Is NEPRU a White Elephant?

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Namibia’s ‘think tank’, Namibia Economic Policy Research Unit (NEPRU), is finding it difficult to attract and retain researchers of international repute.

How does this augur with the momentous task of generating information and ideas to inform the process of formulation of policy and implementation strategies? In this exclusive interview, Moses Magadza (MM) speaks to Klaus Schade (KS) NEPRU’s Acting Director on this issue, the restructuring that NEPRU has embarked on, as well as other issues.

MM: When was NEPRU established and what is its mandate?
KS: NEPRU was established on February 15, 1990. The founding members were Professor Peter Katjavivi, Dr Ben Amadhila and Dr Kaire Mbuende. The mandate of NEPRU is to advise the Government in socio-economic policy issues, to train Namibians in applied socio-economic research and to disseminate relevant information on socio-economic issues not just in Namibia, but also in the region.

MM: How have you tried to fulfil this mandate?
KS: We have conducted quite a number of research projects – about 800 of them – various studies for various institutions; mainly government institutions in Namibia as well as multilateral cooperation partners such as the World Bank, UNDP, ILO and other organisations of the UN family, bilateral development partners such as SIDA, USAID and others. To a lesser extent we have also done research for the private sector, so we cover a broad range of issues but mainly macro-economic issues and issues relating to regional integration, trade and agriculture and land issues. During the first phase of the project we trained quite a number of Namibian economists on the job at NEPRU. We also provided some of them with opportunities to pursue further studies abroad. Some studied in Great Britain, Norway, US and South Africa. On information sharing we have a website where all our publications are available and can be downloaded free of charge. We also have an economic indicator database, which is updated on a daily basis. We publish a quarterly economic review. We also used to publish an annual economic review. We are in the process of reviving it. Our library is accessible to the public free of charge and a lot of tertiary students especially from UNAM make use of our library. We hold public seminars and participate in public discussions on radio, television and so on.

MM: Similar research units are looked at as think tanks staffed by seasoned scholars of international repute, whose ideas and research findings play important roles in policy formulation and implementation strategies. To what extent does your unit conform to this expectation?
KS: I would say that the quality of our researchers is very good. As I mentioned, we are training staff on the job and sending them abroad to strengthen their theoretical knowledge in Applied Economics but it remains a challenge to retain seasoned scholars and researchers at NEPRU due to various reasons namely demand for skilled people in Namibia.
There is a lot of competition for qualified and experienced people, especially economists in the private sector and parastatals, international organisations based in the country and so on. We are just one of many institutions demanding highly qualified and experienced people so it remains a challenge to attract and retain staff. We recently undertook a restructuring of NEPRU and we are nearing the end of this process to make NEPRU more attractive for Namibian professionals. All aspects of remuneration: salaries, the working environment and other incentives such as exposure to international conferences, consultancies, and so on, are being considered. These are non-monetary and monetary incentives.

MM: What is the capacity of NEPRU now in relation to the fulfilment of its research mandate and who finances NEPRU; does the Government take NEPRU seriously?
KS: We do not get any core funding from the Government. As I said, we do a lot of commissioned work for the Government and we get paid for it. We generate our own money from commissioned projects. We, however, get some funding from the Africa Capacity Building Foundation (ACBF). They have supported NEPRU since 1994.
We also get funds from the International Development Research Centre in Nairobi, Kenya. Our restructuring is continuing. You may have noticed that we recently advertised vacancies in the local press to increase our research capacity. We have a network of consultants in Namibia who work with us. At regional level, we work with the Southern and Eastern Africa Policy Research Network. Through these networks, we have access to expert capacity to enhance our own.
MM: How many indigenous Namibians trained by NEPRU or sponsored by NEPRU for training in other countries are still with NEPRU?
KS: We trained about 15 Namibians. All of them have left to join other institutions in Namibia.

MM: What explains the high rate of staff turnover at NEPRU?
KS: As I said, competition for very scarce human resources. We, however, draw solace from knowing that they are still contributing to the development of the country with the skills and experience we gave them here at NEPRU.

MM: Elsewhere in the world, units like NEPRU have got well-established exchange programmes with more reputable similar units to facilitate inflow of world renowned scholars to strengthen their research capacities. Which world-renowned research institutes do you work in collaboration with?
KS: We have very strong links with the Christian Michelfen Institute (CMI) who were part of establishing NEPRU. We have just started a research programme that includes three components that include north-south cooperation, under which we host researchers from the north and send our own there for some months, and the south-south component which involves exchange programmes with similar institutions in the region. The programme begun this year and we are hosting a researcher from Norway.

MM: There is a backlog of internationally recognised researchers at the University of Namibia and at the Polytechnic of Namibia. To what extent does NEPRU utilise their expertise?
KS: We have in the past worked on joint programmes with the University of Namibia as well as with other research institutions in Namibia. We make use of external consultants who include people from UNAM.

MM: Since NEPRU was established, what would you say have been its most notable contributions to the formulation of development policy and complementation strategies in Namibia?
KS: We have participated in the design of various policies since the 1990s. We contributed to the energy policy, minerals policy, national development plans, the country economic report prepared by the Government of Namibia and a lot of other studies that informed the Government about certain policy issues. Therefore, I think we have contributed to the development of the country. Of course, our work is not always visible and it is not always that our recommendations are taken up by the Government.

MM: Given that you came on board only recently to the helm of NEPRU, what is your vision with respect to the mandate of the unit?
KS: I am acting director, so I will be replaced by the director. I hope NEPRU will become a real think tank not just for Namibia but the region. I think we are well received in the region. We are participating in a number of regional projects. Locally, we hope to strengthen our links with the Government so that we have a stronger impact on policy design. We currently have only three researchers.

MM: Klaus, it was a total privilege talking to you. Thank you for taking time off your busy schedule for this interview.
KS: You are welcome.

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