22 November 2012

Africa: A Policymaker's Confessions - Between Knowledge Based Approaches and Political Vigour


We were treated to a fascinating Sussex Development Lecture yesterday from Hege Hertzberg, Political Director for Development in the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Hege is one of those people who can analyse like a researcher, think like a politician and operate effectively as a top civil servant. Quite a combination.

The themes of her talk?

(1) policy is usually evidence based - but often the evidence is selected to be consistent with the message. This is quite common because evidence is often contradictory, fractured and certainly not neutral - not when it comes to much social science. (I would add that systematic reviews can help to locate a centre of gravity, but they often serve to highlight heterogeneity and sometimes exacerbate it by comparing apples and oranges in an uncritical way).

(2) most research papers are not useful in policymaking because there are too many caveats and clauses and in any case they are too long. Part of this is because the issues are complex and part is because researchers don't like to stick their neck out (there are weak incentives to do so, let's face it). Researchers should not stop striving for academic journals - but if they want their work to be used they need to go beyond their comfort zone and talk about their findings, recommendations and warnings in ways that non-researchers can understand.

(3) her the most effective way of learning about new research is by attending workshops and meetings and by talking to researchers, developing working relationships with them over the years and by reading blogs (2 minute videos? - depends).

(4) Hege used the MDGs to illustrate some of her points, describing them as a masterpiece of policymaking. Pointing out that the 8 goals (7 before they remembered to add in Environment) were agreed in non-inclusive way, and that this was accepted because no-one really thought they would be important. She said that is certainly not the case now. She also wondered what the MDGs would look like if they had been evidence based rather than policy message based. Would they have been better?

(5) She said she thought it was unlikely to be politically acceptable to national leaders to meet at the September 2015 UN General Assembly just to announce more of the same on the MDGs. She said national politicians would want to announce something bold. She felt (as I do) that the goals have to generate a clear and accountable obligation for all countries.

For example on zero hunger, there were obligations of rich, emerging and poor countries to do something. For rich countries for example, relax the "best before" deadlines on packaged foods so that less food gets wasted (and, I might add, reform the CAP!).

I won't share with you her 6 confessions, but I did think drawing up a list of my own confessions would be a good topic for a future blog.

It is no surprise to me that Hege was so insightful and provocative - I have been on several panels with her before.

But then, she started her career in nutrition and we know how provocative those types can be.

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