Make that 20,001

I enjoy reading. I enjoy writing. I enjoy how words are used by different authors. I’m always inspired when I pick up a book and find the narrative so easy to follow. Some authors just have the knack. As I mentioned in one blog post I wrote in May 2012, I’ve given up on a book on very few occasions just because I found the text such hard going.

I guess we use the same words day in, day out. And that got me thinking, in light of what happened yesterday. It seems that most English speakers have an active vocabulary (words they use regularly) of about 20-25,000.

Well, mine increased by ONE yesterday!

I’ve just completed an excellent biography of American Civil War General (and 18th POTUS) Ulysses S Grant. And there, on page 501 (of 718) I came across a word I’d never seen before and had no idea of its meaning.

Eleemosynary? Whatever does that refer to? It doesn’t roll off the tongue.

This was the context, describing Grant’s attempts (as President) to reform the Interior Department’s management of Indian relations, by putting Quakers in charge in about half of the western agencies: On these reservations the Indians would govern themselves, albeit with advice and instruction in the ways of white civilization from the Quakers and others of an educational and eleemosynary bent.

I had to reach for the dictionary.

Pretentious? Maybe. I posted a comment on Facebook and one of my friends mentioned that he’d used the adjective in an essay written when he was in high school. And was marked down for doing so!

Words also change in usage over time, or between different ‘branches’ of the English language. For anyone interested in the language I can’t recommend too highly David Crystal’s The Stories of English.

I came across an interesting difference in Brands’s biography of Grant. He was actually quoting from a letter that Grant had written about politicians in the South. He used the word irresponsible.

In the strict sense we use this word adjectivally of a person, attitude, or action not showing a proper sense of responsibility. But in modern British usage it’s perhaps more commonly used to describe a person or action as reckless, rash, careless, thoughtless, incautious, unwise, imprudent, ill-advised, ill-considered, injudicious, misguided, heedless, unheeding, inattentive, hasty, overhasty, precipitate, precipitous, wild, foolhardy, impetuous, impulsive, daredevil, devil-may-care, hot-headed, negligent, delinquent, neglectful, or remiss.

But the late 19th century usage (in the United States) and perhaps still today describes someone not answerable to higher authority (from the Merriam-Webster dictionary).

I doubt I’ll be using eleemosynary any time soon in my writing or conversation; it’s probably not even a party stopper. But, as I approach my 70th birthday, who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?

 

Sometimes, history just passes me by . . . particularly in Ohio

William Tecumseh Sherman. Red-haired. Union Major-General in the American Civil War. Outstanding military strategist. Commander of the Army of the Tennessee. Mastermind of the March to the Sea (that culminated in the capture of Savannah, GA) and the Carolinas Campaign, both of which contributed significantly to the end of the Civil War in 1865.

Born in 1820, Sherman was a native of Lancaster, Ohio (map). I wish I’d known that just a few weeks ago.

As Steph and I crossed Ohio on our road trip from Massachusetts to Minnesota, we passed through Lancaster on the route I’d planned from Canton, OH to Bloomington, IN. I do recall saying to Steph how prosperous it looked compared to others.

I only learned of the Sherman connection from a biography that I’m reading right now¹, and which I picked up at my favorite bookstore in St Paul, Half Price Books on Ford Parkway in the Highland Park area. This year I added three more to my American Civil War collection.

I could have made the Sherman connection in Lancaster had I looked in my rear-view mirror at the right moment, but I was too intent on following the sat nav instructions.  There, on a west-facing wall on Main Street (we were heading west) is a full height mural of Sherman. I didn’t see it, more’s the pity. I would have stopped to explore further.

During the first part of our 2017 USA road trip, from Atlanta, GA (which Sherman ransacked in 1864) to Savannah, our route more or less mirrored Sherman’s March to the Sea. In the historic neighborhoods of Savannah his name appears on several historical markers, as you might expect.

And there were other surprises. Just 18 miles northeast of Lancaster is the small community of Somerset, OH. It has a lovely town square, in the middle of which is an impressive statue of a mounted soldier, Philip Sheridan, a Major-General of Cavalry during the Civil War, who was eventually promoted to four star rank. Sheridan grew up in Somerset. After the Civil War he served on the Great Plains during the Indian Wars. He was also instrumental in developing Yellowstone as a national park.

Despite its incredibly bloody outcomes and destructive consequences, the American Civil War, 1861-65 holds a certain fascination. To a large extent, it was the first war to be extensively documented photographically, many of the images coming from the lens of Mathew Brady.

But in terms of the war’s theater of operations, much of the fighting took place east of the Mississippi River, across the southern states, and into the maritime states as far north as Pennsylvania.

Imagine the topography, especially in the Appalachians, across which huge armies marched and fought each other. Imagine the effort needed to transport tens of thousands of men and their equipment and supplies over almost impenetrable terrain, along river valleys, crossing ridges, swamps, and huge rivers, while constantly being harassed by and engaging with the enemy.

We saw much of this landscape along our 2017 road trip. At Cumberland Gap there were even reminders how the opposing armies had fought to gain the upper hand and strategic overlook that was afforded on the hills surrounding this important pass through the mountains.

In that Sherman biography, I also learned that his superior, Major-General (then Brigadier General) Ulysses S Grant² (yet another Buckeye from Point Pleasant [map], just across the Ohio River from where we traveled this year) had his headquarters at Cairo (map) at the southern tip of Illinois in 1861, just a couple of miles north of Fort Defiance on the promontory at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Fort Defiance was on our route west in 2017.

Southwest from Canton, OH we passed by close to Dover (map), birthplace of one the Civil War’s most notorious Confederate raiders or bushwhackers, William Clarke Quantrill³. His theater of operations was the Kansas-Missouri border, an area that was already experiencing conflict between abolitionists and those who wanted to keep slavery in Missouri as early as 1858. Quantrill’s Raiders were the perpetrators of one of the Civil War’s most outrageous atrocity, the Lawrence (Kansas) massacre. Sherman’s brother-in-law, Thomas Ewing, Jr was a key Union general opposing Quantrill.

So while I may have missed out on some interesting historical aspects during this year’s road trip, that was not the case in 2011 when we toured extensively in Arizona and New Mexico. Earlier that year I had read an interesting biography of mountain man and Indian fighter Kit Carson whose campaigns against the Navajo are well documented. I planned parts of the trip around locations where he had been active. He is buried in Taos, NM, and after spending time at the Canyon de Chelly (site of a massacre of Navajos) in northeast Arizona, we headed for Taos.

Spider Rock in the Canyon de Chelly.

History is undoubtedly one of my principal hobbies, and occupies much of my reading. On retirement eight years ago I almost enrolled for a history degree with the Open University, but eventually decided to keep it just as a hobby. I read very little fiction, and the catalyst for my 2017 challenge – to read all of the novels by Charles Dickens – was a book (also bought at Half Price Books) about the terrible plight of children (early in the 19th century) in factories and cotton mills in the north of England.

Here in the UK, Steph and I are very active members of the National Trust and English Heritage. Whenever we get the opportunity, we head off to one of their many properties (stately homes, castles, archaeological sites, gardens) open to the public. And we learn a little more each time about the history of this country and the people who shaped events over the centuries, for better or worse.

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¹ Robert L O’Connell (2014). Fierce Patriot – The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman. Random House. ISBN 978-0-8129-8212-1.

² I picked up this biography of Grant which I have yet to start: HW Brands (2012). Ulysses Grant in War and Peace. Anchor Books. ISBN 978-0-307-47515-2.

³ I started this book about Quantrill’s Raiders first. Jesse and Frank James were members of Quantrill’s guerilla band. Edward E Leslie (1998). The Devil Knows How to Ride – the True Story of William Clarke Quantrill and His Confederate Raiders. Da Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-80865-X.

 

Driving on the ‘wrong’ side

Since 2011, my wife and I have made several long-distance road trips across the USA. And although I’d driven some short distances around Seattle and the Twin Cities of Minnesota, I’d never done any serious driving until then. So, it’s not uncommon for someone to ask whether I find driving in the USA difficult.

Answer: not really. Most don’t know that I spent over 27 years driving on the ‘wrong’ side, i.e. the right, while living in Peru, Costa Rica, and the Philippines.

So driving on the ‘wrong’ side is as normal for me as driving in the UK, on the ‘right’ side on the left. It’s just a case of learning the dos and don’ts, and the manners of the road.

Driving in the USA is (mostly) a pleasure (and straightforward), since away from the cities and main highways, the roads are generally quite quiet. However, some of the Interstates can be quite daunting, especially when two or more come together or diverge like large bowls of spaghetti, often with three or more lanes. Choosing which lane to occupy and when is a challenge. My sat nav during our latest trip was a godsend.

Finding your way around however is not too difficult. The road numbering system is quite clear, but the same road can have more than one name if two highways merge for a section. The Interstates (like the motorways in the UK or autobahns in Germany for example) connect centers of population across the country and are a legacy of President Dwight D Eisenhower, from the 1950s. Then there are the US highways, state roads, and county roads. Each has its own road symbol.

US highways are often divided highways, or dual carriageways as we say in the UK. The one big difference between the Interstates and US highways however, are junctions on the latter (often controlled by traffic lights) where you might have to stop. Most state and county roads are single lane carriageways in each direction.

Compared to the UK, speed limits are generally lower in the US. The norm for Interstates is 70 mph (I’ve seen 75) with a minimum of 40 mph. The maximum speed on US highways is 60 mph (occasionally 65), but most often 55 mph widely applied across the country. In towns the limit is often as low as 25 mph, and special lower restrictions (15 mph) often apply near schools when in session.

Speed limits and driving restrictions around school and school buses are rigorously enforced. When a school bus stops, lights flashing and the Stop sign extended from the rear offside of the bus, you’d better stop or else, whether you’re behind or approaching the bus. I must admit that I didn’t initially realize that the rule applied to oncoming traffic. I remember when we were traveling on US101 in northern California that I passed a stationary bus. Luckily there was no speed cop waiting to ‘ambush’ me.

Roads are more congested with trucks (lorries) in the UK than in the USA, but trucks are behemoths in the USA in comparison, and consistently travel at much higher speeds, often well over 70 mph on the Interstates.

This was one ‘extra’ size load that we saw in Wisconsin.

The idea of overtaking on both sides is something I still cannot reconcile. But it’s common in the USA on roads with more than two lanes. Just maneuvering between lanes can be a nightmare, having to check fast-approaching vehicles on both sides. Also, drivers tend to join a highway high speed; they ‘take no prisoners’, and just keep coming on despite other traffic approaching and occupying the lane they will join.

I often find US drivers reluctant to overtake on single carriageway roads. Admittedly there are oftentimes fewer opportunities to overtake. As I mentioned, we like to take the byways when making one of our road trips, mostly on single carriageway highways, and I try to keep more or less to the speed limit. So I find it aggravating when a ‘local’ starts to tailgate me, ‘encouraging’ me to go faster. But when the opportunity to overtake presents itself, they just remain tucked in behind. Clearly they want to go faster but are not prepared to exceed the speed limit to overtake.

Turning right on a red light takes some getting used to. I now understand that unless it specifically states not to turn, it’s OK to make that turn. Not something we’re used to in the UK. Red means red! And also, having to be aware that if you turn right on a red light, there may be pedestrians crossing as they will have right of way.

‘Right lane must turn right’ (or left) is a common sign on most roads. In fact, it’s useful to have a sort of slip road for departing traffic even on single carriageway highways. But it can be confusing at a junction, when you suddenly find yourself in the right lane and are forced to turn even though you want to go straight ahead. Fortunately my sat nav helped in this respect, and having become accustomed to this situation, I try to position myself in the left lane at a junction to avoid an unwanted manoeuvre.

Roundabouts are common in the UK. Near my home in Bromsgrove there are five within the space of 2 miles. Not so in the USA. Instead there of full stop, all way junctions, governed by a particular road etiquette: the first vehicle arriving at the junction gets to manoeuvre first, but only after coming to a full stop.

When I look over what I have just written, it seems to me that my driving concerns in the USA are not really very important at all. We’ve now covered somewhere in the region of 15,000 miles I guess in our trips. Plenty of time to get accustomed to driving on the wrong side.

However, thinking about the dos and don’ts of driving made me ponder on some other aspects of visiting the USA. And, as it happens, I came across this article, by Sophie-Claire Hoeller (a trilingual journalist who grew up in Germany) in Business Insider: 51 things Americans are doing wrong.

For ease of reading, I also copied her list of ‘things’ into a file.

So, how do these resonate with me? Several on the list are bugbears of mine: (4) Portion sizes; (6) Tipping; (7) Taxes; (12) So. Many. Questions; (16) Checking ID; and (49) Serving a salad first.

I never cease to be amazed by the amount of food that is served in restaurants. Portions are huge compared to the UK. No wonder there’s an obesity problem. I’d rather portions were smaller and bills lower.

Ten per cent is the norm in the UK when tipping – if you think the service warranted a tip. Not so in the USA, where tops as high as 25% are the norm AND expected. I agree with journalist Sophie-Claire. Why should I pay someone else’s wages? In one restaurant recently, where I’d left a 15% tip on the table for our server, I was faced with adding a tip of 25% (no lesser amount) – or none – when using my debit card at the checkout.

Why don’t retailers in the US just include the sales tax in the price listed? How many times have I been caught out at the till, having to add on the tax. Thank goodness for plastic money, and although I used my debit card more this last trip for everyday expenses than I had in previous years, I still ended up with a purse-full of small change. The grandchildren’s piggy banks benefited!

While we were traveling from Massachusetts to Minnesota, we would buy sandwiches, often from Subway, so we could stop anywhere on the route to have our lunch. Then the questions start: wheat or wholemeal, Italian, this meat or that, cheese, mayo, pickles . . . etc., etc. Phew!

I’m almost 70, yet, when buying a couple of cases of beer at Target in St Paul recently, I was asked for my ID! Fortunately the lady at the checkout was from Scandinavia (and had lived in the UK for several years) so recognized my UK photo driving licence. She told me that normally it would have to be a US or Canadian driving licence or passport. Good grief, 70 years old and having to present a passport just to buy a beer! And then there was $2.36 sales tax to add to the offer of $25 for two cases that had attracted my attention.

Salads should be served on the side. Period. I got a strange look from one server when I asked her to bring my salad with the entree. That’s how I like to eat my salad, not as a meal in itself before any other course.

Yes, the UK and USA, two countries separated by a common language (and with Trump in charge, many other things unfortunately), according to George Bernard Shaw. But we enjoy our visits there. It’s a vast – and sometimes quirky – country. Lots more to explore!

 

Disillusionment also comes with age, not just youth . . .

I’m 70 later this year. I can’t think of any time during my adult life when I have been so disillusioned with politics here in the UK. Maybe I’ve just become a cynical old fart, but I’d like to think that’s not the case. Cynicism is not a personal attribute that I recognize. I am, however, a born optimist. My glass is almost always half full.

Yet the more this Brexit fiasco grinds on to its inevitable end in March next year (unless, by some political miracle, Theresa May and her inept government actually accept their own and independent analyses of the downside of leaving the European Union), the more pessimistic I become. Someone keeps taking sips from my glass.

Maybe I should quit Twitter. Inevitably, I follow tweeters who support Remain. So maybe I’m just reinforcing my own perspectives (prejudices) about the consequences of leaving the EU. Nevertheless, I did carefully weigh up both sides of the argument at the time of the June 2016 referendum, and voted to remain.

In the intervening two years, my opinion has not changed. If anything, I’m now a more committed Remain supporter given the distortion of the truth (I hate to use the term ‘lies’) pedaled by Theresa May and the Brexiteers in her Cabinet (the arch-protagonists being David Davis, Boris Johnson, and Michael Gove) and on the back benches of the Tory Party such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, Peter Bone, and John Redwood (and too many others to mention). If nothing else, they are certainly being economic with the truth.

It’s no better on the Labour benches, at least the Labour front bench. In my antipathy to the Tories, the Labour Party should be the logical recipient of my support. With Jeremy Corbyn at the helm I’m afraid that is never going to happen. Although he’s never said so explicitly, every action (or lack of) that he makes signifies that Corbyn is a Brexit supporter. Although not as commonplace as among the Tories, there are several prominent back-bench Labour Brexiteers like Kate Hoey who made a name for herself by spouting some of the most unverifiable drivel you can imagine in support of Brexit.

It’s remarkable that when the Tory government is in such disarray over Brexit that, in a recent poll, the Labour Party now finds itself several percentage points behind the Tories, notwithstanding the party making considerable parliamentary gains during Theresa May’s botched electoral campaign in 2017.

I just don’t see how being a member of the EU is holding this country back. I am sick of hearing that leaving the EU is the will of the British people. Yes, a majority of those who voted, 52%, supported Leave. One cannot dispute that result. I do believe that the referendum was flawed from the start, and evidence is emerging that there were shenanigans in the Leave campaign. Given the constitutional, social, and economic consequences of leaving the EU (after more than 40 years) the bar should have been set much higher for the vote. By that I mean that there should have been an absolute majority vote of the total electorate for one side or the other, not just those who voted. Because of the turnout, we now have a decision to leave the EU supported explicitly by just 37% of the electorate.

After two years we still do not know what the UK government’s negotiating position really is, or what outcome it desires, other than ‘Maybot’ slogans like Brexit means Brexit, Taking back control . . . of laws, borders, money.  Challenged on the BBC2 Daily Politics program yesterday to state clearly what she wanted from Brexit, Conservative MP Andrea Jenkyns just trotted out the same old slogans that I mentioned above. No ideas, no vision! If this is the best they can do after two years, Heaven help us! The situation has now became so untenable that the EU negotiators as recently as yesterday rebuked the government for living in a fantasy world.

What I find particularly irksome is the dismissal, denigration even, of expert opinion. Facts don’t seem to matter. Ideology is the name of the game. Appearing before a select committee this past week, the CEO and Permanent Secretary of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC), Jon Thompson (someone who should be in the know), was asked for his assessment of the economic consequences of the two future customs options being ‘discussed’ by Theresa May’s Cabinet. He unequivocally stated that both options had severe economic consequences for businesses, as high as £20 billion. That’s more than the UK currently pays into the EU! Yet, when queried about that analysis, Andrea Jenkyns dismissed it, just as other Tories (particularly Michael Gove and Jacob Rees-Mogg, as well as The Daily Mail) have dismissed other expert opinion/analysis.

So, if things carry on as they have been, we’re headed for cloud cuckoo land¹. Flying in the face of reality, in the hope that the remaining 27 EU members will fall over to give the UK a special status post-Brexit (like being a member but not being a member), or that countries are lining up to sign trade deals (palpably untrue or, if under consideration, will exact terms that most of the population would consider unfavorable or unacceptable), we’re looking over a Brexit precipice and potentially sacrificing the futures of youth today.

And if the Brexit shambles wasn’t enough to cope with, this pathetic government has been mired recently in a scandal of its own ‘hostile environment’ making. Immigration is one of the major concerns of the Brexiteers, and a tough immigration policy has been a central plank of this and previous Tory governments. The Home Office (formerly occupied by Theresa May) is responsible for implementing immigration policy. But it has gone too far, and people who had a perfectly legal right to reside in the UK have been deported or threatened with deportation, and rights and benefits they enjoyed for decades were withdrawn. This was the case in particular with immigrants who came from the Caribbean (and other Commonwealth countries) in the 1950s and 1960s, the so-called Windrush Generation. It’s not only a scandal, but it’s a blot on the name and reputation of our country. The UK under the Tories really is becoming a nasty, insignificant little country, that aspires to greatness, but has lost the plot. This article highlights just one case.

Anyway, I refer to this latest scandal, because I found something rather interesting in the Conservative Party manifesto for the General Election held in June 1970, the first time I voted (I was 21, the minimum age for voting back then), and Edward Heath led the party to victory over Labour that had been in government from the mid-1960s under Harold Wilson. It also paved the way for the UK’s successful application to join the EEC (now the EU) on 1 January 1973. I searched the manifesto for any reference to the [EU]. This is all I could find:

These policies will strengthen Britain so that we can negotiate with the European Community confident in the knowledge that we can stand on our own if the price is too high.

But then, I came across something rather interesting with regard to immigration, and highly relevant in the current circumstances:

Good race relations are of immense importance. We are determined that all citizens shall continue to be treated as equal before the law, and without discrimination . . . We will establish a new single system of control over all immigration from overseas. The Home Secretary of the day will have complete control, subject to the machinery for appeal, over the entry of individuals into Britain. We believe it right to allow an existing Commonwealth immigrant who is already here to bring his wife and young children to join him in this country . . . We will give assistance to Commonwealth immigrants who wish to return to their countries of origin, but we will not tolerate any attempt to harass or compel them to go against their will (my emphasis).

How times have changed, and how the nasty party under Theresa May today has diverged from that broader church of Conservatism that I grew up under.

Come the next General Election, where will my vote go? Certainly not to the Tories. And unless Labour elects a different leader, and brings some realistic social thinking to its policies – and supports continuing membership of the EU – then my vote won’t be going there either. It’s a dilemma. It’s depressing. No wonder I’m disillusioned. Nevertheless, a little voice does whisper every now and again that things can get better. I certainly hope so.

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¹ Cloud cuckoo land is a state of absurdly, over-optimistic fantasy or an unrealistically idealistic state where everything is perfect. Someone who is said to “live in cloud cuckoo land” is a person who thinks that things that are completely impossible might happen, rather than understanding how things really are. It also hints that the person referred to is naive, unaware of realities or deranged in holding such an optimistic belief.

Crystal balls, accountability and risk: planning and managing agricultural research for development (R4D)

A few days ago, I wrote a piece about perceived or real threats to the UK’s development aid budget. I am very concerned that among politicians and the wider general public there is actually little understanding about the aims of international development aid, how it’s spent, what it has achieved, and even how it’s accounted for.

Throughout my career, I worked for organizations and programs that were supported from international development aid budgets. Even during the decade I was a faculty member at The University of Birmingham during the 1980s, I managed a research project on potatoes (a collaboration with the International Potato Center, or CIP, in Peru where I had been employed during the 1970s) funded by the UK’s Overseas Development Administration (ODA), the forerunner of today’s Department for International Development (DFID).

I actually spent 27 years working overseas for two international agricultural research centers in South and Central America, and in the Philippines, from 1973-1981 and from 1991-2010. These were CIP as I just mentioned, and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), a globally-important research center in Los Baños, south of Manila in the Philippines, working throughout Asia where rice is the staple food crop, and collaborating with the Africa Rice Centre (WARDA) in Africa, and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Latin America.

All four centers are members of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (or CGIAR) that was established in 1971 to support investments in research and technology development geared toward increasing food production in the food-deficit countries of the world.

Dr Norman Borlaug

The CGIAR developed from earlier initiatives, going back to the early 1940s when the Rockefeller Foundation supported a program in Mexico prominent for the work of Norman Borlaug (who would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970).

By 1960, Rockefeller was interested in expanding the possibilities of agricultural research and, joining with the Ford Foundation, established IRRI to work on rice in the Philippines, the first of what would become the CGIAR centers. In 2009/2010 IRRI celebrated its 50th anniversary. Then, in 1966, came the maize and wheat center in Mexico, CIMMYT—a logical development from the Mexico-Rockefeller program. CIMMYT was followed by two tropical agriculture centers, IITA in Nigeria and CIAT in Colombia, in 1967. Today, the CGIAR supports a network of 15 research centers around the world.

Peru (CIP); Colombia (CIAT); Mexico (CIMMYT); USA (IFPRI); Ivory Coast (Africa Rice); Nigeria (IITA); Kenya (ICRAF and ILRI); Lebanon (ICARDA); Italy (Bioversity International); India (ICRISAT); Sri Lanka (IWMI); Malaysia (Worldfish); Indonesia (CIFOR); and Philippines (IRRI)

The origins of the CGIAR and its evolution since 1971 are really quite interesting, involving the World Bank as the prime mover.

In 1969, World Bank President Robert McNamara (who had been US Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson) wrote to the heads of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome and the United Nations Development Fund (UNDP) in New York saying: I am writing to propose that the FAO, the UNDP and the World Bank jointly undertake to organize a long-term program of support for regional agricultural research institutes. I have in mind support not only for some of the existing institutes, including the four now being supported by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations [IRRI, CIMMYT, IITA, and CIAT], but also, as occasion permits, for a number of new ones.

Just click on this image to the left to open an interesting history of the CGIAR, published a few years ago when it celebrated its 40th anniversary.

I joined CIP in January 1973 as an Associate Taxonomist, not longer after it became a member of the CGIAR. In fact, my joining CIP had been delayed by more than a year (from September 1971) because the ODA was still evaluating whether to provide funds to CIP bilaterally or join the multilateral CGIAR system (which eventually happened). During 1973 or early 1974 I had the opportunity of meeting McNamara during his visit to CIP, something that had quite an impression on a 24 or 25 year old me.

In the first couple of decades the primary focus of the CGIAR was on enhancing the productivity of food crops through plant breeding and the use of genetic diversity held in the large and important genebanks of eleven centers. Towards the end of the 1980s and through the 1990s, the CGIAR centers took on a research role in natural resources management, an approach that has arguably had less success than crop productivity (because of the complexity of managing soil and water systems, ecosystems and the like).

In research approaches pioneered by CIP, a close link between the natural and social sciences has often been a feature of CGIAR research programs. It’s not uncommon to find plant breeders or agronomists, for example working alongside agricultural economists or anthropologists and sociologists, who provide the social context for the research for development that is at the heart of what the CGIAR does.

And it’s this research for development—rather than research for its own sake (as you might find in any university department)—that sets CGIAR research apart. I like to visualize it in this way. A problem area is identified that affects the livelihoods of farmers and those who depend on agriculture for their well-being. Solutions are sought through appropriate research, leading (hopefully) to positive outcomes and impacts. And impacts from research investment are what the donor community expects.

Of course, by its very nature, not all research leads to positive outcomes. If we knew the answers beforehand there would be no need to undertake any research at all. Unlike scientists who pursue knowledge for its own sake (as with many based in universities who develop expertise in specific disciplines), CGIAR scientists are expected to contribute their expertise and experience to research agendas developed by others. Some of this research can be quite basic, as with the study of crop genetics and genomes, for example, but always with a focus on how such knowledge can be used to improve the livelihoods of resource-poor farmers. Much research is applied. But wherever the research sits on the basic to applied continuum, it must be of high quality and stand up to scrutiny by the scientific community through peer-publication. In another blog post, I described the importance of good science at IRRI, for example, aimed at the crop that feeds half the world’s population in a daily basis.

Since 1972 (up to 2016 which was the latest audited financial statement) the CGIAR and its centers have received USD 15.4 billion. To some, that might seem an enormous sum dedicated to agricultural research, even though it was received over a 45 year period. As I pointed out earlier with regard to rice, the CGIAR centers focus on the crops and farming systems (in the broadest sense) in some of the poorest countries of the world, and most of the world’s population.

But has that investment achieved anything? Well, there are several ways of measuring impact, the economic return to investment being one. Just look at these impressive figures from CIAT in Colombia that undertakes research on beans, cassava, tropical forages (for pasture improvement), and rice.

For even more analysis of the impact of CGIAR research take a look at the 2010 Food Policy paper by agricultural economists and Renkow and Byerlee.

Over the years, however, the funding environment has become tighter, and donors to the CGIAR have demanded greater accountability. Nevertheless, in 2018 the CGIAR has an annual research portfolio of just over US$900 million with 11,000 staff working in more than 70 countries around the world. CGIAR provides a participatory mechanism for national governments, multilateral funding and development agencies and leading private foundations to finance some of the world’s most innovative agricultural research.

The donors are not a homogeneous group however. They obviously differ in the amounts they are prepared to commit to research for development. They focus on different priority regions and countries, or have interests in different areas of science. Some donors like to be closely involved in the research, attending annual progress meetings or setting up their own monitoring or reviews. Others are much more hands-off.

When I joined the CGIAR in 1973, unrestricted funds were given to centers, we developed our annual work programs and budget, and got on with the work. Moving to Costa Rica in 1976 to lead CIP’s regional program in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, I had an annual budget and was expected to send a quarterly report back to HQ in Lima. Everything was done using snail mail or telex. No email demands to attend to on almost a daily basis.

Much of the research carried out in the centers is now funded from bilateral grants from a range of donors. Just look at the number and complexity of grants that IRRI manages (see Exhibit 2 – page 41 and following – from the 2016 audited financial statement). Each of these represents the development of a grant proposal submitted for funding, with its own objectives, impact pathway, expected outputs and outcomes. These then have to be mapped to the CGIAR cross-center programs (in the past these were the individual center Medium Term Plans), in terms of relevance, staff time and resources.

What it also means is that staff spend a considerable amount of time writing reports for the donors: quarterly, biannually, or annually. Not all have the same format, and it’s quite a challenge I have to say, to keep on top of that research complexity. In the early 2000s the donors also demanded increased attention to the management of risk, and I have written about that elsewhere in this blog.

And that’s how I got into research management in 2001, when IRRI Director General Ron Cantrell invited me to join the senior management team as Director for Program Planning & Coordination (later Communications).

For various reasons, the institute did not have a good handle on current research grants, nor their value and commitments. There just wasn’t a central database of these grants. Such was the situation that several donors were threatening to withhold future grants if the institute didn’t get its act together, and begin accounting more reliably for the funding received, and complying with the terms and conditions of each grant.

Within a week I’d identified most (but certainly not all) active research grants, even those that had been completed but not necessarily reported back to the donors. It was also necessary to reconcile information about the grants with that held by the finance office who managed the financial side of each grant. Although I met resistance for several months from finance office staff, I eventually prevailed and had them accept a system of grant identification using a unique number. I was amazed that they were unable to understand from the outset how and why a unique identifier for each grant was not only desirable but an absolute necessity. I found that my experience in managing the world’s largest genebank for rice with over 100,000 samples or accessions stood me in good stead in this respect. Genebank accessions have a range of information types that facilitate their management and conservation and use. I just treated research grants like genebank accessions, and built our information systems around that concept.

Eric Clutario

I was expressly fortunate to recruit a very talented database manager, Eric Clutario, who very quickly grasped the concepts behind what I was truing to achieve, and built an important online information management system that became the ‘envy’ of many of the other centers.

We quickly restored IRRI’s trust with the donors, and the whole process of developing grant proposals and accounting for the research by regular reporting became the norm at IRRI. By the time IRRI received its first grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (for work on submergence tolerant rice) all the project management systems had been in place for several years and we coped pretty well with a complex and detailed grant proposal.

Since I retired from IRRI in 2010, and after several years of ‘reform’ the structure and funding of the CGIAR has changed somewhat. Centers no longer prepare their own Medium Term Plans. Instead, they commit to CGIAR Research Programs and Platforms. Some donors still provide support with few restrictions on how and where it can be spent. Most funding is bilateral support however, and with that comes the plethora of reporting—and accountability—that I have described.

Managing a research agenda in one of the CGIAR centers is much more complex than in a university (where each faculty member ‘does their own thing’). Short-term bilateral funding (mostly three years) on fairly narrow topics are now the components of much broader research strategies and programs. Just click on the image on the right to read all about the research organization and focus of the ‘new’ CGIAR. R4D is very important. It has provided solutions to many important challenges facing farmers and resource poor people in the developing world. Overseas development aid has achieved considerable traction through agricultural research and needs carefully protecting.

Development aid is under threat . . . and Brexit isn’t helping

The United Kingdom is one of just a handful of countries that has committed to spend 0.7% of Gross National Income (GNI) on overseas development assistance (ODA or foreign aid) in support of the UN’s development goals. In fact that 0.7% target commitment is enshrined in UK law passed in 2015 (under a Conservative government), and the target has been met in every year since 2013. That’s something we should be proud of. Even the Tories should be proud of that. It seems, however, that many aren’t.

For a variety of reasons, the aid budget is under threat. After years of government austerity and the decline of home-grown services (NHS, police, education, and the like) through under-funding, and as we lurch towards Brexit, the right-wing media and politicians are seizing every opportunity to ignore (or actively distort, even trivialize) the objectives of development aid and what it has achieved around the world.  Or maybe they just lack understanding.

In 2016, the UK’s ODA budget, administered by the Department for International Development (DFID), was just over £13 billion (almost USD20 billion). Check this link to see where DFID works and on what sort of projects it spends its budget. That budget has ‘soared’, according to a recent claim by The Daily Mail.

In the post-Brexit referendum febrile atmosphere, the whole topic of development aid has seemingly become toxic with increasing calls among the right-wing media, headed by The Daily Mail (and supported by The Daily Express and The Telegraph) for the development budget to be reduced and instead spent on hiring more doctors and nurses, and other home-based services and projects, pandering to the prejudices of its readers. Such simplistic messages are grist to the mill for anyone troubled by the UK’s engagement with the world.

From: John Stevens and Daniel Martin for the Daily Mail, published at 22:42, 5 April 2018 | Updated: 23:34, 5 April 2018

There is unfortunately little understanding of what development assistance is all about, and right-wing politicians who really should know better, like the Member for Northeast Somerset (and the Eighteenth Century), Jacob Rees-Mogg have jumped on the anti-aid bandwagon, making statements such as: Protecting the overseas aid budget continues to be a costly mistake when there are so many other pressing demands on the budget.

Now there are calls for that 2015 Act of Parliament to be looked at again. Indeed, I just came across an online petition just yesterday calling on Parliament to debate a reduction of the development aid budget to just 0.2% of GNI. However, 100,000 signatures are needed to trigger a debate, and as I checked this morning it didn’t seem to be gaining much traction.

I agree it would be inaccurate to claim that all development aid spending has been wise, reached its ultimate beneficiaries, or achieved the impacts and outcomes intended. Some has undoubtedly ended up in the coffers of corrupt politicians.

I cannot agree however, with Conservative MP for Wellingborough and arch-Brexiteer, Peter Bone, who is reported as stating: Much of the money is not spent properly … What I want to see is more of that money spent in our own country … The way to improve the situation in developing countries is to trade with them.

As an example of the trivialization by the media of what development aid is intended for, let me highlight one example that achieved some notoriety, and was seized upon to discredit development aid.

What was particularly irksome apparently, with a frenzy whipped up by The Daily Mail and others, was the perceived frivolous donation (as high as £9 million, I have read) to a project that included the girl band Yegna, dubbed the Ethiopian Spice Girls, whose aim is to [inspire] positive behavior change for girls in Ethiopia through drama and music.

I do not know whether this aid did represent value for money; but I have read that the program did receive some positive reviews. However, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact raised some concerns as far back as 2012 about the Girl Effect project (known as Girl Hub then).

From their blinkered perspectives, various politicians have found it convenient to follow The Daily Mail narrative. What, it seems to me, they failed to comprehend (nor articulate for their constituencies) was how media strategies like the Girl Effect project can effectively target (and reach) millions of girls (and women) with messages fundamental to their welfare and well-being. After being in the media spotlight, and highlighted as an example of ‘misuse’ of the aid budget, the support was ended.

In a recent policy brief known as a ‘Green Paper’, A World for the Many Not the Few, a future Labour government has pledged to put women at the heart of British aid efforts, and broaden what has been described by much of the right-wing media as a left-wing agenda. Unsurprisingly this has received widespread criticism from those who want to reduce the ODA budget or cut it altogether.

But in many of the poorest countries of the world, development aid from the UK and other countries has brought about real change, particularly in the agricultural development arena, one with which I’m familiar, through the work carried out in 15 international agricultural research centers around the world supported through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research or CGIAR that was founded in 1971, the world’s largest global agricultural innovation network.

In a review article¹ published in Food Policy in 2010, agricultural economists Mitch Renkow and Derek Byerlee stated that CGIAR research contributions in crop genetic improvement, pest management, natural resources management, and policy research have, in the aggregate, yielded strongly  positive impacts relative to investment, and appear likely to continue doing so. Crop genetic improvement research stands out as having had the most profound documented positive impacts. Substantial evidence exists that other research areas within the CGIAR have had large beneficial impacts although often locally and nationally rather than internationally.

In terms of crop genetic improvement (CGI) they further stated that . . . estimates of the overall benefits of CGIAR’s contribution to CGI are extraordinarily large – in the billions of dollars. Most of these benefits are produced by the three main cereals [wheat, maize, and rice] . . . average annual benefits for CGIAR research for spring bread wheat, rice (Asia only), and maize (CIMMYT only) of $2.5, $10.8 and $0.6–0.8 billion, respectively . . . estimated rates of return to the CGIAR’s investment in CGI research ranging from 39% in Latin America to over 100% in Asia and MENA [Middle east and North Africa].

DFID continues to be a major supporter of the CGIAR research agenda, making the third largest contribution (click on the image above to open the full financial report for 2016) after the USA and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. At £43.3 million (in 2016), DFID’s contribution to the CGIAR is a drop in the ocean compared to its overall aid budget. Yet the impact goes beyond the size of the contribution.

I don’t believe it’s unrealistic to claim that the CGIAR has been a major ODA success over the past 47 years. International agricultural research for development has bought time, and fewer people go to bed hungry each night.

Nevertheless, ODA is under threat everywhere. I am concerned that in the clamour to reduce (even scrap) the UK’s ODA international collaborations like the CGIAR will face even more funding challenges. In Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ dystopia there is no certainty that enormous support provided by USAID will continue at the same level.

Most of my professional career was concerned with international agricultural research for development, in South and Central America (with the International Potato Center, or CIP, from 1973 to 1981) and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines (from 1991 to 2010). The conservation of plant genetic resources or  agrobiodiversity in international genebanks (that I have highlighted in many stories on this blog) is supported through ODA. The crop improvement programs of the CGIAR centers like CIMMYT, IRRI, ICARDA and ICRISAT have released numerous improved varieties for use in agricultural systems around the world. Innovative research is combating the threats of new crop diseases or the difficulties of growing crops in areas subject to flooding or drought².

This research (often with critical links back into research institutes and universities in donor countries) has led to improvements in the lives of countless millions of poor people around the world. But the job is not finished. Populations continue to grow, with more mouths to feed. Civil unrest and conflicts continue to blight some of the poorest countries in the world. And biology and environment continue to throw challenges at us in the form of new disease strains or a changing climate, for example. Continued investment in ODA is essential and necessary to support agricultural research for development.

Agriculture is just one sector on the development spectrum.  Let’s not allow the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Peter Bone, or The Daily Mail to capture the development debate for what appear to be their own xenophobic purposes.

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¹ Renkow, M and D Byerlee, 2010. The impacts of CGIAR research: A review of recent evidence. Food Policy 35 (5), 391-402. doi.org/10.1016/j.foodpol.2010.04.006

² In another blog post I will describe some of this innovative research and how the funding of agricultural research for development and greater accountability for ODA has become rather complicated over the past couple of decades.

Taking back control?

It seems that the [Dis]United Kingdom is inexorably on the path to the ‘Brexit Promised Land’, the Conservative’s ‘Land of Milk and Honey’, as we prepare to leave the European Union (EU) less than one year from now (at 23:00 on Friday 29 March 2019 to be precise, midnight Brussels time). Can that Brexit rollercoaster be stopped in its tracks? Regrettably, I’m less sanguine about that prospect than I was just a month or so back. The UK’s place should be in Europe, taking an active and leading role, bringing our renowned pragmatism to bear on the issues of the day.

What have we done over the past 40 years? Carped and whinged from the sidelines.

As I read online the other day, we spent decades seeking various opt-outs under the terms of the various EU treaties. Now that we are on course to leave, our negotiators are seeking to secure various opt-ins—the cherished ‘bespoke’ agreement that Prime Minister ‘Come What’ May tells us is the government’s end game. Ironic.

Recently, Brexit was knocked off the headlines. Why? Russia! While I agree that there is considerable (circumstantial) evidence linking the Russian government to the recent poisoning by nerve agent of a former Russian double agent and his daughter in Salisbury in the west of England, the government has done its best to exploit that incident, in my opinion, to remove Brexit from daily headlines. Isn’t that what all politicians do when faced with internal dissent. They try to galvanize support around an actual or perceived external threat. Result? Brexit hasn’t been hitting the headlines so much. Until yesterday, that is.

Woe is me! What have I done?

With one year to go, the Prime Minister embarked on a whistle-stop tour of the nation, visiting locations in England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland to spread the good word about our bright future once we have left the EU. She even raised, once again, the prospect of a ‘Brexit dividend‘ that would permit us to spend more on the National Health Service (NHS) and education. For my readers outside the UK, let me explain. During the 2016 referendum campaign, the Leave side toured the country in a bright red bus with this slogan emblazoned on its side:

Before the referendum, the UK had the fastest-growing economy among the G7 countries; now it’s the slowest, and we haven’t even left the EU yet.

It’s easy to quantify what we will lose when we leave the EU. What has not been spelled out without equivocation is what we stand to gain. Apart from the usual platitudes negotiating free trade agreements with nations around the world (assuming that they want to have agreements with us), the main driving force seems to be ‘taking back control’. But of what?

Of our borders, our laws, and our money, apparently. After 45 years of being a member of the EU (and the EEC/EC before that), our economy and fabric of the nation is intimately tied to Europe. Unraveling those close ties is complex and a daunting challenge.

The immigration card was played unashamedly by the Leavers during the referendum campaign, the despicable Nigel Farage (of UKIP) chief among them. Yes, membership of the Single Market does mean that citizens of other EU countries have the right to come to live and work in the UK. Many did come, and occupied jobs that UK citizens were often unwilling to take on (such as in the agricultural/horticultural and service/hospitality industries). They also paid their taxes and National Insurance (Social Security) contributions.

Already there has been a negative Brexit effect with EU citizens returning home, leaving vacancies that are hard to fill from local labor pools. The government has been and is obsessed by the immigration statistics, harking back surely to the time when Theresa May was Secretary of State for the Home Office. However, the data show that there has been more immigration from nations from outside the EU than from within.

What about our laws? I haven’t seen the British Parliament sitting on their laurels or out of a job since we joined the EU. Parliamentarians are constantly enacting new legislation. The bugbear of arch-Brexiteers such as Ian Duncan-Smith, Bernard Jenkin, Bill Cash, John Redwood, Peter Bone, and the pompous and inimitable Jacob Rees-Mogg, is the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). Being a member of the European club, we are subject to its rules and regulations but benefit from common rights, and any infringements come under the jurisdiction of the ECJ which is anathema to Brexiteers. The worry for Remainers is that when we leave the EU, and powers are repatriated to the British Parliament, there will be a wholesale ditching of many of these hard-won rights. Time will tell, but will be resisted fiercely.

DaDa, LiFo, and BoJo – the three Brexiteers

The UK is one of the top financial contributors to the EU budget, and there will be a black hole when we leave. That’s why, in the Brexit negotiations, the EU has (rightly) insisted that the UK meets its financial contributions to commitments it has already made. These stretch into decades in the future and amount to tens of billions of pounds. So much for the ‘Brexit dividend’ that the delusional Boris Johnson promoted (and successfully duped a section of the electorate) on the Leave campaign bus. As our economy slows, as the tax base declines, as trading possibly becomes more difficult, what will be the real economic outcome for us all? I cannot believe it can be as rosy as Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union David Davis has indicated, or the number of free trade agreements lined up as International Trade Secretary Liam Fox seems to believe.

At almost 70, I’m part of the demographic that overwhelmingly voted to leave the EU. Which I didn’t, I hasten to add, something you must have realized by now reading this blog post.

The next years outside the EU are likely to be tough economically and financially. There will be inconveniences that I guess we will cope with, albeit grumbling all the time. I have fewer years ahead of me than I have enjoyed. I fear for the younger generations, and how life outside the EU will impact on them. Our younger daughter and husband live in the northeast, one of the areas that is predicted to be most negatively impacted by Brexit (even though a majority there voted to leave). They have two young boys, six and four. What does the future hold for them. Our elder daughter lives in the USA and will soon become a US citizen. There again, the USA is going through its own Trumpian dystopia right now.

Listening to pro-Leave supporters interviewed on various news channels yesterday, it seems to me that they haven’t yet fully understood the impact of their fateful voting decisions two years ago. It’s hard to appreciate just what factors drove their agendas. Even regions of the nation that have benefited from EU regional development funds voted to leave. Extraordinary! But it will come home to them in due course in a very personal way, when they make plans for their annual summer vacations in Spain or Portugal, the south of France or sunny Greece. No more reciprocal health cover arrangements probably, possible airline and flights issues, long queues to pass through immigration, unexpected mobile phone roaming charges, among many others. Once their pockets are hit—and hard—for things they have come to expect, they will complain that they never signed up for these restrictions when they voted Leave.

Of course, everything is going to be fine, say May & Co. Even though we are leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union, we will eventually come to agreement with the EU for a sensible solution, if they would just stop bullying us. Or are we going to face that oft-quoted ‘cliff edge’ Here are two views.

And still nothing appropriate is said about the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, the only part of the UK that has a land border with another EU country. David Davis seems to be in ‘La-La Land’ on this issue.

The real negotiations for our future prosperity and security have yet to start. Liam Fox and others talk about free trade talks and agreements as if they are a one-way ticket. It is about arriving at a position acceptable to both parties to the negotiation. Compromise, give-and-take is the name of the game. Win some, lose some. That probably means that more of the so-called ‘red lines’ will be crossed, positions abandoned in the interests of an overall agreement. The fishermen (and their parliamentary supporters like Farage and Rees-Mogg) who were so enraged last week when the transition agreement was announced, and which did not exclude access to British territorial waters by boats from other EU countries, will probably find that in order to secure a comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU, fishing rights will be sacrificed. That’s just the reality.

Here are some more broken promises. Just click on the image below to read the article in The Guardian from a couple of days ago.

Another concern is that the UK just not have the technical capacity to negotiate multiple trade agreements. The government is frantically recruiting trade negotiators. Surely, heavyweights like the USA (with whom we have been ‘promised’ a quick and comprehensive free trade agreement after Brexit, notwithstanding Trump’s current protectionist stance) will flex their muscles, to ensure access by US corporations to UK markets and the NHS, the former for food produced under lower standards than we currently enjoy through the EU, and the latter with the aim of privatizing health cover. I envisage our government just rolling over in its desperation to secure the deal.

Will there be a second referendum to vote on the actual terms of the final agreement with the EU? While I hope there will be, I’m not optimistic, although I will continue to support efforts to make one a reality.

With less than a year to go before Brexit, and almost two years after the referendum, we are still no closer to knowing, never mind understanding, what a post-Brexit relationship with the EU (or the rest of the world for that matter) will look like. Either the Theresa May, David Davis et al. are playing their cards very close to their chests, or they simply have no idea, nor have effectively planned for the future. I fear the latter. The sooner the Conservatives are voted out of power the better. Unfortunately, the Labour alternative under left-wing Jeremy Corbin looks no more rosy. Where is the middle ground of politics? Where are the statesmen and women who are more concerned about the fate of the nation rather than their own political party or career? I despair of politics in the UK today, and I despair that the country is meandering down a path to its own economic decline.

Taking back control? Humbug! This must be the first time, as someone wrote recently, that a government is actively working to bring about a decline in the nation’s prosperity rather than the reverse.