The untold story: IDRC supported researchers transform economic policy in Africa

August 17, 2017

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UNU-WIDER

SERIES: STRENGTHENING ECONOMIC RESEARCH

When Tony Muhumuza was appointed Uganda’s national economist for the United Nations Development Program, he was cognizant of the great responsibility that came with his new role as policy analyst and adviser. Although he had just completed his master’s degree and PhD in economics, both supported by IDRC grantee the African Economic Research Consortium (AERC), and he had worked as a research fellow at the Economic Policy Research Centre in Uganda, he knew that an even greater challenge lay ahead in linking economic research to policy.

Concerned that he lacked the expertise to engage policymakers at the highest levels of government, he underwent additional training from the AERC on research engagement. “After this training,” he said, “I felt confident talking to policymakers about using evidence for decision-making.”

Muhumuza exemplifies the AERC’s commitment to advancing economic policy research and training in Africa. He is a beneficiary of the AERC’s two main programs: the training program in specialized applied economics and the research granting program that trains, mentors, and supports African researchers on internationally recognized methodologies and effective research-to-policy engagement.

Training Africa’s leading economists

When the AERC was established in Nairobi, Kenya as an IDRC project in 1988, the notion of “evidence-based policymaking” had not yet found traction in Africa. There was a severe shortage of well-trained, locally based economists to carry out policy-oriented research to inform decision-makers on the continent.

The Consortium has succeeded in developing a new generation of economists and policymakers. The AERC training program has produced more than 2,700 master’s and 400 PhD graduates, the majority of whom are engaged as high-level policymakers or posted in public universities. The program has achieved this by collaborating with universities across the continent to offer post-graduate programs and to support PhD thesis research. “Most departments of economics in African universities thrive on AERC-trained faculty members,” says Innocent Mashe, director of training at AERC. Aikaeli Jehovaness, the chair of economics at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, asserts that “more than 80% of my staff members are either graduates of AERC training programs or teach in these programs.”

Many of the policy actors Muhumuza engages with in government and non-government organizations in Uganda are AERC alumni. “During the policy roundtable on the National Development Plan in Uganda, when I met and presented our recommendations to Patrick Birungi, the director of development planning at the National Planning Authority in Uganda, I realized that my work was made much easier because he too is an AERC alumnus,” said Muhumuza. “He understands both the research process and practical policy application.”

Fostering policy-relevant research

Through small grants and collaborative research activities, the AERC research program has mentored more than 3,400 African researchers from 25 countries. Its flexible approach improves the technical skills of local researchers, allows for regional determination of research priorities, and strengthens national institutions concerned with economic policy research. Collaborative research and other projects have involved 300 researchers and provided sound evidence for many aspects of sub-Saharan Africa’s economic development, from monetary policy and agriculture to trade and health. A recent IDRC-supported example is a research project on China-Africa Relations, where more than 50 papers were published focusing on the country and sector-specific impacts of the relationship with China and the opportunities and challenges for African development.

According to Olu Ajakaiye, the former director of research at AERC, “It is no exaggeration to state that without AERC's collaborative research project on poverty, many African countries would not have been in a position to prepare and apply the poverty reduction strategy papers (PRSPs) increasingly required by the donor community.” It is due in part to the ownership and effective implementation of its PRSPs that Uganda was able to reduce the proportion of the population living below the national poverty line from 56% in 1992–93 to 19.7% in 2013.

Today’s challenge centres on innovation to help “Africa’s economic renaissance be more inclusive and sustainable,” said Lemma Senbet, the AERC’s executive director. AERC’s training is conducted using international methods to give young leaders hands-on experience of economic management and equipping them with the knowledge and skills essential to modern-day economists. The highly-rated training is conducted by internationally renowned scholars from Africa and beyond.

“I had the opportunity to interact with the trainers and the students, as well as participate in research workshops to assess new proposals and peer review new research,” said Robin Sannassee, a senior policy advisor and scholar in Mauritius. “I feel confident that the AERC is capable of addressing the economic policy concerns of Africa without relying heavily on external experts.”

AERC is at the forefront of strengthening local capacity to carry out independent, rigorous inquiry into sub-Saharan Africa’s economic challenges, but these achievements have not covered all of the countries in the region. Post-conflict and fragile states have not benefitted at the same scale as other countries. The main reason for this is the highly competitive nature of the AERC capacity building framework. To address this gap, the AERC designed an IDRC-supported research and training program focused on building leaders in economic management in fragile and post-conflict countries. 

Watch a documentary about the AERC’s origin, growth, and contribution to the African continent.

 

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