The Rockefeller Foundation (RF) entered the 1970s motivated to strengthen its agricultural program. Three decades earlier, the Foundation had initiated the Green Revolution when it launched the Mexican Agriculture Program (MAP). By the 1950s, MAP developed the research, methods, and technology to raise maize and wheat yield dramatically in Latin America and Asia.

Wheat Hybridization Work in Chile

After the Foundation took similar programs to scale in Colombia and Chile, it established four international institutes to promote wide knowledge sharing and help countries leverage Green Revolution technology on a global scale: the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in 1959, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in 1963, and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in 1967.

Collectively, these new bodies comprised the most renowned features of the RF’s Toward the Conquest of Hunger program, initiated in 1963 by George Harrar to alleviate the twin threats of overpopulation and starvation in the developing world. In 1971, these institutes became an even more permanent fixture on the international scene, joining the Consultative Group on International Agriculture (CGIAR), a global network of agricultural research and aid organizations supported by the World Bank and United Nations.

As these events unfolded, however, critics argued that some groups had been left behind by the Green Revolution. The concern was that while MAP-like programs had increased global yield, they had not substantially improved life for poorer farmers in the developing world, many of whom lacked the financial means to purchase new technology and lived in remote areas without adequate infrastructure and extension services.

To address these challenges, the RF began to craft more interdisciplinary programs that aimed not only to develop new research, but also improve entire agricultural systems on a country-by-country basis. These programs integrated the humanities and social sciences with traditional agricultural science and, as such, examined the social, political, and economic conditions under which farmers worked.

The most notable agricultural program to embrace this interdisciplinary approach was the International Agricultural Development Service (IADS). Formed in 1975, IADS was the RF’s most ambitious attempt to help small farmers attain food security in the developing world and widen the benefits of the Green Revolution.

Creating the International Agricultural Development Service

International Development Service Publication, c.1980

Since the end of World War II, the RF and the wider international aid community had recognized overpopulation as the most serious threat to food security in the developing world. To meet the needs of this region’s rapidly growing population, the RF abandoned the country-by-country approach pioneered in MAP and aimed to maximize yield by forming large international research centers capable of working across national boundaries.

But by the 1970s, RF leaders realized that too many developing nations still did not produce enough food to sustain their exploding populations. While the research institutes had developed new varieties of certain staple crops like rice, corn, and wheat, many countries had other needs and lacked the personnel and infrastructure to access new agricultural inputs.

As a result, millions in the developing world still lacked adequate food supplies. “Important as they are,” conceded Sterling Wortman, the RF’s Vice President who had helped launch IRRI and CIMMYT, the research institutes “could not be depended upon to stimulate increases in production, country by country, that were so necessary.”Sterling Wortman, “Thoughts on IADS,” March 12, 1981, Rockefeller Foundation Records, RG 1.22, Series 119, Box R2942, IADS – Organization and Planning, 1980-1985, RAC.

Wortman believed a new program was needed to build a bridge between the research institutes and the developing world. He began formulating such a program during conversations with Ford Foundation Vice President Forest “Frosty” Hill and others at CGIAR meetings in 1972 and 1973. After further discussions with leading agriculturalists and John A. Pino, Director of the RF’s Agricultural Sciences Division, Wortman wrote a proposal to create the International Agricultural Development Service.

Sterling Wortman’s Proposal for an IADS, 1975

Wortman, IADS’s first president, envisioned the agency as a large-scale technical assistance organization that would launch a multi-pronged attack on rural poverty in the developing world. In his 1975 proposal, Wortman outlined the broad spectrum of activities IADS would help countries undertake: developing and supplying new farm technology, training scientists, building better infrastructure, strengthening extension services, planning long-term strategic goals and projects, working with outside donor agencies, and crafting policy. By adapting to different countries’ needs and working on various issues, IADS would attract support from other foundations, governments, individuals, and industries, garnering the necessary resources to become a one stop shop for the developing world’s agricultural needs.

After receiving backing from the international aid community at another high-level meeting at the Bellagio Study and Conference Center, IADS was formally incorporated by New York State in June 1975. Soon thereafter, the Foundation appropriated $100,000 for the agency in September 1975 and pledged to provide an additional $7-8 million in funds over the next five years. To increase the operational capacity of IADS, the RF also housed the agency, and provided it with scientific personnel and new board members. This support was crucial in providing IADS the resources, time, and space to demonstrate its effectiveness.

A New Type of Program

From the outset, IADS’s mission was driven by the idea that developing countries needed to design and shape their own agricultural programs. The agency explicitly framed itself as a consultant that would work with, and not dictate, mandates to, local institutions.

Wortman’s proposal assumed that North American and European experts lacked scientific and cultural knowledge about the developing world, often crafting strategies that worked better in theory, but not than in practice. For this reason, IADS tried to establish a collaborative and egalitarian relationship with its clients, mandating that staff report to host country agencies and solely represent their interests in talks with potential funders.

The idea was to have IADS field staff “learn along with associated national personnel” as “co-workers” working toward a common goal. Wortman concluded in his proposal,

IADS must not seek to build an empire, but must view its own objective as assisting nations to meet their needs in whatever combination of ways is most sensible and advantageous for the nation.

Sterling WortmanSterling Wortman, “Proposal for an International Agricultural Development Service,” May 15, 1975, Rockefeller Foundation Records, RG 1.22, Series 119, Box R2943, IADS – Organization and Planning, 1973-1975, Rockefeller Archive Center.
IADS Country-Related Activities, 1975-1981

This approach inverted the more top-down approach of the international research institutes. Farming had to be improved on the local level first, IADS reasoned, to make macroeconomic gains and alleviate the larger threats of global hunger and overpopulation.

But some raised questions about how the agency would actually operate in practice. Of principal concern was that IADS structure, mission, and goals were overly broad and ambiguous.

As one anonymous reviewer noted in 1975, IADS tried to address “a kaleidoscope of every international agriculture problem that exists” and lacked “an honest confrontation with the practical realities of getting the over-all job done.” “Millions upon millions of people” would starve, the reviewer predicted, as the agency struggled to implement its lofty, long-term goals.“Comments on Proposal for an International Agricultural Development Service,” October 9, 1975, Rockefeller Foundation Records, RG 1.22, Series 119, Box R2943, IADS – Organization and Planning, 1973-1975, Rockefeller Archive Center. Some technical assistance leaders similarly worried that the “scope of IADS interests is too broad, going far beyond its technical and managerial capabilities.”“The Origin and Scope of IADS Programs: A Summary of Events and Actions Related to the Programs of IADS” December 31, 1980, Rockefeller Foundation Records, RG 1.22, Series 119, Box R2942, IADS – Organization and Planning, 1980-1985, Rockefeller Archive Center.

In response to these concerns, IADS honed its initial priorities. In the fall of 1976, the Board of Trustees decided the agency would first focus on helping nations develop grant proposals and locate relevant training programs.

Eventually, however, IADS reported that countries were increasingly seeking ways to make their research institutions more responsive to farmers’ tangible problems. As a result, “IADS’s own program had expanded considerably” by the end of 1978, with a particular emphasis on helping research institutions build stronger extension and technology transfer services. As IADS continued to shift its focus from research to development, the agency’s board called for larger efforts to help countries develop better marketing systems and transportation infrastructure as well.“The Origin and Scope of IADS Programs: A Summary of Events and Actions Related to the Programs of IADS” December 31, 1980, Rockefeller Foundation Records, RG 1.22, Series 119, Box R2942, IADS – Organization and Planning, 1980-1985, Rockefeller Archive Center.

This expanded focus increased demand for IADS’s services – the agency had worked with at least thirty-six countries by 1981 – and led Sterling Wortman to claim that IADS “may be far more important than any other current activity in the COH [Conquest of Hunger]” program.”Sterling Wortman, “Thoughts on IADS,” March 12, 1981, Rockefeller Foundation Records, RG 1.22, Series 119, Box R2942, IADS – Organization and Planning, 1980-1985, Rockefeller Archive Center.

IADS Faces a Crossroads

Nevertheless, IADS sat at a crossroads in the early 1980s. The RF emerged from the previous decade of economic downturn seeking new ways to “make our limited dollars count.”Rockefeller Foundation 1981 Annual Report (New York:, Rockefeller Foundation, 1981), 20. To address this challenge, the Foundation’s new Agricultural Sciences Division decided to deemphasize interdisciplinary programs and field work, and began to reduce support for initiatives increasingly funded by larger donors. Collectively, these factors led the RF to investigate ways of terminating its support for IADS entirely.

A potential answer emerged in the summer of 1981, when John A. Pino drafted a proposal to merge IADS with the Agricultural Development Council (ADC), founded by John D. Rockefeller 3rd in 1953 to “stimulate and support economic and related activities” in rural Asia, and the Winrock International Research and Training Center (WI), established in 1975 on land owned by former Arkansas governor Winthrop Rockefeller to improve livestock farming. Collectively, these three institutions had over fifty years of experience working in Asia, Africa, the US, and Latin America.

The merger made sense, Pino argued, because each institution carried a Rockefeller affiliation, maintained strong reputations in agriculture, and, perhaps most importantly, specialized in complementary issues. Working under a single umbrella, ADC, IADS, and WI could attract additional funding and pool their resources – human, technical, and financial – to work across a broader spectrum of disciplines in a wider variety of countries. In short, the organizations would be stronger together than apart.

A 1984 New York Times Article Describing the ADC/WI/IADS Merger

RF leaders agreed. By the fall of 1981, the board had agreed to let IADS approach WI about a potential merger. Discussions between IADS, WI, and the ADC continued throughout 1982 and 1983, aided by a $15,000 gift from David Rockefeller to support a merger committee comprised of officials from each organization.

By 1984, a merger seemed likely. It was estimated that the new organization would possess an initial endowment of $30 million, mostly from the Winthrop Rockefeller Charitable Trust, and another $4 million from the Ford Foundation and the RF. The committee also planned to raise additional funds from the Rockefeller family and Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and had recently hired legal and financial consultants to accelerate the union of the three organizations.

After further planning, the new Winrock International Institute for Agricultural Development was formally created in July 1985. Headquartered in Arkansas, the Institute had sixteen field offices at launch and possessed a staff of over 200 people.

In its first six months, Winrock managed with over sixty projects, many of which were previously initiated by IADS, the ADC, and WI, and maintained a portfolio of over $40 million. Today, the Institute works on over one-hundred projects in more than forty countries. It has also broadened its mission to address other global issues in addition to agriculture, including climate change, gender equality, energy conservation, and economic development.

An Uncertain Future

Two years after IADS formed, Sterling Wortman remained unsure of the agency’s future – it could thrive as “one of the Foundation’s more substantial contributions in the field of international agriculture,” but or it could also “fizzle.”“Note on the Involvement of the Foundation in Development of the International Agricultural Research System,” November 23, 1977, Sterling Wortman Papers, Series 1, Box 2, Folder 8, Rockefeller Archive Center.

Despite IADS’s untested approach, however, the agency did not “fizzle.” Instead, it demonstrated the viability of a new interdisciplinary and nationally-focused agricultural strategy in the developing world, attracting support from the wider donor community and paving the way for Winrock International.

Today, Winrock serves as a testament to the RF’s ability to leverage limited resources for maximum gain in international agriculture.

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The Rockefeller Archive Center originally published this content in 2013 as part of an online exhibit called 100 Years: The Rockefeller Foundation (later retitled The Rockefeller Foundation. A Digital History). It was migrated to its current home on RE:source in 2022.