Carlos Pérez del Castillo: Business unusual for CGIAR

Carlos Perez del Castillo
Carlos Perez del Castillo

Carlos Pérez del Castillo is from Uruguay. He is the Chair of the Consortium Board, which governs the CGIAR, the global partnership of research and development centers that work together for poverty alleviation, of which IITA is only one of 15 centers.

He is also an independent international consultant involved in various assignments with governments, private sector, and international organizations.

In July, he visited IITA accompanied by CGIAR Consortium Chief Executive Officer, Frank Rijsberman; the new IITA Board Chair, Dr Bruce Coulman; and the Directors General of Africa Rice, Dr Papa Seck, and the International Livestock Research Institute, Dr Jimmy Smith.

In this interview, he talks about the new partnerships that is the CGIAR, its one-strategy approach, and IITA’s role in the scheme of things.

How far has this visit to IITA met your expectations?
I am leaving with a feeling of enrichment, with a much better knowledge of the work you are doing here. I am also leaving with a sense of reassurance with regard to the support that IITA is willing to give to the reform. It has very much to do with identifying priorities that need to be met in the short run. I think it was a very useful visit.
We were able to talk to the scientists to see the good quality science they are doing in various fields, the degree of engagement, commitment, and passion they have for their work. We were quite happy with the visit.

How prepared is the new CGIAR to tackle food insecurity as we approach 2050?
Let me put it the other way round: if we were stuck with the former way of doing research with 15 centers acting independently with different mandates, we would have never been able to tackle the challenges effectively. At the moment, we have several new challenges, which required a new approach and which also required institutional and governance changes and those are exactly what we are doing.

The new approach is one strategy for all the centers, collective action among them so that people who are working on crop improvement will do research that is integrated with those who are working on natural resource management, public policies, and institutions. And we are also giving a higher degree than in the past to partnerships because we are convinced that research will produce international public goods but unless they are picked up by the national research institutions, universities, and farmer organizations, etc., we will not have impact on the ground.

Therefore, I think that research will certainly be part of the solution to the challenges on poverty, world food insecurity, resource management… probably not the whole solution but I am sure that agricultural research is very much needed to meet these challenges whether it is climate change, food price volatility, energy—food crops being diverted to biofuels— and feeding the growing population. We are going to have 9 billion people by 2050 and we have less water and degraded lands, fish stock depletion, so we need to find ways and means of doing business differently, and we are doing that in the CRPs.

What role do you see for IITA in achieving these goals?
IITA has embarked on and will be leading one program on production systems that should be given much greater attention than in the past. In the past, most of the research was centered around commodities or natural resource managemen, but I think that this production systems approach—bringing together all the resources from different centers—is likely to make an impact on the livelihood of the poor in different ecosystems and obviously, this is a new thing.

I think that IITA, by having this program approved and leading it, will certainly bring the number of solutions that couldn’t be achieved on an individual mandate. So, IITA has a very important role to play. IITA is also playing a role in other CRPs, not only on production systems. I believe that this is the most important one.

Infrastructure is important to research. Is there any plan to upgrade the current infrastructure that will tackle tomorrow’s challenges?
The question of infrastructure is very much in our agenda. Part of these demands can be met through the overheads in the CRPs; part will require additional attention. This is why at the moment we have a working group looking at the needs, the situation, and the cost of the infrastructure in the different centers. Once we have these and we know exactly what the needs and the costs are, then we also need to think of the cost of these needs in the future.

In the past, we were replicating the same type of things in different centers. There may be economies of scale in doing these in one ore two centers rather than having them in all… so we are looking into this; we are presenting a proposal to donors. We have to do it in an intelligent manner and think of the needs of the future to be successful.

What message do you have for IITA staff?
The message to staff is one of reassurance that we in the Consortium are working for their interest. I think in the last few years, there has been a lot of misconception as to our role, our contribution, and our complementarities. Having spoken to the scientists and staff at IITA and seeing the way they work, I can reassure you that what we are striving for—on the one hand, obtaining more finance for the work they do, and on the other hand, cutting down on reporting requirements, which absorb a high percentage of their time instead of emphasizing and putting all their efforts in quality research—would be met.

I think the reform will be much in the interest of all the centers. I don’t think that finance at the end of the day will be a major constraint if we produce value for money. And this is exactly what I would recommend them to work for—very clear outcomes that can be measured, and I reassure them that we will be supporting them in this task.