ACES investigators discuss opportunities and challenges of USAID-sponsored programs

November 17, 2016

Three ACES faculty who have collectively been awarded over $60 million from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) since 2010 talked about the unique opportunities and challenges associated with Feed the Future funding in a panel presentation sponsored by the ACES Office of International Programs.

The panel included Peter Goldsmith (Director Feed the Future Soybean Innovation Lab); Paul McNamara (Director Integrating Gender and Nutrition in Extension and Advisory Services and Strengthening Agriculture and Nutrition Extension in Malawi); and KC Ting (Co-PI of Appropriate Scale Mechanization Consortium).

Through the Feed the Future Program, USAID has increasingly emphasized research for international development in food and agriculture. As funding from USAID to universities and research institutes for work in food and agriculture has more than doubled between 2010 and 2015, ACES’ funding from this source has dramatically increased.

Alex Winter-Nelson, director of the Office of International Programs, introduced the speakers and noted that such funding opportunities are likely to continue under a new administration as the passage of the Global Food Security Act in July 2016 strongly supports funding at near current levels for the next two years.  However, as a funding agency, USAID differs in many ways from more common sponsors of academic research like the National Science Foundation or National Institute of Health. 

The presenters each described the opportunities provided by their ongoing projects as well as the challenges they have faced. They agreed that USAID-funded programs are seeking different results than what is typically valued in an academic environment. While academic research and publication can be made consistent with a USAID project, investigators must also demonstrate other types of outcomes. Indeed, outcomes not generally valued by the university may be extremely important to USAID.

The first investigator to speak was Prof. Pete Goldsmith, Director of the Soybean Innovation Lab (SIL). SIL is one of over 20 Feed the Future innovation labs that USAID funds as a mechanism for engaging with universities.  Dr. Goldsmith reminded faculty interested in competing for such funding, that even though USAID targets universities in the innovation labs, “[when applying to USAID] you are not designing projects with publications in mind.”

“USAID is not focused on peer-reviewed articles as significant outcomes; they want immediate and shorter term impacts. As a result, we have learned to balance their demands with our own scholarship expectations. They like to see a series of useful products coming out,” said Goldsmith who provides weekly updates on the Illinois-led tropical soybean project at: http://soybeaninnovationlab.illinois.edu.

Goldsmith also noted it is easy to overlook overhead and administrative costs when creating project budgets for USAID. He said, for example, he did not budget for communications staff, but soon learned he needed that support to disseminate project deliverables that are highly valued by USAID and critical to the development of the nascent soybean sector in Africa.

Next, Dr. KC Ting spoke about the Appropriate Scale Mechanization Project (ASMC) that is reducing labor and human drudgery and intensifying productivity to improve the quality of life of smallholder farmers around the world. ASMC is a subcontract from another USAID-funded innovation lab.

Dr. Ting emphasized it is important to find the right partners for work in the countries that USAID specifies for activities.

“We have partnered with a university in each focus country to create an information hub. These university hubs must be strong enough to enable the team to network with the rural communities, smallholders and entrepreneurs, NGOs, and faculty and students within the universities themselves. Because the ultimate goal is for these hubs to be self-sustainable.”

Dr. Ting admitted the funding provided is not always equal to the large effort these projects require and that he and his colleagues are instead driven by the opportunity to lead this important work and to showcase the abilities of the University of Illinois.

His team has made significant progress during the ASMC’s first year, performing household surveys and time and motion studies to identify the most time consuming and labor intensive tasks in all four locations.    

You can learn more about the ASMC project at: http://www.k-state.edu/siil/whatwedo/consortiums/mechanization/index.html.

The final presenter was Dr. Paul McNamara who leads multiple extension strengthening programs for USAID starting with the Modernizing Extension and Advisory Services (MEAS) project, which has provided improved services to 11,500,000 rural clients. The success of the MEAS project led to his team being awarded several other extension strengthening projects to reduce gender gaps and increase extension services in volatile areas of the world. Unlike the other two investigators, McNamara’s USAID funding is not through an innovation lab structure and has conditions that are less aligned to university priorities and processes.

McNamara’s programs have received tens of millions of dollars in sponsored projects, but he emphasized, his 18 member team was not funded by USAID to “do research” but literally to “make a difference on the ground.”  Expanding on this, McNamara warned those considering similar projects, “We are expected to produce a lot, reach a certain number of farmers, train a certain number of policy makers, have agents download a certain number of materials.” It is very different from a typical research grant.

He noted it has been important to listen to the funders very carefully, through weekly meetings, and to be able to adapt quickly. For example, if there is a drought in an area of the world in which the project is active, the project managers will expect a change in the content of the activities to be relevant to the changing conditions.  

McNamara related it is possible to conduct research as part of these projects. Indeed, the MEAS project generated 16 peer reviewed articles.  He has also been able to fund graduate students and their thesis research through these projects, but the work being done on the ground to achieve USAID’s development goals has to frame their research, not the other way around.

Find out more about the MEAS project and its associate awards at:  http://www.meas-extension.org/

Altogether, the three USAID projects reveal it is possible to blend international development work with academic research. But the research follows the development objectives, and pursuing development objectives is a difficult process that introduces challenges most researchers never have to face. But the opportunity to participate in real development and utilize one’s research to directly address problems of poverty and malnutrition in the here and now provides all the motivation a professor needs.  ACES scientists accept the burden of travel and reporting requirements and uncontrollable changes in circumstances among other things for the immeasurable reward of knowing their work is making a difference in people’s lives.


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