Economics Not a Masculine Discipline

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The Economics Department of the University of Namibia (Unam) is now headed by Dr Selma Karuaihe, who is among the few (if any) Namibian women to have obtained a PhD in Economics. This proves in Namibia that Economics is not necessarily a masculine discipline. Moses Magadza (MM) speaks to Dr Selma Karuaihe (SK) about her road to the top echelons of education.

MM: I wish to take this opportunity to congratulate you for being the first Namibian woman to attain a PhD in Economics through a systematic and rigorous process an achievement, which for a long time in Africa, has been considered to be exclusively the domain of men.

SK: Thank you for making an effort to talk to me. I hope the information collected through this interview will serve as an eye opener to other women who would like to pursue Economics as a career.

MM: How do you feel being the head of the Department of Economics at the country’s top academic institution?

SK: It is indeed an honour to me and I appreciate the trust put in me to lead the Economics Department at Unam. I see this position as an opportunity for me to gain leadership skills, which are vital to my career. Through strong cooperation and good working ethics with my colleagues, I believe we will be able to take this department to higher levels, as it has been our dream for a long time.

MM: Economics departments at institutions of higher learning, like Unam, are looked at as national and international think-tanks, which generate vital information to inform national economic policy formulation and development strategies. How do you, as the current head of Economics Department of Unam, plan to fulfil this expectation?

SK: Taking over from a good leader like my predecessor, Dr Kakujaha-Matundu, most of the groundwork in improving research within the department is done. My colleagues and I are planning to extend the scope of our theoretical teaching to engage more in practical and applied economics through research and community work. Through the research and publications committee(s) of the university, I plan to encourage my colleagues for us to write papers (jointly or individually) that can address relevant policy issues and advise the Government accordingly.

The trend in the past, when this committee has been dormant for some time, was to rely on outside consultancies and carry out projects as dictated by the terms of reference (TOR) of the donors. However, consultancies do not always allow academic researchers to present their views and critique issues as they deem fit, even though some of such consultancies could direct policy initiatives.

MM: What is the current capacity of the Department of Economics at Unam, and what are your plans to strengthen it, so that it can live up to the national and international expectations?

SK: The staff compliment consists of two PhDs, with a third PhD in preparation (almost completed), and two Masters degrees. In February 2008 we interviewed three candidates for three lecturer positions and we are expecting them to join the department in due course. One of the candidates has a PhD in Economics, while the others are Masters degree holders.

Our plan is to enrich our current Masters programme in Economics by preparing students to present and critique papers to colleagues in the department as well as in the Faculty of Economics and Management Science in order to prepare those who are willing to join the department later for an academic career.

The department also makes use of the assistance of tutors, who are our final year students to assist the juniors in some demanding courses such as Econometrics and Mathematical Economics. If some of those tutors are willing to join the department after pursuing further studies, we make an effort to get them financial assistance at other institutions through the African Economics Consortium (AERC) and SANTED.

MM: University economists are in high demand both in the public and private sectors of any economy, and attracting and retaining them at the university calls for incentives, which many institutions of higher learning are finding difficult to provide. Is this a problem at Unam? What are you planning to do to retain your identified good lecturers and professors of Economics?

SK: Yes, this is a serious problem at Unam. In terms of incentives, there is very little I can do, except try to make the working environment conducive for my colleagues. This can be in the form of ensuring that they get the necessary equipment such as computers, printers and teaching materials for them to carry out their work. I plan to encourage them to make use of the small funds provided by the university’s research and publications committee, provided that the Unam policy of controlling any additional income generated will not adversely affect them, but that may not be sufficient to ensure that they remain with the department.

MM: I have observed that your department, and probably Unam as a whole, does not advertise vacant positions in international newspapers. How do you manage to get economists of international repute?

SK: This is in fact the biggest frustration we face when it comes to advertising positions. The reasons are best known to the human resources (HR) department, as it is the one in charge of advertisements. We actually do not get the best candidates as the adverts are for a short period and only in local newspapers. However, during our meeting with the vice chancellor and the HR director on March 3, 2008, we were informed that Unam is now advertising its positions on the Unam website. Hopefully, that would improve the service of advertising positions. Our department has a close link and contact with the AERC, headed in Nairobi, Kenya and we normally inform the institution to help us advertise the positions to its members (more than 20 African countries in total).

MM: With respect to the contributions expected of economics departments to the formulation of economic policies and development strategies, how do you rate the contribution of the Department of Economics at Unam to domestic and international policy and department formulation?

SK: I believe this department and the parent faculty are among the few that contribute to national policy debates to a large extent. The past two years, the Namibian Government and the relevant stakeholders participated in the formulation of the Third National Development Plan (NDP3), which attracted some of the experts from this department. In 2007, three members of the department carried out a UNDP-funded project on “Climate Change:

Challenges and Opportunities”. Findings of this study serve as part of the inaugural speech of the vice chancellor at the official launching of the UN human development report for 2008, which focussed on “Fighting Climate Change: Human Solidarity in a Divided World.” With other ongoing projects of the members, I rate the contribution of this department to national and international policy directives as good.

MM: Research is a crucial aspect of policy formulation and implementation. To what extent is your department involved in research, which can inform these processes in Namibia?

SK: Most of the junior members are busy with writing proposals to pursue PhD studies once funding is available. In a way, they are busy enhancing their research potential in that and other similar efforts. For the senior members of the department, the current agenda is to get most of their PhD work published in refereed journals, which is my plan for this year. We are also planning to submit research proposals to the Unam Research and Publications Committee and if they get funded, some of us are going to carry out research in our fields of interest, with the aim of contributing towards policy (formulation).

MM: In 2003, the Government of the Republic of Namibia came up with Vision 2030, which is aimed at seeing Namibia become a developed country by the year 2030. To what extent was Unam, in particular, involved in the formulation of this vision?

SK: Unam’s participation in the Vision 2030 formulation as witnessed in the acknowledgement of Vision 2030 report itself. With the limited information I have, I believe Unam had a significant and influential number of people who participated directly and indirectly in the formulation of V2030 through the various committees established. A similar approach was taken during the NDP3 formulation.

MM: Five years down the line, what would you, as an economist, say are the chances of the country realising this vision by 2030?

SK: My opinion is that achievement of Vision 2030 depends largely on what the Namibian stakeholders are doing in the interim, through the NDPs and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). If Namibia is in a position to achieve most of the targets for the short- to medium-term plans (NDPs and MDGs), then the country stands a chance to achieve Vision 2030. However, indications at the moment show that Namibia needs to do a lot more to achieve the targets for human development such as access to improved sanitation and primary education. The Government’s efforts are also affected by climate change, such as the current floods in the North, in the face of limited skilled personnel and other resources to make Vision 2030 a reality.

MM: Would you want to recommend a revision of the vision and how do you think this could be done?

SK: Not necessarily. The revision, I believe, can be done by taking stock of how far the country is from realising it through NDPs and MDGs. Of course, some of the targets might be less realistic, but if the Government, the private sector and their development partners can come together to identify the resource needs and approach it from there, they could get closer to the reality of the vision itself. There is a need for action, before it is too late, even if it can ensure achieving more than 50 percent of the vision by 2030. But, since most of the targets of Vision 2030 are linked to those of the MDGs (to be achieved by 2015) and ultimately those of NDP3 (to be achieved by 2012), I believe the roadmap is clear, what is left is action.

MM: As I said at the beginning, Economics scares many people, including women, because it involves the application of very high-level Mathematics. How did you cope with this “difficult” subject, and what words of encouragement would you want to give to the upcoming young women of Namibia?

SK: Yes, it is true that the current trend of Economics involves a lot of quantitative courses such as Mathematics and Econometrics, but every beginning has its end. When I entered I did not think of completing the PhD successfully, but unfortunately or not there was no return to my entry. A taught PhD is very rigorous and demanding, but I believe with the improved curriculum we are offering at Unam, our students stand a good chance of meeting the PhD challenge head-on. I will encourage those women who want to pursue a PhD in Economics, by stating that it is indeed a challenge, but it can be done.

MM: Thank you for your time
SK: Thank you very much. Have a good day.

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