Research and a Learning GovernmentDavid 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
- the focus of government on delivery rather than the ‘luxury’ of
- 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
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?