Academics must lead democratic discourse’

 

The University of Malawi (Unima) celebrated its Golden Jubilee last week when Norwegian ambassador KIKKAN HAUGEN, who was guest of honour, challenged lecturers to champion the democratic and development discourse. Haugen spoke to our reporter BONIFACE PHIRI to explain what he meant.

Haugen: There’s untapped potential in the country’s universities
Haugen: There’s untapped potential in the country’s universities
Q

How can the country’s universities help initiate tangible development because Malawi seems to be off-track?

A

First, let me give you the Norwegian university model. In our country, the university, established in 1811, played a crucial role in shaping our identity as a nation during decades leading up to independence; it still does so today. There’s hardly any major policy decision that’s not backed by academic research or any public debate where research and facts do not feature prominently. Political rhetoric or ideology obviously play a role, but hardly any political debate is won without having the knowledge based facts on your side. Moreover, virtually all political decisions use research and references to research institutions to support the choices that are made.

 

Q

So what do we learn from that?

A

Malawi is a poor country and 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. The equivalent in Norway is $30 000 and this means Malawi has a public expenditure per capita 300 times less than Norway’s. When resources are that scarce, one cannot afford to invest in activities that are out of target. One has to spend resources on the target that gives the highest possible returns on every kwacha. In agriculture, studies show that half of the country’s farmers get advice from extension services but that advice isn’t relevant to the local situation. Where is the research that provides factual basis for agricultural policy that ensures that all Malawians are food secure? Research could be there, but it’s not being sufficiently adopted to local variations and may be somehow it doesn’t reach out to policy makers and practitioners.

 

Q

In your view, why is the country’s political economy failing then?

A

I also ask myself the very same questions and I may not have the answers. Indeed, why is Malawi facing this situation despite stability, democratic development and international goodwill and support? Why is Malawi falling behind all its neighbours? Is it because of a poor political economy that has a small elite and strong patron-client relationship with incentives that are not conducive to development? Is the complicated aid architecture with too many agendas and self interests the problem? Or could it be because of a culture of widespread corruption? But there seems to me to be a missing link in the public debate between evidence-based analysis and policy formulation in Malawi. Politicians are certainly there and so is the civil society including the international community, but where is the academia in the public debate and policy formulation? Where are the academia’s fact-based critical answers to why Malawi isn’t doing better? I have a feeling that there’s untapped potential in the country’s universities and there is certainly a need for more policy-relevant research. There is great need for research and its increased impact on policy choices and formulations. I want to challenge the academia in the country to reach out and become a more active player in the public discourse in Malawi.

 

Q

But the academia in Malawi it sometimes threatened by politicians whenever it gives its input…

A

No, that’s quite unfortunate if it happens that way because what I am suggesting is a win-win situation. I am not trying to tell academicians to get involved in politics; rather they should set the pace and trend for public discourse through their fact-based research. They need to actively do this for the good of the nation, otherwise the country will remain stagnant for a long time. The mindset needs to change. n

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