardless of a Financial Crisis, there may be some donors who will reconsider their funding position.

Jonathan Wadsworth: Several donors are sending out positive funding signs. During the Food Price Crisis before the Financial Crisis, world leaders committed to funding agriculture and doubling funding for the CGIAR. Meeting this ambitious target might be difficult during the Financial Crisis and may take longer, but CGIAR change is critical to strengthen the inflow of resources.

Won’t a more centralized structure stifle initiatives/research and create more bureaucracy?
Stephen Hall: Yes, if it’s not done well. But it’s not likely – that’s why we need leadership.

What about the role of communications in the new CGIAR?
Jonathan Wadsworth: Although the CGIAR has orphaned communications in some respects, people are increasingly aware of the crucial role it can play. At DfID, we’re doubling our spending on research across the board, with 20% allocated for communications.

Mark Holderness: The CGIAR has great potential for communicating what needs to be done and changed. Right now, communications are fragmented because most activities are carried out Center by Center. So we need to have a message on the role of international agricultural research – and there are some very important messages that need to go out. Let’s think big, otherwise, it’s not just the CGIAR that won’t get investments. The knee- jerk reaction to the Food Crisis has been seed and fertilizers, with not much focus on long-term needs.

Stephen Hall: When we talk about “the voice of the Consortium,” we are referring to communications.

What messages should we take to the Centers?
Stephen Hall: There’s a continuum or spectrum of expectation at the CGIAR Centers: there’s a wide range of people, some who care more and some who have interest in only specific aspects of the transition. We need communicators to help us figure out how to handle this divide.

We need to give real power to communications. It’s also okay to have doubts and not know everything.
Stephen Hall: We need a professional strategy for communications.

Jonathan Wadsworth: There seem to be issues with information sharing and communications across the System, with some information not flowing freely into Centers, which seem to be a bit Stone Age. The blockages to free access to information must be addressed.

Will WorldFish become a CGIAR office in Penang?
Stephen Hall: In terms of legal structure, it’s likely that WorldFish will continue as is. The Consortium will be “owned” by the Centers and be a single corporation driven by the Centers. It can be expected that the Center Boards will remain intact and the Directors General will likely go unchanged. Ideas on other structural changes will be considered later in the process, if appropriate.

Mark Holderness: Over time, the purpose of the Centers must be driven by their respective benefits, and we need to see how effective these institutions are. Centers need to be managed so they deliver according to their individual purposes.

At the end of the session, the participants came away with other questions that were in need of answers. Check back here to read one of the participant’s thoughts on this session, and find out what happened during a follow-up dialog the next day!