The Gothenburg Graduates and their Impact in Africa – How Aid has Worked

An Interview with Wisdom Akpalu

29 August 2013

Carl-Gustav Lindén

Since 1997 the University of Gothenburg, Sweden has been running a unique PhD programme on environmental and development economics with a large participation of graduate students from developing countries. This long-term capacity-building programme has been financed by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Sida.

The objective of the PhD programme ‘is to build capacity in developing countries to teach, to do research, and to give policy advice in environmental and climate economics and sustainable development‘. Developing countries are highly exposed to local and global environmental problems and face many serious environmental and natural resource-related problems. It is hence important for them to possess the local capacity to analyze and give policy advice on these issues.

At the ReCom Results Meeting ‘Aid and our Changing Environment’ on 4 June 2013 two former students participated as contributors. One of them was Wisdom Akpalu, who received his PhD in economics from the University of Gothenburg in 2006, and is now Associate Professor of Economics at State University of New York (SUNY), and Director at Center for Environmental Economics Research & Consultancy (CEERAC) in Ghana. (His presentation at the event can be found here.) The other one was Eseza Katerega, Dean and Senior Lecturer at the School of Economics, Makerere University in Uganda (her presentation is here).

We asked Wisdom Akpalu about the Sida-funded programme, and the role its graduates are now playing in Africa.

So could you please tell me: what is the Gothenburg mafia?

‘Well, it is a term that a couple of friends use now. The idea is that we of those in Gothenburg are gradually becoming very integrated. It is not really used in the sense of mafia per se, but in a positive way – that we are becoming more connected and they see us everywhere due to the impact we are making.’

So after you graduated from Gothenburg with your PhDs you have been able to make use of your education in the research and policy making area?

‘I am happy to say that most of my colleagues are really at responsible places, positions within the continent and they are doing very marvellous things. For instance, I have one colleague who is the head of the Economics Department at the University of Cape Town, which is the top university in Africa. I have others who are heads of departments at other universities as well on the continent, and some who are teaching graduate students, advising graduate students and master students and building capacity all over the place. So I would say yes, we have colleagues who are occupying responsible places and making big impact on the continent.’

Do you think the Sida programme has been effective?

‘Before I came to Gothenburg I was a Lecturer at the University of Cape Coast in Ghana. But I did not have the skills to be able to do research and come out with research findings that can help policy makers.’

‘But then I was selected to come to Gothenburg thanks to Sida who generously sponsored my studies. I learnt a lot: in fact the programme was the best I could get. I was able to study methodologies and we were also given opportunities to work on issues affecting developing countries. I did some of my research on fisheries management, some on gold mining in tropical rain forests. In fact, when I started working on economics of fisheries management in Ghana nobody was working on those issues.’

Wisdom Akpalu now experiences that people contact him to say his research is interesting and relevant, also for policy-making.

‘I think, yes, coming to Gothenburg has not only helped me as a person but it had helped others by way of referring to my research. Also, I try as much as possible to do some capacity building by teaching and advising graduate students.’

His personal wish is that Sida will continue to fund the programme as this is a form of aid that certainly works and capacity building is much needed.

‘I see so many things that need to be done. I can’t do it alone so we need more people to be trained and I think, over time, we will be able to make even bigger impact if we really have the critical capacity.’

The university has announced that the next deadline for applications will be sometime during spring 2014 – assuming that the programme will be funded by Sida. Usually around 150 to 200 applicants compete for five scholarships.