UNU-WIDER in Ghana – An Interview with Wisdom Akpalu

23 April 2014

Wisdom Akpalu joined UNU-WIDER as a Research Fellow based in Ghana in the beginning of 2014. Prior to joining the Institute he was an Associate Professor of Economics at the State University of New York at Farmingdale as well as Chair in the Department of Economics. He is originally from Ghana. He received his PhD from the University of Gothenburg after participating in an educational programme funded by the Swedish International Development Agency (Sida). 

by Carl-Gustav Lindén

Carl-Gustav Lindén (CGL) spoke to Wisdom Akpalu (WA) during his visit to Helsinki.

CGL: How did you end up studying economics?

WA: As a young person I was very curious about why some countries are doing better than others. I used to watch the news, read newspapers and realized that African countries were struggling while other countries were doing okay. My curiosity eventually led me to try to find answers and that is what brought me to economics. Within economics, I got quite interested in a number of issues such as environmental economics; I realized that natural resources form a very important basis for Africa’s development. I also got interested in econometrics because I wanted to use quantitative methods in trying to address some of these important issues that are confronting the continent.

Wisdom says that every time he travelled from the US to Ghana he visited his alma mater, University of Cape Coast, to meet students and colleagues. He felt a strong need to move back to help smart and passionate young women and men who want to become researchers.

CGL: And what brings you to UNU-WIDER now?

WA: Every summer when I went to Ghana, I organized quantitative research workshops where I taught young lecturers, and sometimes even people in other fields, on how to do quantitative research, how to collect data and analyse data, and write reports.

Besides participating in capacity building he also wanted to contribute to policy discussions in Ghana.

WA: Being in Ghana and taking part in discussions is quite different from being abroad and working on Ghana. I had all these thoughts, and then I saw the advert that UNU-WIDER was looking for someone to be a part of a PhD programme in the University of Ghana (Legon) that was geared towards building research capacity in Ghana and Africa. I got really excited. I didn’t even think twice. I applied for the job and here I am.

Wisdom believes he has very much in common with the philosophy of the Institute.

CGL: What makes the Institute unique for you?

WA: First of all, my research has been primarily on natural resource management in developing countries. I worked on fisheries, gold mining, demand for biomass fuel by households, and other climate change related issues. I realized that those are issues, which UNU-WIDER is also very passionate about. UNU-WIDER is also very concerned about doing research that is relevant for policy making, research that can influence developmental processes that are taking place in Africa.

CGL: What do you hope to achieve during your time at the Institute?

WA: I hope I will be able to continue to make whatever little impact I have been trying to make through my research. Now I have backing from an Institution working on similar things that I am interested in. We also try to reach out to policy makers and I hope that my being here will make it possible for me to communicate my research output directly to them. I also hope that my coming will help establish this PhD programme in development economics in Ghana, and to make it a very good one which will be sustained over a long period of time.

CGL: Tell us about your WIDER Working Paper on fisheries in Ghana, what steps should policy makers be taking on this issue?

WA: First of all, I tried to find out reasons why small scale fisheries are violating most of the fishing regulations in Ghana. For example, they fish with nets that have small mesh sizes. Why do they keep doing this although we all know that if you harvest too much today, there is little to harvest tomorrow as the fish stock has no time to renew itself.

Wisdom was particularly interested to find out why these fishermen were hurting their own livelihood, and how they perceived the risk of being caught and fined as well as their chances to bribe their way out of punishment.

WA: Then I also investigated social factors, religious factors, and the rate at which people discount the future. In other words, if fishermen are more impatient, does it affect the intensity at which they value the regulation? I also tried to see whether people who value the regulation are intrinsically different from those who do not. For example, we found out that a fisherman who is less skillful is more likely to go out there and fish illegally. Of course, it makes some sense.

According to the UN convention on the law of the sea, Ghana has a 200-nautical-mile (370 km) maritime Exclusive Economic Zone. Large-scale poaching by foreign vessels has depleted fish stocks in the zone. They also fish in areas that were supposed to be natural reserves for fish growing up. The regulatory bodies set up to monitor fishing are underfunded and undermanned and are unlikely to stop illegal fishing. Public policy at times also adds to the problems and a shift towards better informed decisions is needed.

WA: Although we know that fishermen are catching less and less fish, the government sometimes come out with some perverse policies like subsidizing premix fuel which is the fuel that fishermen use to go to sea to catch fish. There are instances where the government will even subsidize fishing boats or engines, or the nets that fisherman use to fish.

Ghana, like other African countries, struggles to manage revenues coming from natural resources and here is also one area where economists, such as Wisdom, have insights to help policy makers. 

Carl-Gustav Linden is Senior Communications Consultant at UNU-WIDER

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