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Supporting local research for development in sub-Saharan Africa: Unpacking the quest for evidence from aid agencies

When does local research qualify as evidence for an aid agency? What makes local research both appealing and useful for an aid agency? Does the demand for local research change between headquarters and country offices of aid agencies? What incentives exist for aid agencies to use locally generated evidence to define their priorities and strategies?

Even when the research is of top scientific quality, it is not always obvious that the results inform development choices and strategies. How can researchers create more impact with their evidence-based work? What research—or research process—can catalyze demand for local development research from aid agencies? What examples exist of an effectively supported virtuous link between the demand and supply of development knowledge?

On May 24, two years after the event African voices on research, policy, and international development in sub-Saharan Africa, the Brookings Africa Growth Initiative, the Global Development Network, and the Africa Economic Research Consortium (AERC), explored these questions in a half-day private event with African development scholars and bilateral and multilateral aid agencies, as well as key philanthropic foundations. The roundtable unpacked current trends in international funding for local research and research capacity building in sub-Saharan Africa.

Research and development in challenging times

The roundtable opened with a broad acknowledgement of the difficult political circumstances facing discussions around research and development today. One speaker highlighted the stark contradiction of a current salient juncture in research: Data that can support development choices has never been more abundant and freely available; at the same time, the value of scientific evidence in political, policy and public discourse, at the national and international level, is being openly challenged. Some participants agreed, emphasizing that much scope remains to strengthen a “deliberative” vision for research—one where the role of research is that of expanding and strengthening the range of options public and political debates on development policy focus on through analytical work that is locally rooted.

Central to this vision is a view of researchers that goes beyond that of an academically sophisticated actor who can be mobilized to answer specific policy questions, but one that takes the initiative to ask (and answer) questions that are relevant to the local development context.

Challenges facing researchers

As many participants said, significant progress has been made in the last two decades in sub-Saharan Africa in economics research: Compared to the situation in the 1990s, today the level of analytical capacity has increased considerably in a number of countries, and development donors are no longer perceived as a source of consultancy work with limited analytical scope.

Despite this progress, major themes surrounding the consequences of the funding practices and influence of donors on ownership and effectiveness of research emerged. Major discussion points included:

  • Agenda setting: The dependency of researchers on international donors for opportunities to finance and implement career-defining research programs still gives the latter ample control over agenda setting in the region (despite important exceptions). Participants noted the contrast between these circumstances and current research funding practices in developed countries, particularly world-class institutions, where researchers are expected by default to investigate their own questions and are valued for their capacity to do so.
  • Supply versus local demand: Too often researchers and donors fail to communicate effectively and build on each other’s knowledge and work. Indeed, many participants noted that research institutions in the region rarely anticipate policy questions, and that their work develops largely in isolation from an analysis of trends in policy work, remaining overwhelmingly reactive.
  • Balancing independence with decisionmaker engagement: Participants emphasized the importance for researchers to have sustained engagements with decisionmakers and an active understanding of the demand for research work, though it was acknowledged that this poses a challenge in terms of resources, and complicates the discussion on the independence of agenda setting. Relatedly, one speaker highlighted that even when new data become available, accessibility and trust ultimately define whether the data will be used. Too often, said one participant, African governments do not trust—or cannot technically refer to—new data because they do not qualify as “official” data. This is confirmed by continent-wide surveys showing that governments rate government’s own research poorly, but nevertheless rely on it most frequently.
  • Disincentives to unbiased research: Given the current constraints on their freedom, researchers have to frame their own priorities and create strong disincentives to acknowledge mistakes and wrong assumptions.
  • Partnership requirements: Though well-intentioned, research funding that requires collaborations between principal investigators from a world-class institution and local researchers often creates a questionable division of labor, restricting the role of the local researcher to data collection. These opportunities also create strong financial incentives for researchers with high capacity working locally to divert their own work towards donor-funded research.

Understanding trends in funding research

Throughout the discussion, donor-affiliated participants acknowledged these obstacles, raised current and potential solutions to address them, and identified new trends and challenges in the funding landscape.

One participant explained that many institutions approach research funding differently. For example, some funding is directly linked to answering questions of interest to the donor, while other funding is earmarked to specific research topics or methodologies (and not to a predefined research question, giving researchers significant leverage). A third category is intended to be flexible enough to allow grantees to conduct the work they deem most important, in the way they deem most appropriate.

It was also noted that long-term, flexible support to research is difficult to sustain for most donors, especially when donors and foundations are increasingly looking for measurement, results, and tangible impact overwhelmingly focused on specific countries or themes. Similarly, politics and fads can influence where funding goes and donors are constantly updating and improving their institutional strategies. Notably, one speaker identified an opportunity in working more with local universities, as they do not face a core funding problem. The speaker argued that the experience of some donors shows that small-scale, demand-based, competitive external funding can go a long way in strengthening research in universities, even when they appear to be ‘captured’ by older generations of researchers and administrators.

Some discussants emphasized that donor support to think tanks to develop a sustainable business model can be as important as long-term core financial support itself.

Prioritizing, but also rethinking, capacity building

Research capacity and strategies for effectively strengthening it emerged as major themes throughout the discussion. Though one participant remarked that capacity of researchers and economists, especially those in government ministries in Africa, has clearly improved, another, though, was less optimistic, stating that research capacity in Africa seems to still be a by-product of academic publishing and that informing policy debates remains a secondary objective.

Many donor-affiliated discussants reiterated their support for capacity building within research grants. Participants specifically recommended a shift in strategy in capacity building, expanding on existing efforts that include communication skills and networking as important training components, to strengthen the capacity of researchers to ask their own questions as the ultimate objective of research capacity building, through more demand-driven funding. The point was made by more than one discussant that ownership in setting research agenda must be considered a key ingredient of aid agencies’ research funding effectiveness, much like for other dimensions of development aid.

Human capital investment, said many, is not being targeted in the right place. When it comes to research, one discussant noted, the priority of research donors should be funding scientists early in their careers—those doing their master’s or Ph.D.—as that’s where the higher returns are. Other participants proposed that economists that end up working in development agencies should also be encouraged to go back to universities, as more and better mentoring for young researchers—especially when it comes to non-academic skills—is needed.

Next steps: Rethinking levels of engagement and the importance of demand-driven funding for research

Throughout the session, a strong call was made to rethink how international funding can strategically strengthen the link between demand and supply of knowledge at the local level, without compromising on the independence of research or taking for granted the capacity of researchers to act as public advocates of their work. The discussion acknowledged that researchers do not always have access to policy side actors, and particularly early-career researchers face limited professional incentives to engage with policy institutions systematically, as they aspire for job security and tenure. This call was echoed by others who argued for the need to embrace a broader definition of policy actor that includes the media and civil society organizations. A speaker noted that institutions—both local research institutions and donors, not individuals—hold the key to pushing knowledge emerging from independent research work in the public and policy sphere, and that requires engaging policy side actors on research questions, not on research finding alone.

Finally, it was broadly acknowledged that more efforts by donors to understand the impact of international research funding on local research, as well as more attention to the long-term benefits of flexible funding (for researchers and research institutions, including universities), are two fundamental keys donors hold to better support the voice and analytical contribution of local research actors to development debates in sub-Saharan Africa.

This roundtable was the closing event of a USAID-funded program through which GDN and AERC have supported the emergence of African voices in academic and policy debates on aid in sub-Saharan Africa.

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