Australia's Foreign Minister Julie Bishop (center) launches ACIAR's ten year strategy at Parliament House, Canberra, on February 26. Photo by: Lisa Cornish / Devex

CANBERRA — For 36 years, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research has been what Foreign Minister Julie Bishop called the “quiet achiever within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.”

Operating as an independent statutory authority within Australia’s foreign affairs portfolio and reporting directly to the foreign minister, ACIAR has spent more than three decades brokering and funding agricultural research partnerships between Australian research organizations and governments, research institutes and the private sector in partner countries.

“ACIAR is results driven, and today we celebrate and showcase a long of history of achievement,” Bishop said in launching ACIAR’s new 10-year strategy at Parliament House in Canberra on Feb. 26. “I’m am very proud that ACIAR, having achieved so much over 36 years, is now looking to the next decade of achievement.”

Currently, ACIAR’s high-level strategic objectives are poverty reduction and building scientific capacity in partner countries. Over the next decade, it will also focus on improving environmental sustainability, enhancing nutrition and health in the region, empowering women and girls, and linking producers to markets — including regional and global supply chains.

“I have no doubt that they will be able to embrace and enhance these further goals,” Bishop said.

Don Heatley, ACIAR’s commission chair, explained at the strategy launch that stories of ACIAR and its impacts have been largely unknown, with the foreign minister largely the sole recipient of the stories highlighting ACIAR’s impact. Even the former minister for agriculture and — until recently — deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, saw little value in the work of the organization that he considered to be taking money from Australian farmers. But even when the Australian aid budget was heavily diverted, Heatley said Bishop stood with her “back to the wall and defended ACIAR magnificently.”

And in achieving their new objectives, they will need to move beyond the status of quiet achiever by better engaging strategic partners and having a greater public profile.

Key highlights from ACIAR’s 10-year strategy

The new strategic plan for ACIAR aligns them more closely with objectives of Australia’s foreign policy, as outlined in the Foreign Policy White Paper released in November last year creating a blueprint for international engagement. But it also aligns with the health objectives Australia’s aid program aims to achieve through the establishment of the Indo-Pacific Centre for Health Security. Greater collaboration with innovationXchange to bring innovative ideas and approaches to the work of ACIAR was also highlighted.

Although only 2.5 percent of Australia’s aid budget goes to ACIAR, Chief Executive Officer Andrew Campbell said he wanted to inform DFAT’s 97.5 percent.

But beyond developing better partnerships with various arms of Australia’s aid program, the new strategy aims to make ACIAR more effective in its investments to tackle multifaceted challenges in food security, nutrition, and regional security as a whole which will require a range of new partnerships including with the private sector.

How ACIAR’s high-level objective translates into programs on the ground is still under discussion, with ACIAR keen not to stretch themselves too thin. But within the organization itself there will be restructures, reallocation of resources, improved project management and reporting systems as well as consolidation of 13 research programs to 10 — enabling ACIAR to improve capacity and make a greater impact in the region. And a new chief scientist position, along with new roles for associate researchers for nutrition, gender, and climate aim to help tackle food security as part of a wider ACIAR framework.

Within their 36 partner countries, ACIAR will invest strategically to improve research and policy capability — including funding postgraduate and professional scholarships linked to programs, training and mentoring through the Crawford Fund, and an improved alumni network managed by ACIAR’s 10 country offices — including in Beijing, Jakarta, and Nairobi — will increase the sharing of scientific knowledge within countries.

And communications will be a major part of the strategy and lives of ACIAR moving forward to communicate “better, stronger, far and wide”, according to Heatley.

Turning strategy into action

Speaking with Devex, Campbell explained that the development of the strategy was a 12-month process including wide consultation. But now that it is out, the hard part begins.

“The tricky bits for us, when it comes to implementation, are dealing with the questions of how far you go down the nutrition angle,” he said. “Everyone in ACIAR is very comfortable in a farmer’s paddock and increasing yields. But what is our role in nutrition?”

“I was in the Pacific, and one of the agricultural ministers in the region got up and said, ‘I don’t like the Coca-Cola billboards at the airport. I don’t like McDonald’s funding school sports.’ But this is a challenge for government and is clearly not our job in agricultural research to go that far down into the public health area.”

Identifying the boundary line between the work of ACIAR and the work of partners, including DFAT or partner governments, is something that may be a work in progress as they identify their best position in a wider aid program.

“We can’t just be about producing more in the paddock because there are other problems we also need to respond to,” Campbell continued. “It’s clear that things like biofortification, including new varieties of rice that are high in zinc, are absolutely in scope for us. But how much further do we go down into epidemiology and public health. That will be something we will be working out as we go.”

Better engagement in Australian aid

The nature of research is often difficult to turn into aid policy. But as Campbell explained, the strategic objectives mean there must be more engagement with DFAT to ensure they are well informed of the policy and program potential of their work.

“Ensuring we are talking to them early is important,” Campbell said. “If we’ve got a research project that we think is going pretty well, and it’s coming up with interesting findings that we think need to be taken to scale, DFAT needs a couple of years notice to build that into their aid investment plan. And it’s no good us coming along when the research is complete and saying they should be working more in this area — we don’t start up our research projects instantly and they can’t start up theirs. So we need to be having them along on the journey a bit more so they can be thinking of initiatives from this.”

Engaging with the Indo-Pacific Centre for Health Security may better identify ACIAR’s role in the health aspect. At the 2018 Australiasian Aid conference, the center’s head Robin Davies identified the importance of more work into animal health as an area of growing priority — a strategy Campbell is keen to see ACIAR support.

“The next pandemic will most certainly start on farms,” he said. “So that is the other dimension to it — as well as food safety.”

And engagement with Davies and his center as well as DFAT will identify the role ACIAR can play in other serious regional health issues such as childhood stunting.

“We want to have Australian Inc. tackling nutrition in Timor-Leste and do a real collaboration across public health, biosecurity, agricultural production, and more,” Campbell said. “That is the sort of project I would like to do and that’s what will create a more integrated approach with gender, natural resources, human health and nutrition, all being part of the mix and not just growing more crop.”

Changing reporting structures

The new strategic goals and improved visibility of ACIAR brings with it new reporting requirements, which include aligning with DFAT’s reporting requirements.

“But it’s more than that,” Campbell said. “Our reporting is currently driven at the project level and we are really good at that. But when someone asks what we are doing about gender, we have to go project by project to pull out the gender bits. And it is really clunky.

“With new six high-level objectives we are going to have a system under them which says what we are doing about climate and water, gender, nutrition, and food security. And being able to report better against those which then lines up with the ODA [official development assistance] framework and the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals].”

This will mean projects funded by ACIAR will have a new reporting structure that allows improved capability to report at a thematic level.

“When we have a gender person working across the whole portfolio, an emissions person or nutrition person, that will be part of their responsibility to establish the right framework so information can bubble up,” Campbell said.

The CEO’s role under the new strategy

With internal structures changing under the new strategy, Campbell has created an environment where he has fewer people reporting directly to him, and more time to engage stakeholders and build upon ACIAR’s strategic goals.

“I’m going around to each state capital and using the networks of the Crawford Fund and our research partners, writing blogs and using other channels to communicate our message,” he said. “Some of our outreach is targeted at the general public, but I just want the people inside the parliamentary triangle to understand the uniqueness of the role we play and the importance of this type of aid and the value of this type of aid, and our key partners to be knowing that ACIAR is on a different track now.”

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.