Q&A - INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT RESEARCH CENTRE
The questions below were sent to the International Research Development Center, the answers were provided by IDRC's Corporate Communications Division.
WaterToday - Most Canadians know little about the International Development Research
Centre (IDRC). What essentially distinguishes IDRC from other international
IDRC - A Crown corporation, we support leading thinkers who advance knowledge and solve practical development problems. We provide the resources, advice, and training they need to implement and share their solutions with those who need them most. In short, IDRC increases opportunities — and makes a real difference in people's lives.
Working with our development partners, we multiply the impact of our investment and bring innovations to more people in more countries around the world. We offer fellowships and awards to nurture a new generation of development leaders.
IDRC was established by an act of Canada's parliament in 1970 with a mandate "to initiate, encourage, support, and conduct research into the problems of the developing regions of the world and into the means for applying and adapting scientific, technical, and other knowledge to the economic and social advancement of those regions."
WaterToday - In 2020 the Crown corporation will celebrate its 50th anniversary. How
has the Corporation evolved over the years?
IDRC - Please see the document IDRC at 40: A brief history
NOTE: The highlights of this document can be found below.
The 1970s: Building credibility, gaining respect
An Act to Establish the International Development Research Centre passed Parliament unanimously — a rare occurrence — and received royal assent on May 13, 1970.
The institution that emerged was unique in terms of its objectives, structure, and operations.
IDRC was a Crown corporation, or parastatal, financed by appropriations made annually by the Canadian Parliament (with provision for funds from other agencies if that was considered desirable). Direction and control came from a board of 21 members, of whom only 11 needed to be Canadians; the remaining 10 positions ensured that the perspective and experience from developing and other countries were represented.
At its inaugural meeting in October 1970, the Board approved a defining statement that underscored IDRC's uniqueness and established its enduring philosophy and tone. Recognizing that developing countries might feel "aid weariness," IDRC pledged to work in collaboration with researchers in poor countries. These affiliations would be "founded on a confidence
that they, not we, are the best judges of what is relevant to their circumstances."
IDRC's prime focus was agriculture (including forestry and fisheries), food, and nutrition. A second priority was health and healthcare delivery, including water and sanitation. Because food issues were related to population pressures, a large part of this program's work was dedicated to the study of family planning.
The 1980s: Reflection and adaptation
At the end of IDRC's first decade, the global outlook was bleak. Soaring energy and food prices had delivered crippling blows to developing countries. Food production, while increasing, could barely keep pace with population growth. Health care and education continued to lag behind demand. Within Canada, meanwhile, the changing domestic political environment in which IDRC operated called for a reassessment of the Centre's operations.
The Centre set out to refine its evaluation mechanisms and its strategic planning. IDRC was one of the first development organizations, in fact, to undertake formal self-assessments:
it has since become a global leader in the field of evaluation.
And to ensure that maximum use was being made of the results of the research it supported - a body of knowledge unique in the development field - IDRC set out to engage with policymakers in developing countries to determine how this research could more effectively solve their problems.
The early 1980s saw a significant increase in the number of projects funded, as well as the launch of a special
program to encourage collaboration between research groups overseas and in Canada. The impetus came from the UN Conference on Science and Technology for Development. In fulfillment of a pledge Information and communication technologies foster learning
and improved livelihoods.
The Canadian government provided IDRC with additional funds to support this special program.
Following another UN conference in 1981 on new and renewable sources of energy, the Canadian government again asked IDRC to take responsibility for a program of research, this time on the energy problems of developing countries. Building on previous studies supported
by the Centre, the Board approved an expanded program of support for energy research, and established an international advisory body — the Energy Research Group — to guide the $10 million, four-year effort.
The 1990s: Innovation, communication, and Agenda 21
During much of the 1990s, the Canadian government's aid budget experienced a long decline as a result of the general fiscal crisis then facing Canada. IDRC was not spared. In company with many other federal agencies, it suffered several cuts to its resources and staff. Faced with diminished resources, the Centre rethought its program rationales and delivery mechanisms.
During the months leading up to its 20th anniversary, it conducted a comprehensive review to ensure its effectiveness and efficiency. The result was a new Board-approved strategy, “Empowerment through knowledge.” This blueprint stressed the need to address global and regional research issues, acquire additional funds from non-traditional sources, emphasize an interdisciplinary approach to research, and expand affiliations in both developed and developing regions. It also highlighted the need to ensure that the products of research are actually used, and to understand “what works” in development research.
IDRC's work during this period was heavily influenced by Agenda 21, the program that emerged from the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED, or the Earth Summit) held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.
At the conference, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney designated IDRC as Canada's “prime vehicle” for working with developing countries on implementing Agenda 21. This special assignment proved an excellent fit: concern for environmental issues had long been implicit in much of the research IDRC funded. Now, this concern became a responsibility. To better meet these goals, IDRC reoriented many of its program activities, and established new core themes, including food systems, biodiversity, health and environment, among others.
During the latter years of the decade, IDRC made great strides in the area of ICTs (information and communications technologies) for development, particularly in Africa. The proliferation of networks and program initiatives had highlighted the need for modern communication tools to help connect IDRC staff and research grantees.
As IDRC marked its quarter-century, it experienced its most dramatic and ambitious change to that date. In response to the 1995 cut in government funding for international development, IDRC not only downsized, but it sought to transform its own institutional structures and even the very manner in which research was conducted.
Traditionally, science has been organized around discrete academic disciplines—economics or chemistry or medicine, for example — that each in its own way seeks to address specific questions. In an increasingly complex and interconnected world, however, scientists began to acknowledge the limitations of such a monodisciplinary approach. IDRC proposed instead to institute a new method: first, define the development problem, then consider what combination of scientific disciplines can best come up with solutions — and implement them.
2000+ : Collaboration at home and abroad
At the turn of the millennium, IDRC increasingly focused on finding better ways to translate research resultsinto policy and practice — a goal reflected in its five-year plan. While remaining true to IDRC's key principles, this plan pointed in new directions, among them an emphasis on governance, an examination of the types of institutional environments that most effectively create knowledge for development, and greater attention to gender issues. Activities clustered around three broad fields of enquiry: environment and natural resource management; ICTs for development; and social and economic equity.
Always alert for new approaches to conducting applied research, in 2001 IDRC embarked on an "exploration, a program called Research on Knowledge Systems (RoKS). RoKS examined the institutional and policy frameworks governing the production of new knowledge, how knowledge fosters development, and the influence of knowledge on organizational performance.
IDRC's plan for 2005–2010 reflected the Centre's continuing efforts to refine its research directions and ensure their relevance to emerging development issues. The objectives it specified were: to strengthen and help mobilize the localresearch capacity of developing countries, to foster research that will influence public policies, and to rally additional Canadian resources in support of research.
WaterToday - Can you tell us about some of your most successful projects?
IDRC - Here are some of the projects highlighted in the IDRC at 40: A brief history
Food for the hungry
IDRC initially focused its agricultural support on subsistence food crops such as cassava, a daily staple for hundreds of millions of the world's poor. The cassava program, co-funded by CIDA, mobilized a network of global experts to pool their knowledge to find ways to combat diseases affecting this crop. In 1972, IDRC joined forces with the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Colombia to establish the Cassava Information Centre. This pioneering documentation service consolidated a database of global knowledge about cassava, making it easier for specialists to disseminate and share their findings. The outcome has s been, over the years, more food for the world's hungry.
Hunger and malnutrition are common in many parts of the world. During the years following World War II, research on new varieties of wheat, rice, and other crops brought the “green revolution” to Asia and Latin America. In 1971, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) was created to extend these victories through greater coordination and investment. CGIAR's worldwide alliance of governments, NGOs, and international research institutes is devoted to increasing food production in developing countries.
Traveling the information highway
IDRC was one of the first donor organizations to anticipate the” digital divide.” For instance, as early as 1995, it responded to requests from developing countries for help in establishing Internet connectivity. In Mongolia, IDRC introduced software and hardware to launch electronic networking services within the country and links with international systems. These services made use of satellite-based wireless Internet technologies, which proved well-suited to Mongolia's vast and sparsely populated land.
Employment equity for women
Concerns about the status of women employed in Argentina's public sector spurred IDRC-funded studies of work histories and public policies affecting occupational segregation. The research explored how informal practices combined with formal regulations can create working conditions disadvantageous to women.
Brokering consensus on resource management
People have often clashed over the natural resources they need forsurvival. For many years, IDRC supported research to help communities arrive at inclusive and equitable resource management decisions and institutions. For example, Bolivia's Cochabamba region had been troubled by a long-running “water war.” In 2002, a team of local researchers set out to draft a water management law that would be acceptable to all parties
WaterToday - IDRC's Strategic Plan 2015-2020 "Investing in Solutions" spells changes
for IDRC — perhaps most significantly that the Centre will focus its
programming in fewer areas, while pursuing its work in more ambitious ways,
so as to reach more people. Can you elaborate?
IDRC - As IDRC approaches its 50th year in 2020, the global context in which the Centre works continues to change. Development assistance is in transition as emerging economies play a more significant role, non-state actors are more active, and foreign, trade, and development policy are increasingly aligned. Demographics and the distribution of wealth are changing as urbanization and aging intensify, inequality continues to rise, middle income countries become home to the majority of the poor, and an increasing share of the poor live in failed and fragile states. A shift is also underway in how development takes place, with growing expectations on the part of citizens.
Through these changes, knowledge and innovation remain key drivers for improving people's lives in the developing world. IDRC has consistently invested in knowledge and solutions that have had lasting impacts. For example, IDRC was instrumental in the creation of the international agricultural research system, the transition to democracy in South Africa, the strengthening of economic policy in Africa, and the improvement of health outcomes in East Africa and Southeast Asia. These investments, reflecting Canadian values and interests, have also benefitted Canada, resulting in new opportunities for Canadians and advancing foreign affairs and trade priorities.
WaterToday - The document uses the terms "big impact, scalable, large-scale positive
change" repeatedly. What are the lessons learned that have
led to this emphasis on scale?
IDRC - IDRC scales up promising research that has been piloted in order to effectively reach greater numbers of people. Here are two examples:
WaterToday - How are projects chosen and funded?
Throughout the year, IDRC programs issue competitive calls for concept notes and proposals for research funding. We look for innovative proposals with the potential to be scaled up to improve more lives in developing countries. For more information, here
WaterToday - It is IDRC's mandate to work within Canada's interests and values; clean
energy and climate change' are at the forefront of these. Can you tell us
about your initiatives in this sector?
IDRC - IDRC's Climate Change program supports partnerships and networks that build evidence for solutions and the use of technology to generate social and economic gains and guard against future climate impacts.
The program has three priorities:
IDRC recognized, early on, that a warming climate threatens not just the physical environment, but human development too. The people bearing the heaviest burdens from climate-related impacts — for example, desertification, erosion, and rising sea levels — have often been the poor and the marginalized.
- Generate new knowledge and inform policy in hotspots vulnerable to climate change
- Increase the resilience of small and medium-sized cities to climate change paying particular attention to reducing the vulnerability of women; and
- Facilitate the financing of climate adaptation strategies, especially from private sources.
In Africa, widespread poverty, fragile ecosystems, weak institutions, and other issues compound the effects of climate change. For millions of people, food and water security, livelihoods, shelter, and health are all at risk.
In 2006, IDRC partnered with the United Kingdom's Department for International Development to launch an ambitious six-year research program called Climate Change Adaptation in Africa (CCAA). As of 2011, this groundbreaking effort had funded 46 projects in 33 countries across the continent.
The initiative has sought to build a broad base of African expertise on climate adaptation. It has helped make the continent less vulnerable to the changes that are already underway — by involving communities directly, by informing policy with high-quality research, and by strengthening African scientists, decision-makers, and organizations in their work on adaptation.
For more information on IDRC climate-related projects, please click on links below:
IDRC on climate change adaptation
Water, energy, and climate change: what's the link?
New pathways to resilience
WaterToday - How does a Canadian private sector innovator have access to your
IDRC - A private sector innovator may read about all of our programs on the IDRC website and if there is a research idea that they would like to pursue with IDRC they can submit the unsolicited concept notes form available here.
WaterToday - The emphasis in recent years seems to be on Partnerships with large
players - foundations, government agencies, - can you explain the reasoning
behind this? How has this affected IDRC's vision?
IDRC - Today, IDRC is broadening our growing partnership base and brokering new relationships with the private sector, philanthropic organizations, and public funding institutions such as granting councils and aid agencies in the developing world. Our goal is to be a partner of choice, working with organizations from all sectors, to improve lives and livelihoods in developing countries.
There are no borders when it comes to issues like climate change, infectious disease, poverty, and instability. In today's world, the challenges facing developing countries affect us all. Meeting these challenges calls for a global response that mobilizes research partners everywhere. When we pool our efforts, we generate powerful ideas, multiply resources, increase impact, and strengthen local capacity.
WaterToday - What challenges do you foresee in the upcoming years?
IDRC - Success in carrying out IDRC's strategic plan will rely on IDRC's continued ability to learn and adapt. As the context in which the Centre works continues to change, and as experience working toward the strategic objectives is built, the Centre must remain nimble and adaptable.
Commissionner for the Environment - Julie Gelfand
Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr
Indigenous and Northern Affairs
Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation
Ministry of Environment and Climate Change, with input from Finance, Transport and Agriculture Canada