And, as we are in Malawi: Moni nonse. Lero ndili osangala chifukwa kuzakhala nanu!
I will use this opportunity to talk about three issues that are close to my heart.
- The Norwegian university and research model and how I think that has contributed to our society – a layman’s perspective!
- How research can be instrumental in development
- How academia could (and should) contribute more in Malawi
1. The Norwegian university and research model
The University of Norway was established in 1811. That was just before Norway got its own constitution in 1814 and well before we attained our independence in 1905. The university and other academic institutions played important roles in shaping our identity as a nation during the decades leading up to independence. And the role of academia shaping our society still remains today. There is hardly any major policy decision that is not backed by academic research nor any public debate where research and facts do not feature prominently. Political rhetoric and political ideology obviously also play a role, but hardly any political debate is won without having the knowledge based facts on your side. Virtually all political decisions, small or big, use research or references to research institutions to support the choice that is made.
How has research gotten such a strong position in our society? I think there are two major reasons for this.
Firstly, the Nordic research model has traditionally been based on free and independent research. It has not been dominated by narrow project defined topics and resources, nor has it been subject to undue political interference. Despite much of research being financed through government resources, the ideology of a free and independent research is strongly imbedded. It is also accepted that universities and academia have a critical voice to the established systems and challenge the very systems that support them.
Secondly, research reaches out. It does not just stay inside laboratories or end up in dusty drawers. Members of academia are prominent voices in the Norwegian public debate. In addition to politicians and members of civil society, and perhaps representatives from the private sector, a public debate in Norway will typically include a researcher. Who is not only highly professional in his or her area of expertise, but who will typically also be able to formulate and communicate in a way that contributes to understanding and informed discussions. It would be almost unthinkable to have public debates in Norway on issues like foreign policy, education or health systems without the active participation of academia. And if the researchers or members of academia lack the adequate communication skills, their research and their messages will often be picked up by media or think tanks to communicate them into the public sphere.
2. How research can be instrumental in development?
Malawi is a very poor country. If you break down the national budget and see how much is available for each citizen of the country, you get a figure of about 100 USD dollars. The equivalent in Norway is 30.000 USD dollars. That means that Malawi has 300 times less for public expenditure per capita! When resources are that scarce, one cannot afford to invest in the wrong activities. One has to be sure that you invest in the most cost-effective development investments that gives you the highest return possible on every Kwacha.
There are good examples in Malawi on how research contributes to evidence based policy decisions. One example would be The College of Medicine and its affiliates that has done research that drastically contributes to improved treatment regimes for malaria and aids. That is crucial in a poor country like Malawi.
But so much more is needed. Research needs to be policy relevant and targeted at the local situations. We know, for instance, too little on what are the most cost effective interventions on how to prevent hiv/aids. In Malawi, studies show that half of the farmers experience that the advice they are given through extension services are not relevant for their local situation. Another example is the promotion of pit planting being promoted nationally regardless of local rainfall patterns. This would indicate that the research is not sufficiently adopted to local variations, or, alternatively, that research does not reach out to policy makers and practitioners. Where is the research that provides the factual basis for an agricultural policy that ensures that Malawians become food secure? Where is the research that provides the factual basis for an economic policy leads the way out of the poverty trap and stops Malawi having a economic development that does not keep up with the population growth?
3. How can academia contribute in Malawi?
We all love Malawi. We all want Malawi and its people to succeed. Malawi is a beautiful country with wonderful and friendly people. Some good progress has been made. Democracy is developing, the media is free and Malawi got recognition at the UPR hearing in Geneva in May last year for progress on human rights. More children are going to school and infant mortality is going down.
Still, sadly, Malawi is falling behind. The Honourable Minister of Finance said it very clearly in his budget speech in 2014. Malawi is not doing well enough. Our economy has grown three times since independence, he said, but in the same period the population has grown four times.
In my perspective, the UNDP Human Development Report gives the most sensible and thorough understanding on global development. It supports and documents the idea that development is about more than economics, or as Dan Banik is quoted in your book – development as a deliberate movement of societies towards a situation of more liveable life conditions. In the 2015 Human Development Report, Malawi is in place 173. Of 188 countries. Most countries behind Malawi have been torn apart by conflict. If you look at gross national income per capita, only the Central African Republic and The Democratic Republic of Congo are poorer than Malawi.
Why is this? Why, despite stability, democratic development and international goodwill and support does Malawi not do better? Why is Malawi falling behind its neighbours? Is it just because of poor politics? Is it because of a political economy that has a small elite and strong patron client relationships with incentives that are not conducive to development? Is it because of lack of priorities in a situation where resources are so scarce? Or is the complicated aid architecture with too many agendas and self-interests that is the problem? Or perhaps a culture of widespread corruption? Or is it, as one of the chapters in your book indicate, because of one-party political culture still being deeply intact despite more than twenty years of democracy.
I don't know the answers to these questions. But let me challenge you a bit. There seems to me to be a missing link in the public debate, analysis and policy formulation in Malawi. The politicians are certainly there. So is civil society. So is the international community. But where are you - academia - in the public debate and policy formulation? Where are your fact based answers to why Malawi is not doing better? Can you honestly look yourselves in the eye and say that you are satisfied with your contribution to development in Malawi? Could you have done more? Should you have done more?
This question is not for me to answer, but for you. But I have a feeling that there is an untapped potential here. For more policy relevant research. For having research as a more prominent basis for priorities and policy choices. And for you to reach out and be a more active actor in the public discourse in Malawi. That - in my humble opinion - would be a win-win situation for all. Not least for the people of the this beautiful country.
A Norwegian researcher and politician – Gudmund Hernes – defined research as follows: Research is to read two books that no one has ever read to write a third one that no one will ever read. Let the launch of this book today prove him wrong – let us together ensure that your research will have an impact on development in Malawi!
With these words - congratulations again. Chisangalalo Chabwino Nonse. Zikomo!