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Academia

Hidden links

by Michael Bohnet

In depth

Research shaping policy: Scholars had made the proposals for debt relief ahead of the G8 summit  in Cologne in 1999

Research shaping policy: Scholars had made the proposals for debt relief ahead of the G8 summit in Cologne in 1999

The social sciences and development agencies share quite a bit of common ground. Researchers, civil servants and policymakers have a lot to learn from one other, and they have more oppor­tunities for doing so than meets the eye. By Michael Bohnet

Both sides are likely to benefit from the process of translation and re-translation that permanently bridges the divide between scholars and developmental policymakers. Researchers tend to bene­fit from practical experience, and policymakers appreciate evidence-based advice. Nonetheless, there is a general impression of two separate worlds – and of academic research having no bearing on policy.

One reason for this misperception is the divergence of information systems. Scholars rely on books and essays, with authors predominantly quoting their peers. They tend to overestimate the “wisdom” of academia and underestimate the knowledge of practitioners.

The world of policy drafts could hardly be more different. Development agencies produce all sorts of papers, plans and docu­ments, but their authors assiduously avoid referring to books or academic journals out of fear of being criticised for out-dated information. In my experience, ­development professionals say among themselves that scholars only publish books on issues that have already been dealt with.

For officers of development agencies, books bear other risks too. An official found reading one on duty is in immediate danger of being transferred to another desk where there is “serious” work to do. Permanent time pressure, of course, contributes to practitioners not taking anything with an ISBN number into account. For officialdom, the truth rests in the files.

In truth, however, the impact of theories on development strategies is quite strong. There are eight channels that allow scientific insight to trickle into policymaking.

Eight bridges from theory to practice

1. In spite of the sarcastic statements made above, some professionals do use books and essays to get informed, and that is obviously most likely to happen in their formative years and when they tackle issues they are not yet familiar with.

2. Magazines such as “D+C Development and Cooperation” or its Dutch compe­tition “The Broker” find more readers in development agencies than books do. In the mid-1990s, the essays on crisis prevention that the German E+Z published made a strong impression on policymakers at Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).

3. Out of need, policymakers sometimes assign scholars to provide expert opinions which, accordingly, often prove quite influential. Those who assign such studies, moreover, are likely to engage in detailed discussion with those who write them, which tends to have even more impact than the written docu­ments. One example was a report drafted on behalf of the BMZ to assess the impacts of development cooperation on German industries.

4. For years, the BMZ’s council of aca­demic advisors, which was recently replaced by a similar innovation council, made sure there was continuous dialogue and mutual learning. The five criteria the BMZ uses to decide which countries to support was based on an expert report on “Principles and priorities of development policy for the 1990s”. The five criteria are respect for human rights, public participation in politics, rule of law, market-oriented policy and the development mindedness of governments.

5. The Bundestag Committee on Eco­nomic Cooperation plays a role too. Its hearings on North-South relations in the late 1970s shaped BMZ guidelines in the early 1980s.

6. The Bundestag’s Enquête Commissions have similarly proved influential. For instance, there was an Enquête Commission on protecting the atmosphere in the 1980s. Many scientists contributed, and the result was evident in Germany’s stance at the UN Summit on Envi­ronment and Development in Rio de ­Janeiro in 1992.

7. Many development professionals first become interested in development issues as students at university. It is common for masters and doctoral theses to tackle relevant topics. Moreover, many researchers from influential institutes are later employed by development agencies. This kind of biography is probably the most effective bridge for ­making academic knowledge fruitful for practical purposes.

8. Public debate matters very much. The BMZ takes note when major daily newspapers publish relevant research results. Every minister holds weekly meetings or more to assess media coverage, not only of his or her performance, but also of all topics relating to the ministry’s jurisdiction. In my experience, this kind of media coverage has a strong impact on policymakers.

Decisive impact

At the international level, scholars have similarly left their marks on policymaking. Many of today’s notions and strategies would never have been drafted, had it not been for foundations that were first laid by scholars.

– In its report to the UN in 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development (“Brundtland Commission” for short) analysed the interrelatedness of these two fields of policymaking, thus laying the foundation for the idea of environmentally sustainable development, which is generally accepted today. Consequences include, among other things, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.

– The G8 summit in Cologne in 1999 decided to link debt relief to good governance and the fight against poverty. At the time, Germany’s Federal Government proposed this initiative in favour of highly indebted poor countries (HIPC). It resulted in bilateral debts worth $ 70 billion and multilateral debts worth $ 40 billion being dropped by 2005. The HIPC programme was based on work by scholars such as Thomas Kampffmeyer and Manfred Nitsch.

– To tackle global problems, policymakers have to join forces at the global level. Humankind therefore needs institutions to facilitate such “global governance”. The very term was coined by Franz Nuscheler, Dirk Messner and their colleagues at the University of Duisburg’s Institute for Development and Peace Studies. Their ideas had a strong impact on Germany’s approach to international development.

– International debate on taxes has been driven by economic scholars. In 1972, James Tobin first proposed taxes on financial transactions. On behalf of BMZ, Helmut Helmschrott and Stephan Teschner prepared a study on the scope for funding development programmes with national and international levies. In 2001, the BMZ asked economist Paul Bernd Spahn to do research into whether an international tax on financial trans­actions was feasible. His result was positive. After years of debate, the governments of Germany and France are now in favour of such an international tax.

These examples prove that the gap between policymaking and scholarship is not as wide as many lament. Researchers must not despair; their work is valued more than it may seem. Its real-world impact, however, is likely to be long term and hard to follow up in detail. All too often, we do not even notice when scholarship becomes policy.