Historical timeline: Sustained commitment, lasting impact
Since its establishment in 1970, IDRC has worked with developing-country researchers and other partners to find practical, evidence-based solutions to some of the most important global challenges. Through these efforts, IDRC has made countless contributions to improving health care, strengthening food security, expanding quality education, promoting dignified employment, protecting the environment and advancing gender equity, among other areas.
While strategies have evolved, IDRC’s work has continued to reflect our core principles – working within and alongside developing regions to reinforce self-reliance, fostering partnerships based on mutual respect, generating solutions that can be applied to real-world situations and championing knowledge and innovation as key drivers of sustainable development.
Building on our more than 50 years of experience in supporting research in developing regions, IDRC is now looking ahead to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and create a more sustainable and inclusive world.
IDRC is created through an Act of the Canadian Parliament to support developing countries to build up their own research capabilities, institutions and innovative skills required to solve their problems. Its first president, David Hopper, leads IDRC’s growth as an organization focused on encouraging local research to promote the economic and social advancement of the Global South. To nurture its collaborations with developing-country researchers, IDRC, with headquarters in Ottawa, subsequently sets up regional offices in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.
Recognizing the importance of linking local organizations and/or individuals together around a common research theme, IDRC supports several multi-country networks and initiatives to advance development efforts. By the end of the 1970s, IDRC funds about 150 such initiatives. Some are small and narrowly focused; for example, the collaboration between scientists in Newfoundland and in West Africa who studied ways to control the black fly, the vector of river blindness. Others are multifaceted and more global in scope, such as the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), which seeks to combat hunger and malnutrition and increase food production in developing countries through greater coordination and investment.
IDRC focuses its early research 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 the former Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA, now part of Global Affairs Canada), mobilizes a network of global experts to pool their knowledge to find ways to combat diseases affecting this crop. In 1972, IDRC joins forces with the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture in Colombia to establish the Cassava Information Centre. The outcome over the years has been more food for the world’s hungry.
In one of its earliest major initiatives, IDRC launches a three-year multidisciplinary, multi-country study to develop indigenous self-reliance in science and technology. Moving beyond the then-dominant paradigm of transferring skills from North to South, the Science and Technology Policy Instruments project seeks to chart pathways and policies that contribute more substantially to the development needs and goals of developing countries. The project’s findings contribute to the pivotal United Nations Conference on Science and Technology for Development, held in Vienna in 1979.
Long before the Internet is invented, IDRC recognizes that the “knowledge gap” aggravating poverty needs to be addressed by advances in information and communication technologies. One of IDRC’s first initiatives in this field is the development of a software package called MINISIS, designed specifically to meet the information-management needs of developing-country users. By 1980, MINISIS’ database management software is being used by many countries and institutions to support a wide range of applications.
As a result of its proven sensitivity to diplomatic concerns and in recognition of its convening power, IDRC is invited to host meetings of the Independent Commission on International Development Issues (the Brandt Commission), and of the World Commission on Environment and Development (the Brundtland Commission). The archive for the 1987 Brundtland report, Our Common Future, resides at IDRC. IDRC is also charged with organizing the 5th International Conference on AIDS in Montreal in 1989.
During the long Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, IDRC uses its political neutrality to fund local institutions in which many social scientists take intellectual and physical refuge. IDRC’s funding thus helps Chilean social scientists remain in their country to continue their research, eventually assisting the country to restore its democratic institutions. When democracy is eventually restored, many of these same researchers go on to senior political and administrative positions in Chile.
As the struggle to end apartheid gains momentum, IDRC reaches out to South Africa’s democratic forces to see what research on policy issues might be useful to them as they pave the way for majority rule. The IDRC Board of Governors approves a program of research expressly designed to help prepare South Africa’s future leaders for government in a non-racial democracy. The work supported by IDRC through the political and economic transition eventually provides the basis for post-apartheid policies on the environment, health systems, urban issues, economic and industrial strategies and science and technology. Later, South Africa’s president, Nelson Mandela, would thank IDRC for the “crucial role” it played in helping South Africans prepare for the “new phase of governance and transformation.”
In response to the worsening of sub-Saharan African economies during the 1980s, IDRC seeks to expand its work in the region with a particular focus on improving research capacity. This leads to the creation of the African Economic Research Consortium (AERC) aimed at carrying out policy-oriented research, training a new generation of African economists, and fostering links among scholars and practitioners. AERC is initially housed at IDRC’s Kenya office.
The Canadian Government designates IDRC as the country’s “prime vehicle” for working with developing nations on implementing 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. To better meet its new responsibility, IDRC reorients many of its program activities and establishes new core themes, including food systems, biodiversity, health and environment.
IDRC further modifies its operations by introducing international “secretariats” — research consortia of several donors that pursue shared goals. Gradually, these secretariats demonstrate their potential as incubators for new research that, eventually, might continue independently. One example is the Micronutrient Initiative (MI) established at IDRC as a secretariat to help eliminate micronutrient deficiencies — a pledge made by global leaders at the 1990 World Summit for Children. MI contributes to global efforts to ensure at least 70% of households worldwide have access to iodized salt to reduce iodine deficiency disorders — the leading cause of preventable mental impairment. In 2000, MI (later renamed Nutrition International) becomes an independent organization.
To test the central hypothesis of the World Development Report 1993 — that evidence-based health planning could produce efficiencies that would lead to positive improvements in local health — IDRC in collaboration with Tanzanian health authorities and CIDA (now part of Global Affairs Canada) launches the Tanzania Essential Health Interventions Project in two rural districts. A computer tool is developed to collect information on the major causes of death and disease, enabling health workers in both districts to direct more money toward combating the diseases that killed the most people. The result: With a simple top-up of 80 cents per capita to health budgets, the two districts registered a greater than 40% reduction in the mortality of children aged under five.
IDRC spearheads the establishment of the International Bamboo and Rattan Organisation (INBAR). Representing the culmination of IDRC’s long-term commitment to bamboo and rattan research in China and Asia as a whole, INBAR brings together more than 40 Member States to promote the use of these astounding plants as strategic resources for sustainable development. Since its founding in 1997, INBAR has made a real difference to the lives of millions of people and environments around the world by promoting safe, resilient bamboo construction and informing green policy and sustainable development objectives.
In recognition of IDRC’s long experience in advocating the benefits of ICT for development, the Canadian Government appoints IDRC’s president as co-chair of the Digital Opportunities Task Force, a committee assembled by the G8 major industrialized democracies in 2000 to develop concrete measures to help bridge the international digital divide. The following year, IDRC is charged with launching the Institute for Connectivity in the Americas. In 2003, Canada confirms a CAD12 million contribution to create an IDRC-managed centre for connectivity in Africa, building on its large-scale Acacia program aimed at spreading information technologies beyond the realm of development practitioners to the broader African community. In 2008, IDRC opens its Digital Library, giving Canadian and international researchers access to IDRC-funded research.
IDRC increases its collaboration with Canadian institutions, forging new links between Canada’s research community and the developing world. The Global Health Research Initiative, for instance, brings together IDRC, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, CIDA (now part of Global Affairs Canada), Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada to develop practical solutions for the health and healthcare problems of low- and middle-income countries. More than CAD60 million is invested via the initiative in over 65 countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the Americas.
With climate change an ever-more urgent global concern, IDRC strengthens its programming to address this existential threat. Over the next 14 years, IDRC would manage over CAD285 million in adaptation-related research funding, helping communities across the globe confront the impact of climate change – from informing the incorporation of climate considerations into urban planning, to ensuring Southern voices are heard in global fora. For example, IDRC-supported researchers from Africa have contributed scientific expertise and evidence-based information to the African Group of Negotiators, which engages in negotiations at the annual Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
IDRC’s reputation enables it to expand its cooperation with other international donor agencies. In the Think Tank Initiative, for instance, IDRC joins with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and other donors in a 10-year, CAD200-million effort to strengthen the capacity of independent policy organizations to provide evidence-based research that is timely and relevant to national needs and opportunities – from improving policies on tobacco control in West Africa, to strengthening the public’s understanding of party electoral platforms in Guatemala, Ecuador and Peru, to analyzing policy measures aimed at protecting women from gender-based violence in India, among many others.
Responding to the global food crisis, IDRC and CIDA (now part of Global Affairs Canada) jointly establish the Canadian International Food Security Research Fund. Through applied research in 25 countries, the CAD124-million fund supports efforts and innovations to promote long-term change in agriculture, nutrition, women’s economic empowerment and global food systems in Latin America, Africa and Asia. One example is the work by Canadian, Indian and Sri Lankan researchers that leads to the development of nine promising innovations to prevent the post-harvest loss of mangoes and other soft fruits, thus increasing farmer’s incomes.
IDRC houses the Centre of Excellence for Civil Registration and Vital Statistics (CRVS), set up with funding from the Government of Canada. When girls and women are excluded from civil registration and vital statistics systems, their voices are muted and their access to basic services and protections are jeopardized. Serving as a global knowledge hub, the Centre supports countries to develop and strengthen their national CRVS systems to ensure that the needs of vulnerable groups are taken into account. In 2021, the United Nations Population Fund would take over from IDRC as host of the Centre of Excellence.
IDRC joins thousands of leaders and advocates from around the world at the Women Deliver 2019 conference in Vancouver aimed at revitalizing efforts to achieve gender equality. The conference highlights the importance of harnessing the power of research to empower women and advance gender-transformative change – a key goal of IDRC’s programming over the years. With the growing recognition that structural changes are needed to redress gender gaps, IDRC bolsters its research efforts aimed at unpacking inequalities, analyzing gender power relations and promoting sustainable solutions that tackle root causes.
IDRC invests more than CAD50 million as part of Canada’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Rapid-response initiatives address urgent local needs, focus on the most vulnerable people and communities and invest in high-quality research and innovation in developing countries. Joining partners in collaborative responses and working hand-in-hand with local experts, IDRC-supported research projects study the socio-economic impact of the pandemic, develop and test effective interventions and generate better policy options for recovery.
As the world confronts the impact of climate change and persistent inequalities, combined with the COVID-19 pandemic, IDRC launches Strategy 2030 in response to the need for urgent action. Strategy 2030 is an ambitious agenda to create a more sustainable and inclusive world, building on IDRC’s 50 years of experience. A new IDRC logo is introduced to mark this renewed determination. In line with the new strategy, IDRC adjusts its programming to focus on five areas that address climate change and inequality while contributing to the achievement of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals: climate-resilient food systems; global health; education and science; democratic and inclusive governance; and sustainable inclusive economies.