Monday, November 19, 2007

An interview with the AERC Executive Director

The only way to overcome the lack of means to finance high quality economic research in Africa is to strengthen cooperation as well as research networks and institutions, says William Lyakurwa(photo), the Executive Director of the African Economic Research Consortium. In an interview with the Bank Group’s internal e-bulletin, Bank in Action, on the sidelines of the African Economic Conference, jointly organized by the AfDB and ECA in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, from November 15-17, 2007, Mr. Lyakurwa underscored the importance of research in development.

Interview with Prof. William Lyakurwa, Executive Director Of the African Economic Research Consortium.

Question: What is the rationale behind the organization of a major conference for researchers in Africa?

Answer: You see, the idea of the African Economic Conference was mooted between some of us in the research network and the AfDB chief economist office, discussing broadly that we needed an avenue for UNECA, AfDB and AERC (to) be able to organise, on an annual basis, a conference bringing together a larger number of policy-makers and researchers to share experiences and research findings on policy-making. Being associated with the research network for many years now, I think research on its own, is not adequate. We have to make policy relevant research which informs the policy-making process in Africa. Africa is faced with major challenges. The political processes do not have the time to sit and think through these difficulties in greater detail. They need researchers who have a lot of time to think through the difficult issues, conduct research using data so that political decisions are informed by empirical evidence and not just gut feeling.

Do you think there is reliable research on the continent today?

Answer: Well, to a very large extent. If I take, for example, the case of the African Economic Research Consortium which is about 20 years old, we have built a cadre of researchers across the sub-continent. We are now counting more than 1,500 that have been involved with AERC purely on the research side. Additionally, we have a built a cadre of economists through our graduate training programme to augment the pool of potential researchers. At the master level, we have supported well over 1,600. At the PhD level, we have supported over 250; with many also participating in the AERC research network. There are, therefore significant complementarities between augmenting the pool of potential researchers and policy professionals and the conduct of research, and these two avenues have built a credible mass of researchers in the continent that is helping us to inform the policy-making process. Additionally, some of the researchers have graduated from being purely researchers to being policy-makers. And that is the link, the real important link I have seen over the years. My organization has been building the capacities of researchers and informing the policy process, not only in terms of research output, but also in terms of the manpower that has been created. We have a few researchers that joined the network as young researchers who are now governors of central banks and ministers of international cooperation. They are heads of para-statals; they are heads of government departments. That is where it makes the difference. The change and appreciation of research through these people is significant. And I believe this is the way we should proceed.

Question: How do you explain that we have a huge research potential in Africa, but not many Africans have been awarded prizes like the Nobel Prize or the Allan Powel Prize which was, for the first time, given to an African, Ben Hammouda?

Answer: The research profile of Africans is relatively new. To be able to build the confidence and competence to compete internationally for such awards, you require a long gestation period. Before the creation of AERC 20 years ago, many African researchers were working in isolation and were not recognised. It is true that by bringing researchers to work together, we are beginning to see the talent that exists and the quality of work they are producing. We are already seeing that happen. And it will take a while before this goes beyond the continent. Let me give you a little example. We have a PhD programme, which is Africa-based. It is only five years old, and we are beginning to see the first graduates of these collaborative effort. One of our graduates was competing internationally for an IMF position which had short-listed about 42 applicants to pick 2, and he was picked as one of them. He had not even finished his thesis. This proves that there is talent on the continent, but it needs to be nurtured and brought to bear so that it can also participate and be seen internationally. If these individuals do not get recognized internationally, we will continue to remain in the backyard.

Question: In your presentation, you dwelt on networking and cooperation. Why are networking and cooperation so important in research?

Answer: Essentially, when you have a scattered array of researchers who are working independently, the best way to get these people to work together is through a networking process. That means you are networking individuals in various locations to work and collaborate in order for them to know each other. We have also instituted some kind of research peer review as part of the network. This implies that members do not only do research and submit, but it is reviewed by their peers, and there is peer pressure to enhance the quality of research. You also get network members who bring to bear the frontiers of knowledge. So there is one, peer review, two, peer pressure and three the frontiers of knowledge in order to enhance the quality of research. The second aspect of collaboration, particularly within the context of providing a good graduate programme, most departments of economics on the continent are fairly weak. There is no single department that can offer an internationally recognised degree programme. So there is need for collaboration; collaborating in order to agree one, on curriculum, that is reviewed regularly so that it meets international standards, to agree on the quality of the teaching that has an important aspect. One, it brings issues of institutional pressure and quality control. Two, there is joint enforcement of standards, so we are enforcing common standards across institutions which would not have been possible if every institution insisted on their own standards. So, the joint enforcement of standards is central. Three, it allows you to use limited resources across a wide array of departments. It also allows you to offer a larger menu of courses as you collaborate, as would have been the case for a single department that has three or four professors that may only offer three courses. But when you collaborate you can offer more than 10 courses and tap into the university system to get the best of the best to teach in each one of the courses that you have selected. That is the essence of collaboration.

Question: The consortium is, henceforth, going to be associated with the preparation of the African Economic Outlook. This publication has, in the past, been prepared by the AfDB and OECD. Besides, there are five regional research centres that will be associated with the preparation of this report. Is it important that African research centres be given visibility through reports prepared by major institutions?

Answer: Absolutely correct! You are just underscoring the point I made earlier. The only way to showcase African talent is to make sure you use that talent in ways that portray them externally. In using the network of researchers to contribute, for instance, to the African Economic Review, and identifying some of the key players in that report, you are essentially indicating that the talent exists. There is no better way. If, for instances, if we get the output of the African Economic Conference, the plenary paper and discussion papers published in a book format and distributed, then you are making these available to a larger audience. They will then be assessed in terms of output quality and the authors known across the globe. The profile of the researchers will therefore be enhanced, and that is how they will be recognised internationally.

Question: Research requires a lot of money, but does not generate a lot of it in Africa. Don’t you think research prospects on the continent are not really great?

Answer: Well, you have touched on a very important issue. Research is a public good. It has to be financed from public resources. Unfortunately, the priorities for public resources are spread such that research comes almost at the bottom of the ladder. That is why at research institutions such as AERC, we have relied, to a very large extent, on external financing for research. But at least a good many of our development partners recognise the value of research in informing policy- making. However, let me add that good research is contributing to informing policy-making and good researchers are themselves becoming policy-makers. Priorities for research on the continent are beginning to change. We are already beginning to see some African central banks and African ministries of finance underscoring need to support research. For so long, research has been the low priority, but it is increasingly getting attention. We believe that as it continues to shape up the debate for economic governance, it will receive the attention it requires and, possibly, get a larger share of the resource base in order to enhance its profile.

Question: Besides the government, what role do you assign to the private sector? In other parts of the world, especially in the North America and Europe, the private sector is a key player in research and development.

Answer: You are right! That is a very good point. Many of the large private corporations in Africa are not Africa-based. They are subsidiaries of multinationals, the big banks and others. The headquarters finance research. I have always had discussions with some of these large corporations in terms of financing research. We need to demonstrate that good economic governance is good for business. Once we demonstrate that good economic governance is good for business, and that what contributes to good economic governance is good empirical research that informs the policy process, they will then start to deal with research organizations. That is the way we should look at things.

Interview by Chawki Chahed.

An interview with the AERC Executive Director