«Establishing common positions to convey in the international arena»

Article, 11.11.2013

Carmen Thoennissen looks back on Switzerland's three-year chairmanship of the European research platform EIARD.

Switzerland chaired the European Initiative for Agricultural Research for Development (EIARD) for three years from 2011-2013. This group, made up of the member states of the European Union, the European Commission, Switzerland and Norway, seeks to improve coordination at the European level to develop a common European stance which is then expressed in the international arena. Interview with EIARD chair Carmen Thoennissen from the SDC's Global Programme Food Security.

You have chaired the European Initiative for Agricultural Research for Development (EIARD) for three years. What is EIARD’s added value?
The meetings of the EIARD working group are our added value. These meetings are essential as they allow detailed discussion on topics related to our shared investments in agricultural research. On this basis we establish common European positions, which we then convey with one voice in the international arena through the global partnership for international agricultural research (CGIAR). This also helps to avoid never-ending debates within the CGIAR Fund Council. Given the accumulated value of European investment – which makes up more than 45% of the fund – these European positions can hardly be disregarded.

How would you evaluate your three years of chairmanship?
Very positively. When I accepted the chairmanship, I set myself a few challenges. For example, it was a particular concern of mine to get the members of this very heterogeneous group to work as a team. I also wanted to establish a mode of representation and transparent rotation of seats on the CGIAR Fund Council. Now that these three years are almost over, I'm pleased to see that my objectives have been achieved and even exceeded. My Norwegian successor will be in a good position to take up where I left off.

CGIAR is the most important international platform for agricultural research. It has undergone major restructuring in recent years. Did EIARD play a part in that?
Of course, EIARD was an advocate of the reform. We were closely involved and took part in the working groups that created the new CGIAR structures.

In a few words, how is CGIAR different now?
The aim of the reform was to get CGIAR to perform better. We wanted it to work on a larger scale in order to maximise its impact and to stop managing thousands of small, only vaguely coordinated research projects.
To do this, the fifteen CGIAR research centres – often organised around a single crop such as rice, potatoes, etc. – joined forces and established a consortium of centres. The donors were also grouped together. In the future it is planned that they will allocate the funds that are to be transferred to CGIAR to the sixteen thematic research programmes, which are based on a strategic result framework. At the moment, we are in a period of transition as only 43% of the CGIAR budget was managed in this way in 2012.

Agricultural research in Switzerland has a proven track record. Is Switzerland promoting a similar model for countries in the global south?
If developing countries had national agricultural research and rural advisory systems that were as effective and well-funded as our Agroscope stations and universities, CGIAR would be superfluous in its current role. Although the national research systems of China, Brazil and India perform highly, much remains to be done and to be funded in developing countries. New crop varieties do not just appear by magic!

CGIAR staff work closely with the national agricultural research systems in developing countries, supporting them in establishing research priorities, training staff, teaming up on specific research programmes, making CGIAR expertise available and providing access to partner universities. CGIAR staff also link up to development partners for the implementation of innovations and facilitate the development of suitable policies.