A Systematic Review on the Impacts of Capacity Strengthening of Agricultural Research Systems for Development and the Conditions of Success

Publication Details

Posthumus, H., Martin, A. and Chancellor, T. (2012) A systematic review on the impacts of capacity strengthening of agricultural research systems for development and the conditions of success. London: EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London. ISBN: 978-1-907345-46-3 Link to Source
Helena Posthumus, Adrienne Martin, Timothy Chancellor
East Asia and Pacific (includes South East Asia), South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean
Agriculture and Rural Development
Agricultural Research
Equity Focus
Review Type
Effectiveness review

Main findings

Headline Findings: a summary statement

The evidence suggests that capacity-strengthening interventions improve intermediate outcomes such as knowledge acquisition, collaboration between research bodies and adoption of improved management tools and approaches, and may have the potential to increase agricultural productivity and other agricultural development outcomes.

Evidence Base

Seventy-three studies met the inclusion criteria. Of these, 50 were from Africa, 26 from Asia and 19 from Latin America. Twenty-five of the included studies employed quantitative methods without a control group, and 63 applied various qualitative methods including interviews, focus groups and case studies. The studies reported on a variety of interventions, including staff training, organisational development, collaborative research, technical assistance, information systems, public–private partnerships, innovation systems, research networks, research grants, vocational training and mentoring.

Implications for policy and practice

  • The majority of evaluations reported that interventions were successful in achieving intermediate outcomes such as improved knowledge and skills, introduction of new management tools and approaches, and greater collaboration between various organisations and actors in research and innovation systems.
  • Only a few studies evaluated the impact of capacity strengthening on agricultural development. These indicate that capacity strengthening has the potential to lead to increases in agricultural productivity and be cost-effective.  However, this conclusion is based mostly on studies of capacity strengthening of biotechnology research, where the impact on animal husbandry and crop productivity can be more easily traced and attributed, and the authors caution that these findings may not be generalisable to other types of capacity-strengthening intervention.
  • Programmes were found to be more effective if they had long-term support from donors and the beneficiaries; if they comprehensively targeted both research organisations and research systems; and  if appropriate institutional and organisational support was in place which allowed for the increased capacity to be effectively utilised.

The authors conclude that a preliminary capacity-needs assessment should be undertaken in consultation with both beneficiaries and key stakeholders before a capacity-strengthening programme is undertaken. The programmes should also have support and commitment from senior management and staff.

Implications for further research

The authors note the difficulty of conducting evaluations of capacity-strengthening interventions and, in particular, the problem of addressing attribution. They argue that future capacity-strengthening interventions need to incorporate monitoring and evaluation methodologies from the outset. They also call for evaluation results to be made more widely available.


Investment in the sub-Saharan agricultural sector declined considerably in the 1990s, undermining growth in agricultural production and food security in many countries of the region. Agricultural research is believed to be a key strategy for improving food security, reducing poverty and promoting broad-scale economic development. Capacity building in agricultural research systems aims to strengthen individual, organisational and systems capabilities for agricultural research and reinforce linkages between the various levels of the system. Interventions to build capacity include technical training, provision of equipment and basic infrastructure, improved management, strategic planning, fund raising, public awareness raising and policy reform. It is thought that, in building capacity, research organisations will be better able to work together to undertake innovative and high-quality research, and this in turn will produce benefits in terms of food security, poverty reduction and economic growth. A systematic review of the evidence is needed to help identify the key capacity gaps that need to be addressed, and the best strategies to do so. 

Research objectives

To identify and synthesise the available evidence on the impact of capacity-strengthening interventions on capacity and performance outcomes of regional and national agricultural research organisations and systems in low- and middle-income countries. The review also aims to identify the degree to which capacity-strengthening interventions produce positive outcomes for agricultural and rural development, and to identify the factors and conditions that contribute to their success.


The authors included both qualitative and quantitative studies which evaluated the impact of capacity-strengthening interventions for agricultural research systems on capacity and performance outcomes in Africa, Latin America or Asia. To be included, studies needed to either evaluate impact retrospectively or trace the impact pathway of capacity-strengthening initiatives. The authors included outcomes measured at the individual, organisational or system level.

The authors conducted a comprehensive search of published and grey literature without language restrictions, searching more than 20 databases covering the period between 1990 and January 2012. They also contacted experts, researchers and relevant agencies working in the field of capacity strengthening to request relevant publications and grey literature. The team used a standardised form to extract data and assess the quality of included studies. They adopted a narrative-synthesis approach for the evidence and drew on grounded theory to carry out a cross-study synthesis using Atlas.ti software. 

Quality assessment

The review uses appropriate methods to reduce risk of bias in terms of a reasonably comprehensive search strategy, clear inclusion criteria and clear reporting on the screening and study inclusion process. However, the review has some major limitations. The authors do not clearly report the criteria used to assess the quality and risk of bias in the included studies and report limited results of the quality appraisal. The authors also do not analyse studies separately by risk of bias status, or consider study quality in a systematic way in the analysis.  This is a particular concern, as the review includes a number of study designs with very high risk of bias. Given the broad range of evidence included, most of which is likely to be subject to high risk of bias and some of which may not be appropriate for drawing causal statements, the authors may have over-interpreted the findings of this review.

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