International Alumni and Friends Newsletter
Tracing the roots of international research
From the pages of Purdue’s "Agriculture"
by Dave King
Lowell Hardin, professor emeritus of agricultural economics and associate director of International Agriculture at Purdue, was on the ground floor of what has become international agricultural development worldwide. He played a key role in the development of a network of 16 international agricultural research centers around the world, the first of which was the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines.
These international centers, coordinated by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), work to promote food security, alleviate poverty and manage natural resources in developing countries. These missions are accomplished through problem-solving research and training programs designed to improve local human capacity. Agricultures Magazine caught up with Hardin for an informal chat about the early days of international development, which ultimately led to the establishment of the CGIAR.
How did this all start?
I think that the Rockefeller Foundation’s successful program in Mexico marked the turning point in development assistance. In 1943, the foundation sent a team of three scientists to Mexico. They went because Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace, having been to Mexico, said, "My gosh, aren’t there things that we could do to help improve the food situation of our next-door neighbor and the well-being of all those peasants?"
The team recommended a collaborative research and training effort. In response, Rockefeller dispatched a group of U.S.-trained scientists to live and work in Mexico. I’m convinced that many of the constructive things we’ve done to help improve food security for hungry people—even the reversal of near-famine position of India—can be traced back to what those agriculturists did in Mexico.
Why were they successful?
They practiced a different kind of development assistance. They started by training people to work beside them. They set a model that came from America’s farms. To them, it just came naturally to get out in the field and run their experiments with their own hands. They applied modern science and technology.
Many scientists in developing countries would send an assistant to take measurements and to see what the crops looked like. They seldom tended the crops themselves. If you’re going to be effective, you’ve got to see what’s going on with your own eyes, your own microscope. You’ve got to be there to do it.
Who were the players?
There were many, but one of the most memorable was a man named Frosty Hill, who was one of my major professors when I was working on my Ph.D. at Cornell. He had just come back from Washington where he helped Bill Myers set up the Farm Credit Administration. This was during the Roosevelt Administration. Frosty couldn’t tolerate Henry Wallace, who was vice president at the time, so he resigned.
The Ford Foundation picked Frosty to start its international division. Ford and Rockefeller, as well as others, feared what was happening in the poorer countries of the world. They were concerned that communism was taking over. If people didn’t get more to eat, communism was going to take them.
So politics played a role?
Well, altruism was involved, but it was really in our enlightened self-interest to have countries that were politically favorable to the United States rather than stand by and see them climb into bed with the Communists.
But, back to Frosty Hill; he and George Harrar, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, both lived in Scarsdale, outside of New York City. They commuted back and forth on the same train, and their offices were just a few blocks from each other. One morning on the train, George said, "You know where it’s most difficult to fill the food bowls for people? It’s the rice bowls in Asia."
Frosty replied, "Why don’t we go to the Philippines and take a look?"
Well, in those days (late 1950s), we had propeller-driven aircraft, so it took a long time to fly all the way to Manila. They talked a lot about it and came up with the idea of establishing an international center in the midst of where the problem was. Employ a cadre of multi-national scientists, they figured; then turn this small academy of able people loose, and see if they can’t do something about the food supply.
George and Rockefeller had the key scientists. Frosty and Ford didn’t have very many agricultural scientists on their team, but they had some flexible money. The upshot was that Rockefeller put in the staff and Ford built the facility. In 1960, they jointly started the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. IRRI, along with its sister corn and wheat center in Mexico, catalyzed the Green Revolution in Asia.
How did you get to the Ford Foundation?
When Frosty Hill retired in 1965, I went to Ford on a one-year leave from Purdue, where I was head of the ag economics department. Ford invited me to help develop an agricultural program in Latin America. I was involved in Purdue’s work with Brazil, so I knew what an institution like ours could do working with able colleagues in a sister country.
There was some question then, of course, as to whether it was a good thing to do. Were we aiding and abetting the competitive enemies, so to speak, in the marketplace? What we have learned since then is that in nearly every country where agriculture has improved, our exports of ag products have risen. As a country develops and incomes rise, the people move up on the food ladder. They eat fewer starchy root crops and rice and more meat, milk and eggs. Domestic production can’t keep up with the growth in demand. This increases the market demand for grains for feed. If they can afford it, they buy the grain.
So did you stay just that one year?
Well, I went to New York for that year. We had a great time. After all, I was on loan from Purdue; I could pretty much say what I wanted, do what I wished. About two-thirds of the way through the year, Ford said, "Why don’t you stay?" Well, I hadn’t thought about it. We’d been planning to come back to our home at Purdue, as we’d promised the kids. But my wife Mary said, "You know, Lowell, you’ve got a lot more to learn here." And I thought, "She’s right."
So, I sent a letter of resignation to Dean of Agriculture Earl Butz, and said that we’d decided to stay on. It was a good decision. It really did stretch us. We were there for 16 years. I went there in 1965 and came back in 1981, when I retired from Ford.
What was the attraction?
McGeorge Bundy, who was president of the Ford Foundation during most of the time I was there, once wrote an essay on the international centers. He said the genius in international work is to retain scientific quality in the political world. You’ve got to have sufficient flexibility that each country can do what is necessary within its political constraints.
Our job as a foundation was to be catalytic. We started things. We helped them get to the place where we hoped they could go on, and the world would support them. In one of our programs, the foundation was instrumental in creating the profession of agricultural economics in Argentina. I’d like to think that’s one of the reasons that we have better relationships with Argentina today.
The foundation set up a competition and picked 50 people—top people—from all over the country and sent them to 12 different institutions in the United States to get their Ph.D. in agricultural economics. Then, we sent them back to Argentina to do their thesis work. Most of them got their doctorate. They were excellent.
You started off addressing hunger concerns, right?
The root cause of hunger is poverty. The world hasn’t figured out how to alleviate poverty. We haven’t solved the poverty problem at home either, so who are we to tell somebody else how to deal with it. Hunger results from one’s inability to get access to food, not from the world’s inability to produce it. We will produce it as long as we keep our universities and research centers strong.
I think we are making progress. We get a lot of static from the media about how lousy a job we’ve done. They say supporting AID (U.S. Agency for International Development) is putting sand down a rat hole, and we’re not making much progress. So I looked up some of the numbers, and we’re really doing quite well.
You have only to examine the changes that are taking place in the well-being of people in poor countries to see how much more progress these nations are really making. On average, over the last 35 years, the developing countries have doubled school enrollment. Especially significant is the rise in the number of girls who now receive schooling. Both adult illiteracy and infant mortality rates have been reduced by one-half. They have cut malnutrition by one-third and expanded life expectancy from birth by 20 years. Nothing happening in international development? All down a rat hole? Nonsense!
A graduate of Purdue and Cornell universities, Lowell Hardin joined the Purdue School of Agriculture faculty in 1943. He became head of the department of agricultural economics in 1953 and served in that capacity until 1965 when he went to the Ford Foundation as senior agriculturist. In 1981, he returned to Purdue as professor emeritus of agricultural economics and assistant director of International Programs in Agriculture, a position that he still holds. In 1998, he received the Nyle Brady Award in recognition of his lifelong contributions to the CGIAR.
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