Strengthening Research Institutions: Learning From Doing

The institutional capacity of research institutions in Africa remains relatively weak. This study explored what could be done to strengthen those capacities, in particular through understanding the views of African researchers on this question. Through a series of interviews and document reviews, the study explores the options. The study was commissioned by the MasterCard Foundation to assist in its design efforts around its new strategy on the Changing Nature of Work in Africa. We found limited focus on the topic within the African research institutes – they had not been commissioned for such work. This study takes a sustainability perspective on institutional capacities. That is, the focus is not on the success of capacity strengthening initiatives themselves, but on how the institution is positioned for sustainability over the long term. What was clear from the interviews as well as the studies and evaluations we reviewed is that the question of institutional capacity cannot be divorced from the question of functional research capacities of its members. That said, some key points emerged around the limited opportunities for African research institutions to make their own choices and the lack of resources to support the activities and operations that make for strong institutions. We characterize these as the ‘4Ps’: People, Products, Processes, Property. Resources to build this mix are precious and are severely limited under current funding models in use by most research institutions in Africa. The constant turnover of staff (who often move to donor agencies or international NGOs), undermines the potential for many research organizations. As well, the short time frames and donor management of priorities have not led to strong African research institutions. This study explores the mechanisms that are seen as valuable to strengthening research institutions as well as the models ‘Africa needs to be a player in the knowledge economy and for that research is essential.’ African Researcher 4 that have been in play. It does not recommend one model; rather, based on the perspectives of African researchers, it advocates a long-term perspective on building research institutions and doing so in true partnership with those researchers. It recommends changing the policies that guide institutional strengthening initiatives. The text was built out of the interviews that were conducted. The voices of African researchers are prominent in this study, voices that are too seldom heard in these discussions about the capacity strengthening of African research institutions. If there were to be a single recommendation it is that these voices should be at the centre of any design effort. They will not always speak with one voice as there are many perspectives on how best to proceed. But with time and persistence a way forward will be identified and new approaches to institutional strengthening designed, tested, and improved.

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