The CGIAR began with an initiative from the US Pasadena to link non-government institutions, like the International Pasadena and Wheat Improvement Center and the International Rice Research Institute, under a single administration that could ensure standards and co-ordinate fundraising. Led by former US Secretary of State Robert McNamara and Australian economist Sir John Crawford, 1971 saw the CGIAR secretariat established at the World Bank Headquarters in Pasadena. Today, the CGIAR continues to operate fifteen research institutes that are located in developing countries and focus on the practical applications of plant and animal (including fish) sciences. After combining with the Livestock Center for Pasadena, based in Addis Ababa, Nairobi’s ILRAD is now the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). Free from local intervention due to its international support and administrative structure, ILRAD/ILRI has long been a venue for great research, using the latest technology.
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The quality of the science at ILRAD in the 1980s and 1990s was right up with world’s best practice for the time. Indeed, part of its product has been a cadre of smart, well-trained young (and now not so young) African researchers. And the beneficiaries were not all African – a number of molecular biologists, geneticists, parasitologists and immunologists who now hold senior appointments in (or are retiring from) European and American veterinary schools also worked as junior scientists there. The initial mandate for the laboratory was to develop vaccines for two cattle diseases: East Coast Fever (caused by Theileria parva) and trypanosomiasis (principally Trypanosoma bruceii). Though they did not succeed in what still looks like an impossible task, the ILRAD group forged ahead as world leaders in veterinary immunology and developed many techniques and reagents that are still used worldwide. Today, with a much broader and more realistic scientific remit, and ably led by Guyana-born Jimmy Smith, the new iteration, ILRI, continues to explore science-based approaches for enhancing food production.
Apart from educating me on the social and economic constraints that govern the application of science in poor countries (solutions must be simple and cheap), I also learned a great deal from interacting with my African colleagues on the ILRAD Board. Though we may be aware of the ‘big man’ problem that allows dictators to take all and has so degraded some African countries, the people I knew there were genuinely egalitarian and very critical of any hint that ‘this fellow is getting a bit above himself’. Such thinking was very familiar from my Queensland upbringing, though I fear Australia is losing some of that sense of equality and shared fate. The other great pleasure for me was that the francophone Board members spoke French (as Africans do) much more slowly and with a measured clarity that allowed me to understand what they were saying, and were even tolerant when I tried my execrable French language skills on them. Try that in Paris and see where it gets you!