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When Tony Muhumuza was appointed Uganda’s national economist for the United Nations Development Program, he was cognizant of the great responsibility that came with his new role as policy analyst and adviser. Although he had just completed his master’s degree and PhD in economics, both supported by IDRC grantee the African Economic Research Consortium (AERC), and he had worked as a research fellow at the Economic Policy Research Centre in Uganda, he knew that an even greater challenge lay ahead in linking economic research to policy.

Concerned that he lacked the expertise to engage policymakers at the highest levels of government, he underwent additional training from the AERC on research engagement. “After this training,” he said, “I felt confident talking to policymakers about using evidence for decision-making.”

Muhumuza exemplifies the AERC’s commitment to advancing economic policy research and training in Africa. He is a beneficiary of the AERC’s two main programs: the training program in specialized applied economics and the research granting program that trains, mentors, and supports African researchers on internationally recognized methodologies and effective research-to-policy engagement.

Training Africa’s leading economists

When the AERC was established in Nairobi, Kenya as an IDRC project in 1988, the notion of “evidence-based policymaking” had not yet found traction in Africa. There was a severe shortage of well-trained, locally based economists to carry out policy-oriented research to inform decision-makers on the continent.

The Consortium has succeeded in developing a new generation of economists and policymakers. The AERC training program has produced more than 2,700 master’s and 400 PhD graduates, the majority of whom are engaged as high-level policymakers or posted in public universities. The program has achieved this by collaborating with universities across the continent to offer post-graduate programs and to support PhD thesis research. “Most departments of economics in African universities thrive on AERC-trained faculty members,” says Innocent Mashe, director of training at AERC. Aikaeli Jehovaness, the chair of economics at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, asserts that “more than 80% of my staff members are either graduates of AERC training programs or teach in these programs.”

Many of the policy actors Muhumuza engages with in government and non-government organizations in Uganda are AERC alumni. “During the policy roundtable on the National Development Plan in Uganda, when I met and presented our recommendations to Patrick Birungi, the director of development planning at the National Planning Authority in Uganda, I realized that my work was made much easier because he too is an AERC alumnus,” said Muhumuza. “He understands both the research process and practical policy application.”

Fostering policy-relevant research

Through small grants and collaborative research activities, the AERC research program has mentored more than 3,400 African researchers from 25 countries. Its flexible approach improves the technical skills of local researchers, allows for regional determination of research priorities, and strengthens national institutions concerned with economic policy research. Collaborative research and other projects have involved 300 researchers and provided sound evidence for many aspects of sub-Saharan Africa’s economic development, from monetary policy and agriculture to trade and health. A recent IDRC-supported example is a research project on China-Africa Relations, where more than 50 papers were published focusing on the country and sector-specific impacts of the relationship with China and the opportunities and challenges for African development.

According to Olu Ajakaiye, the former director of research at AERC, “It is no exaggeration to state that without AERC's collaborative research project on poverty, many African countries would not have been in a position to prepare and apply the poverty reduction strategy papers (PRSPs) increasingly required by the donor community.” It is due in part to the ownership and effective implementation of its PRSPs that Uganda was able to reduce the proportion of the population living below the national poverty line from 56% in 1992–93 to 19.7% in 2013.

Today’s challenge centres on innovation to help “Africa’s economic renaissance be more inclusive and sustainable,” said Lemma Senbet, the AERC’s executive director. AERC’s training is conducted using international methods to give young leaders hands-on experience of economic management and equipping them with the knowledge and skills essential to modern-day economists. The highly-rated training is conducted by internationally renowned scholars from Africa and beyond.

“I had the opportunity to interact with the trainers and the students, as well as participate in research workshops to assess new proposals and peer review new research,” said Robin Sannassee, a senior policy advisor and scholar in Mauritius. “I feel confident that the AERC is capable of addressing the economic policy concerns of Africa without relying heavily on external experts.”

AERC is at the forefront of strengthening local capacity to carry out independent, rigorous inquiry into sub-Saharan Africa’s economic challenges, but these achievements have not covered all of the countries in the region. Post-conflict and fragile states have not benefitted at the same scale as other countries. The main reason for this is the highly competitive nature of the AERC capacity building framework. To address this gap, the AERC designed an IDRC-supported research and training program focused on building leaders in economic management in fragile and post-conflict countries. 

Watch a documentary about the AERC’s origin, growth, and contribution to the African continent.

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Country Profile

Kenya has long been the economic hub of East Africa, but despite significant economic strides in the past decade, poverty and inequality remain.

Our long-term support for research in the country has focused on areas such as rural development, agriculture, health, education, and climate change adaptation.

We have also prioritized economic research to strengthen economic debate and promote evidence-based decision-making. For example, IDRC helped launch the Nairobi-based African Economic Research Consortium. Now an independent public organization, the Consortium is addressing the shortage of policy-oriented economic researchers in sub-Saharan Africa. Hundreds have graduated from the Consortium’s master’s and doctoral programs, and they now form a cadre of influential economists who contribute to their national economies from within the region’s governments, private sector, and universities.

Digital solution for peace

Researchers discovered that a deadly conflict in 2012 between farmers and nomadic herders in Kenya was fuelled largely by rumours. To prevent a repeat occurrence, Canada’s Sentinel Project and Nairobi’s iHub technology incubator launched “Una Hakika”, a mobile application that enables communities to report, track, and verify rumours. The application has reached approximately 45,000 beneficiaries in Tana Delta and is being scaled in Lamu County and Nairobi to reach approximately 1 million people.

Evidence-based policy for health

Research on the impact of communications and information technologies is strengthening Kenya’s health system. Thanks to our funding, the Kenya Medical Research Institute has generated the evidence needed by the Ministry of Health to revise the national e-Health strategy, develop the first-ever e-Health policy, and establish mobile health, or m-health, standards and guidelines. These health interventions are now better regulated to protect patient information and advance patient health. 

Total IDRC Support

604 research activities worth CAD142.1 million since 1972

Kenya scientist making calculations.

Our support is helping

  • improve access to justice for 1.5 million people in Nairobi’s informal settlements
  • address health inequities and examine the feasibility of e-Health in Kenya
  • restore and expand Kenya’s capacity to conduct high-quality policy-relevant research
  • enhance women’s economic opportunities
  • preserve farmers’ livelihoods with a cattle lung disease vaccine
  • strengthen farmers’ ability to deal with climate change impacts

Country Profile

Although economic growth and government strategies have reduced poverty in China, rural and minority populations still endure hardship. Our funding helps researchers find solutions — for economic growth, governance and justice issues, health concerns, and a changing climate.

As the country’s political influence in the world increases, we’ve supported the Chinese government’s interest in designing policies based on evidence and public input. For example, research on public participation in budgeting led a number of local governments to adopt more transparent and accountable budgetary processes.

Preventing HIV transmission

To reduce HIV transmission, IDRC-funded research is using mathematical modelling to influence local and national policies in China. This support helps prevent HIV-positive individuals in China from infecting others. The Ministry of Health and the Centre for Disease Control in China scaled up prevention treatments to reduce HIV transmission.

Research-generated mathematical modelling has also helped public health officials improve their evidence-based decision-making, to determine whether HIV infection rates are increasing or declining. Researchers developed models to better predict incident rates. Results pointed to higher annual HIV incidence than national estimates and led China’s Ministry of Health to re-evaluate their 2013 estimates.

Innovations in farming

Our research support over two decades has introduced innovative farming practices in China. For example, Canadian and Chinese researchers developed a mobile phone technology that supports applications to make valuable information, such as wholesale food prices, accessible to poor farmers. Researchers are also developing ways for farmers to adapt to water-related stresses, including drought and flooding.

Research throughout the previous decade has forged partnerships between state plant-breeders and farmers with knowledge of local corn and rice varieties. Together they have improved yields, incomes, and caloric intake in farming communities. Chinese authorities promoted these methods nation-wide.

Total IDRC Support

262 activities worth CAD54.5 million since 1981

Children reading books in a classroom in China.

IDRC support is helping

  • increase local researchers’ economic analysis and applied research abilities 

  • build skills and knowledge to communicate research results and contribute to public debate 

  • develop effective water resource management in the Asian Highlands in response to climate change 

  • maximize the benefits and mitigate the negative impacts of Chinese investment in Laos and Cambodia

Country Profile

Uganda’s poverty rate has been on a steady decline. However, this progress is being challenged by extreme droughts, neighboring conflicts, increasing poverty in the northern part of the country, and rising inequalities. 

Improving smallholder farmers’ livelihoods and nutrition

When we started supporting research in Uganda in 1972, agriculture was a major focus. Funding in these early years enabled Ugandan researchers to develop disease-resistant varieties of sorghum and bananas, thereby increasing yields and improving the livelihoods of farmers.

Now groundbreaking agricultural innovations in Uganda and Kenya are being supported by the multi-funder program Cultivate Africa’s Future. Researchers have developed pre-cooked bean products that drastically reduce cooking times from three hours (for unprocessed beans) to only 10 minutes. This innovation is helping to break the most significant bean consumption barriers: long cooking times and high energy costs. 

Enhancing healthcare in isolated areas

Our funding helped develop the Uganda Health Information Network, an electronic system that successfully addresses information and data flow problems in an under-resourced health system. Hand-held computers, mobile caching services, and mobile telephones enable health workers in isolated areas to record immunization and disease cases, order medicine, and share prevention and treatment information. Now used in hundreds of health centres, the technology has enhanced healthcare delivery while cutting costs.

Eliminating the digital divide

We were one of the first organizations to support the development of a Ugandan strategy for adopting and integrating information and communications technology (ICT). Our research on ICTs influenced decision-making and policies. Studies informed Uganda’s ICT and universal access policies in the early 2000s — the first of their kind on the continent. These policies are taking communication services to rural areas, where more than 80% of the population lives. Uganda’s success has become a model for many other African countries.

Total IDRC Support

328 activities worth CAD71.4 million since 1972

Women sewing in Uganda.
Hewlett Foundation / J.Torgovnik

Our support is helping

  • promote land policies that are fair to women
  • stimulate high-quality, policy-relevant research among key institutions
  • introduce pre-cooked beans for food, nutrition, and income
  • develop effective health care interventions in post-conflict areas
  • create resilience to the water-related impacts of climate change in Uganda's cattle corridor

Country Profile

We have a rich history of supporting research in Tanzania, a politically stable democracy. Although the country has reduced the poverty rate and achieved good economic growth in the last decade, Tanzania remains one of the world’s poorest nations.

Successive Tanzanian governments have recognized the importance of improving health and agriculture in order to reduce poverty. Our support for research in these areas, as well as climate change, has contributed to significant advances.

Strengthening health systems

A decade-long research project carried out with funds from IDRC and Global Affairs Canada has enabled researchers to identify the major causes of death and disease by district. With this information, Tanzania’s Ministry of Health is able to allocate medical supplies and health services accordingly. As a result, child mortality in the two test districts declined by 40%, and adult mortality by 17% over five years. Tanzania has since rolled out the program nationally.

Tanzania is a country of focus for the multi-funder Innovating for Maternal and Child Health in Africa program. Canadian and Tanzanian researchers are joining forces with local health policymakers to develop community-based practical health interventions to reach mothers and children in rural Tanzania.

Building climate change leaders

Developing effective leadership is a critical element of addressing climate change challenges. For more than a decade, we have provided grants that foster the capacity to advance and apply scientific knowledge to climate change adaptation. Tanzania’s Institute of Resource Assessment led the fellowship program, providing grants to more than 120 early and mid-career professionals and researchers from 18 African countries with policy, masters, doctoral, post-doctoral, and teaching fellowships. These professionals now contribute to increasing the continent’s capacity to face climate variability and change. 

Total IDRC Support

248 activities worth CAD79.4 million since 1972

Meteorologist reading climate change measurements in Tanzania.

Our support is helping to:

  • revitalize the ability of Tanzanian think tanks to conduct research and influence policy
  • finance fellowships and foster links between researchers and institutions in Tanzania
  • reduce maternal and child deaths
  • encourage youth engagement for community safety
  • promote vitamin A fortified oil to combat malnutrition
Top image: UNU-WIDER