Blog
Inequality Is Rising

by Giovanni Andrea Cornia

by Giovanni Andrea Cornia

After four and a half years at UNU/WIDER, on 1 January 2000 I will be returning to Florence and the Innocenti Research Centre of UNICEF as well as to teach development economics at the University of Florence.

The Institute that I joined in August 1995 was a mixture of long-standing academic prestige and short-term (but potentially damaging) problems. The latter included declining funding, poor relations with the host country and donor community, and limited contact with the policymaking and UN communities. Most of all, UNU/WIDER needed to rejuvenate its research agenda by focusing on the epochal changes that started in the late 1980s.

These problems need to be seen in the context of the hard work of my two predecessors, a first rate local staff and the many scholars - from over 80 countries - who participated in building the Institute’s research in the first ten years of its life. During that time, UNU/WIDER earned a good reputation for its research standards, particularly in the fields of famine, trade and unorthodox macroeconomics.

Recent Years

With this valuable inheritance in mind, and conscious of the problems, we concentrated our efforts on creating a new research agenda, improving research management and increasing the policy impact of UNU/WIDER research.

Much of the ‘old’ research agenda - especially poverty and unequal international relations - remains valid and must be pursued with renewed vigour. Rural poverty remains resilient, basic social services still reach too few people, and Africa continues to be marginalised.

But new problems have emerged. The number of humanitarian emergencies has risen alarmingly over the last decade, and conflict prevention as well as the reconstruction of war-torn societies are controversial. Furthermore, the widespread failure of the transition to a market economy in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union is both unexpected and largely unexplained. And so too is the surge in inequality seen in the last two decades. In turn, globalization can create instability, and is taking place in a global regulatory vacuum. The benefits of information technology remain elusive, and its impact on work is unclear. These issues are therefore featured in the Institute’s new research agenda.

Since 1995-6, UNU/WIDER has aimed to increase the core of its resident scholars so as to have the critical mass of researchers - and the fruits of interaction - found in university economics departments. Our research is now more cost-effective with earlier deadlines for completion. Previously, it often took up to 5 or 6 years to complete a research project and disseminate its findings - thus limiting its policy impact. Now the aim is to contain research within a biennium by more actively supervising its progress without sacrificing its quality.

Reducing low-priority expenditures, cost sharing with sponsors, flexible contract arrangements and the elimination of a few support-staff positions have increased the costeffectiveness of our research. These savings went into expanding the research and training programme, increasing the number of resident research staff, and launching new activities - the Mini-Sabbatical, ShortVisits and International Internship programmes, as well as the prestigious Annual Lecture, and the Public Lectures. These endeavours have generated much goodwill among donors the numbers of which rose fourfold between 1995 and the end of 1999.

The Institute’s size, limited outreach capacity and geographical remoteness have traditionally limited its policy impact. My tenure as Director saw new initiatives in this area, but much remains to be done. First, social scientists from international organisations with policy influence and outreach capacity are now involved in our research. Every year, since 1996, the Institute has counted on the contribution of some 30 economists from UNCTAD, ILO, the IMF, World Bank, IADB, ECLAC, UN secretariat, UNDP, ECA, and AERC - to name just a few. For instance, the much-cited 1998 Annual Lecture by Professor Joseph Stiglitz did much to promote our research within the World Bank.

Second, our new publication series - the Policy Briefs - is targeted at decision-makers. The brief on complex humanitarian emergencies circulates widely and has been cited by the UN secretary general. Third, we reduced the time to prepare research for publication, and early results are available via the web (www.wider.unu.edu). These efforts, and early dissemination to the international media, have made us more visible to policy-makers.

The Future

UNU/WIDER’s main assets are a core endowment, an independent Board, and strong ‘reputational capital’. These assets, together with the hard work of its staff and network, have enabled us to further sharpen the Institute’s reputation for analytical rigour, independence and progressiveness - features that are not all that common among research centres in national and international institutions.

Andrea Cornia with participants of the ‘Rising Inequality’ project in June 1999.
Andrea Cornia with participants of the ‘Rising Inequality’ project in June 1999.

I am therefore optimistic about the Institute’s future. That said, some realism is in order. Sustaining these results requires hard work (including recruiting a steady flow of scholars, especially from the less privileged countries), imagination and a bit of luck - like the great empires, institutions rise and fall! The research focus must also keep up with a rapidly changing world. UNU/ WIDER must do even more to enhance its policy impact and broaden the reach of its output by organising a greater share of activities outside Finland.

Finally, if policy and advocacy are to be emphasized, then organising joint policy seminars and research dissemination with other influential actors is one way forward. Some of these efforts can be shared with UNU. Closer contacts should also be made with the NGO community which has considerable strength in mobilising international public opinion on key development issues.

I have enjoyed my years at UNU/ WIDER. I leave feeling proud of having served as its Director, and I am confident that the Institute will continue to play its role in the research community, UNU and the global development debate.

Professor Giovanni Andrea Cornia was Director of UNU/WIDER from August 1995 to December 1999. He is now Special Adviser to the Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF

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