home
the team
newsletters
about
cape town
stnews
downloads
links
 
   

This article is taken from the July 2000 Phatlalatsa newsletter

 

Research and a Learning Government

David Everatt looks at the role of research in development and its implications for delivery.

An increasingly common complaint made by some researchers is that too much research work is applied, and not enough aims to generate ‘new knowledge’. There is some truth to this, and it reflects a series of related factors:

  • the focus of government on delivery rather than the ‘luxury’ of non-applied research;
  • the failure of the HSRC and other research funding agencies to tackle the issue of research funding creatively;
  • choices by donors;
  • the failure of research NGOs and consultancies to generate research designs that attract funds;
  • and, finally, the rush of academic researchers into the arena of consulting to top up their salaries.

It is insufficient to complain that too much research is applied as if that is a cause: it is the result of choices made by researchers, donors and government. The way to break out of it is to design better non-applied research projects.

But the main response to the assertion is that it reflects considerable ignorance of the mechanics, value and relevance of applied research. Those of us involved in applied research are fully aware of how much new and applied knowledge the research generates. A more appropriate criticism may be that those involved in applied research don’t publish enough.

S&T has designed monitoring systems for a series of anti-poverty programmes, including the Consolidated Municipal Infrastructure Programme, the Community Based Public Works Programme, the Poverty Relief Programme, e-Justice, the Labour Market Skills Development Programme and others. At first glance these may appear to be mechanical performance and progress monitoring systems. In reality, however, they are fascinating records of delivering anti-poverty programmes in deep rural areas; they measure and analyse the roles of women, youth, traditional leaders and other key local players; measure changing levels of poverty and the effect of government’s development interventions; and much more.

Applied research, in short, is a powerful mechanism for uncovering new knowledge. In a society as deeply ignorant about itself as South Africa, applied research provides a powerful tool for uncovering new knowledge that in turn can assist in poverty alleviation strategies.

However, this begs the question: is government interested in learning what researchers have to tell them? Are monitoring systems and other applied research mechanisms a requirement or an instrument for learning?

The second five-year term of the ANC government is dominated by President Mbeki’s desire to ‘deliver’, which has been widely hailed. At the first Cabinet meeting after the election, tardy Cabinet Ministers were seen literally sprinting up the stairs of the Union Buildings, terrified of being late for the new President. The focus on delivery is evident in most departments.

However, few people have stopped to ask: delivering what? in what ways? The emphasis on delivery is in danger of becoming a numbers game, proving that so many roads or houses or dams have been built - regardless of basic developmental concerns. If this trend continues, monitoring systems – designed to measure attacks on poverty – will become mechanical exercises counting units not measuring empowerment and the war on poverty.

We know it all

The danger of research (of any type) failing to inform government is reflected in the rhetoric of the civil service. Since the new government took office, the ‘line’ coming out of many government departments – particularly those focusing on delivery – is "we know what we’re doing – we just need to refine it a little bit and then monitor it". This is worrying.

As soon as anyone involved in development delivery believes ‘we know it all’ they are in serious danger of failure. Communities are not static entities to whom blueprints can simply be applied – unless we wish to re-learn the lessons of failed development from virtually every developing country in the world. Development is slow. Communities have to be reached, brought on board and participate fully. Something that works well in village A may fail in village B, mere kilometres away.

A learning government

We all want a government that realises the value of research, both applied and more academic in orientation. On the one hand, the challenge lies with the research community to demonstrate that quality work adds value. The damage done by a poor piece of work such as the study on racism in the media commissioned by the Human Rights Commission is enormous, and puts us all on the defensive, trying to ‘prove’ that methodologically sound research is of real value.

We have to come up with research designs that are relevant and attractive to donors. In turn, we have to develop conclusions that can be communicated to government, civil servants, NGOs, communities and others. The onus is on us – as it should be – to demonstrate that good research is a valuable investment.

But there is an urgent need for government to be reminded that the war on poverty is a developmental exercise, and that research has an important role to play. We are very far from ‘knowing it all’ and research is a critical tool in helping us learn more about delivery and poverty.

However, the first year of the Mbeki government saw speed become more important than quality. We know good development can’t happen quickly. The critical issue facing the government is which will they give way on – development or speed?

 

[top] [to ] [Previous page]
     
home
the team
newsletters
about
contact
stnews
downloads
links