Institutions and Impact – Some Reflections on the UNU-WIDER Method

I have spent much of the last two years on behalf of UNU-WIDER engaged in thinking about these two issues, but only on this current trip to Toronto, to interview Professor Gerry Helleiner with my colleague Annett Victorero, have I seen that institutional memory and impact are part of the same struggle—to use development economics to bring about good change for the poorest in our world.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the first WIDER Annual Lecture by Nobel Laureate Douglas C North, in 1997, addressed institutional economics and stressed the difference between the formal and informal determinants of how institutions change—formal rules can be changed quickly, but institutional culture and norms are much harder to change (for better or worse). 

This is not just path dependency or inertia, or tradition or the lazy attitude that ‘we have always done it this way’. Staying in Massey College at the University of Toronto, I was struck by the continuity and change in universities. This small post-graduate college, endowed by a philanthropic trust, with modern architecture (for the 1960s) set round a quadrangle is still architecturally recognizable as based on the monastic cloister; the learning community of the Middle Ages. How do some institutions manage to achieve continuity, change and growth through centuries but others die out? My old university, Oxford, has a ‘New College’ dating from the fourteenth century. It is still there and still doing a mix of new and old learning.

Even more than the architecture, the university ideal taps into deep roots of the transmission of knowledge. Different cultures have their equivalents—the ancient civil service exams of Nanjing, Islamic precursors of the university from the seventh and eight centuries, the dialogical culture of Socrates and Plato, the oral cultures of storytellers in many parts of the world, the apprenticeship traditions and their modern relevance as examined by sociologist Richard Sennett in The Craftsman.

How has UNU-WIDER shown continuity and change over its first 30 years? What can be said about its responses to the environment which have meant that this new kind of development institution has lived and changed through three decades?

I will illustrate this from three types of engagement with UNU-WIDER. Through 2014, I have had a mandate to think about what impact means for UNU-WIDER as an institution. This has taken me to UNU-WIDER conferences in Vietnam (on institutions) and the huge conference on inequality in Helsinki. I have been able to talk to staff, and to think, and read. Second, I was involved in the major ReCom project (2010-13) which commissioned new research from around the world and reviewed the existing evidence of whether aid works. Third, we (Annett and I) have, interview-by-interview, been putting together an oral intellectual history of filmed interviews with some of the leading personalities of the various stages of UNU-WIDER’s 30-year journey.

These engagements have persuaded me of a number of insights which are not easy to put together. I feel increasingly strongly that UNU-WIDER has been (and has to be) primarily a South-centred network of researchers, working on big issues, trying to stay ‘ahead of the curve’ and open to adapting the way it works in line with new thinking and new technological possibilities.

The last thirty years have seen huge advances in the information society. There have been many claims that a new technology will ‘change everything’ and I continue to be sceptical, for example, of such claims for big data. There is a sense in which the insights of UNU-WIDER were ahead of the technology which was needed to develop them, but the technology has caught up in a remarkable way.

Development economics is or should be largely a global public good. This understanding makes it necessary to make the research freely available, to help those interested to find it, and to keep the quality high.

The electronic downloading of a WIDER Working Paper in Chile does not deprive anyone else of a copy in Botswana or in Bhutan (that is, it is non-rivalrous). This is an example of what Jeremy Rifkin calls the ‘zero marginal cost’ information society. 

In my opinion, it is right and good that the research costs should be paid for by OECD donor countries through the development budget; i.e. through tax expenditure. It is also good that UNU-WIDER uses a network model and does not contribute to the brain drain, as it leaves the researchers in place in their country of origin or residence, rather than drawing them to Europe.

At its best, UNU-WIDER has challenged dominant orthodoxies on, for example, structural adjustment and trade in its very first decade—as Professor Helleiner underlined in our interview. The research project mode, established early in UNU-WIDER’s organizational history, typically uses careful case studies by authors from the countries under examination, discussion between authors, and drawing out of lessons learnt. Often these studies are published eventually as books or special issues of academic journals. But UNU-WIDER’s open access policy means that they have already been made available as working papers, often as much as two years beforehand. Like the basic principle of the UK National Health Service, UNU-WIDER provides development economic research free at the point of use.

To be able to live stream events—such as conferences or the annual lectures—is, to my mind, nothing short of amazing. Similarly, it still surprises me when I think how quickly we have progressed from a printed newsletter ten years ago being an exercise in ‘envelope stuffing’ to electronic delivery so that you can simply click on a blue link and access a filmed interview, the registration form for a forthcoming conference, or indeed a working paper.

All of this may seem obvious, but what will the next 15 years (the duration of the Sustainable Development Goals) bring? Huge and unpredictable changes is the most likely answer.

In the field of impact evaluation, I am not sure that we have made similar progress. I don’t consider it good enough to change the question. To start with an aspiration of achieving evidence-based policy and then when that proves difficult to talk of evidence-informed policy instead does not satisfy me. As Ben Ramalingam says in Aid on the Edge of Policy, ‘There is far more policy-based evidence than evidence-based policy’.

For me, it is not enough to stop talking about the policy impact of research and talk about research uptake instead. Or as an institute which claims to have policy makers as a key audience, to slip into using the kind of impact metrics which universities use—which is often researchers quoting researchers—rather than demonstrating changes in the lived reality of poor and disadvantaged people. It will be difficult to develop an approach which shows the impact of UNU-WIDER as a system, but I am increasingly convinced that we need to do better.

Two further approaches leave me unconvinced. Designing an impact evaluation system which would measure what it is relatively easy to measure, rather than the really wicked questions of policy impact. Or sticking with the linear logic of the logframe, rather than engaging with the complexity of policy processes and designing an impact evaluation system which is sophisticated enough to deal with iterative processes, multiple causality and a complex system. Lant Pritchett made apposite comments on this issue in his WIDER Annual Lecture.

There are some good approaches and descriptions of the requirements of such an approach, but it is not easy to design what is needed. We need to keep looking.

In the summary volume of the UN Intellectual History, UN Ideas that Changed the World, (Bloomington and Indianopolis: Indiana University Press 2009), Richard Jolly and his co-authors comment:     

There are various ways intellectual islands can be created to provide researchers with access to policy makers and protection from excessive control. Today, this may well require special ‘safety zones’ within organizations.

They go on to mention UNU-WIDER specifically as a positive example, before concluding

In such zones, serious work can go on in an environment free from the pressures of daily urgent matters and where controversy can be identified and analysed rather than suppressed. (Jolly 2009: 251)

There seems to be something about the human scale of learning, the community aspect, and inter-generational transmission which UNU-WIDER has learnt from the classical university, but carried forward from the ‘brick university’ to the ‘click university’ which the World Bank’s former tertiary education expert Jamil Salmi has analysed so well—see his site.

Some things need to be grown and nurtured. Insiders often refer to UNU-WIDER as an incubator of new ideas. The incubator or greenhouse is a good image for the conducive conditions needed to seed and grow new ideas until they are strong enough to take their chance in the wider world.