Talking with Frank Rijsberman

Photo of Frank Rijsberman

Frank Rijsberman. Source: © 2012 M. Mitchell/IFPRI

Frank Rijsberman joined the CGIAR Consortium as CEO in May 2012. Previously, he was director of water, sanitation, and hygiene strategy at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. From 2000 to 2007 Rijsberman served as director general of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), one of the 15 CGIAR Consortium research centers. We asked him how he sees the role of the CGIAR Consortium in global food security.

CGIAR provides scientific and technical tools for agriculture in developing countries, but it’s often difficult for farmers to take advantage of these tools unless the right policies are in place. What role do you see for policy in CGIAR?

Policy is clearly very important. We have CGIAR Research Programs that are focused on commodity improvement, but we also have pro-grams that are focused on systems. And in those, we expect to get much closer to the delivery of innovations to the farmer. Developing partnerships will be critical—partnerships with national systems, agricultural research systems, but also in many cases with seed companies that can deliver improved varieties into the hands of farmers.

But of course once farmers have crops, they need to sell them. Farmers’ access to markets is critical. Countries have to help farmers by setting the right enabling environment—getting farmers access to inputs and investing in infrastructure that farmers need to have decent access to markets. IFPRI has, of course, been the key center that has provided policy advice to CGIAR, but also to countries.

After a long period of relative neglect, agriculture finally has the world’s attention. How can CGIAR take advantage of this moment?

Let’s first recognize that the reason agriculture almost fell off the agenda for several decades is, in a way, a response to our own success. The Green Revolution led to a period of relatively abundant food and low food prices. People started to believe that the problem was solved, and investments in agriculture became dangerously low. So the food price spikes of 2008–2011 were a very poignant reminder that food security is in fact the biggest challenge that humanity faces in the next few decades.

Now, food security is back on the agenda. There is new vigor, new investment in CGIAR. And that’s necessary if we want to double food crops in many areas—70 percent by 2050. We need a science- and technology-driven innovation engine for change in agriculture, in addition to other investments in policy, in infrastructure, and so on. CGIAR and its many partners—through a tightly focused portfolio—can help bring the engine of innovation back up to speed.
CGIAR is taking advantage of this, and the world is responding. The last few years have seen a large increase in support for agriculture, and for CGIAR. This year, our budget is expected to go up to about US$850–900 million, up from just US$400 million a few years ago. That means an opportunity for CGIAR centers and their partners to play their role. Of course it’s also their responsibility—they have to deliver.

Your experience gives you a good perspective on the role of private philanthropy in global food security. What are your thoughts on this role?

CGIAR has a history of close engagement with private philanthropic foundations. Many of the CGIAR centers were started by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, so we certainly know what an important role such foundations can play. More recently, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and others are playing a large role in CGIAR. These foundations are a bit more nimble than governments, so they can play a leading role in coming up with new ideas and then following through. They can prod CGIAR to change its ways. There are also quite a few foundations that we are not yet dealing with—in the environmental arena, for instance—and I believe we can build new partnerships with other players.

You’ve mentioned partnerships often—why are they so important?

We in CGIAR say that we’re good at developing partnerships, but there is a big gap between how good we think we are at partnerships and how good our partners say we are. Frankly I hear a lot of partners say that we stink at partnerships. That’s not good news. So we need to bridge this gap. This requires being very specific about what our partnerships mean: whether they are partners that work with us at the cutting edge of research, whether they are managing research jointly with us, whether we are building their capacity, or whether they are the kind of partners that we consult to make sure that we are delivering research against the demands of society. In a way we are a service industry, so the clients are king. It’s the partners’ perception that counts.