98 – Agricultural research for the poor

Earlier this month, I was rubbing shoulders with people who rub shoulders with the two richest men in the world, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, at an event that was about helping the poorest people in the world.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a mind bogglingly large charitable foundation, with about US$30 billion of Bill’s money, which will also spend another US$30 billion contributed by the world’s second richest man, Warren Buffet. It has been interesting to learn something about the way that these (and other) extraordinarily rich Americans have embraced philanthropy. I’ve no idea how they live their lives, but even if they indulged in the most lavish of lifestyles, and made the most generous provisions for their offspring, they obviously could only use up a tiny fraction of their billions, so they’ve decided to spend most of it on helping others who are in need. It is really rather inspiring, and perhaps might eventually do something to improve the USA’s tarnished international reputation.

The Gates Foundation has three programs: one focused on education for disadvantaged Americans, one on global health which combines practical assistance and medical research, and one on global poverty and hunger, including agricultural research to benefit the poor.

I was privileged to be to be invited to attend three days of meetings in Minneapolis related to the agricultural research program.

The Foundation plans to spend a lot of money on agricultural research in Africa and South Asia. The big and very tricky question is, how to spend it to generate the greatest benefits. They have engaged Phil Pardey at the University of Minnesota and Stan Wood at the International Food Policy Research Institute to undertake a project called HarvestChoice to help them with this question.

A small group of scientists and economists spent a day discussing how to tackle the required analysis, especially in the area of biotic constraints to agricultural production (pest insects, diseases and weeds). It was a very interesting and fruitful discussion, and it resulted in a clear direction for the team doing this aspect of the analysis.

For obvious reasons, given the nature of his core business, Bill Gates is also interested in whether there are key information gaps, the filling of which could make a substantial difference to the poor. His Foundation asked Stan and Phil to convene a Roundtable meeting of about 40 experts of many different types to discuss what the opportunities might be, and I participated in that meeting too.

I must admit that I felt a bit out of my depth at times, in a room full of people with so much knowledge and experience in attempting to assist the poor in developing countries. The discussions at the meeting were an interesting mix of pessimism and optimism. The discussions reinforced how how very difficult it is to make a real difference given the range of factors stacked against the very poor.

On the other hand, people did feel that there were a number of areas where it may be worth investing in creation, collection or collation of new information. I don’t think there was enough consideration of exactly how they will make a difference, and this was reinforced by the Gates Foundation representative who was at the meeting, but it was a good start.

I really hope that both initiatives can meet their aspirations and deal with the substantial challenges they face.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

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