AERC Capacity Building Framework: A Brief

African Economic Research Consortium (AERC), which was established in 1988, is one of the most active Research and Capacity Building Institutions (RCBIs) in the world, with a focus on sub-Saharan Africa. The Consortium’s mission is to strengthen local capacity for conducting independent, rigorous inquiry into the problems facing the management of economies in sub-Saharan Africa. The mission and objectives of AERC are achieved through a long-standing collaborative and networking framework of its research and training programmes, supported by an interactive communications and outreach programme and backed by a comprehensive management and administration component.

Through its thematic research and collaborative post-graduate training programmes, AERC has produced a large number of alumni who occupy senior policy positions in governmental and research institutions, including over a dozen governors of central banks and deputies. Moreover, AERC has developed enduring delivery channels for the interface between research and policy.  The basis is collaborative research conducted by AERC researchers nurtured through the capacity building thematic programmes, international resource persons, and other thought leaders who on big issues that cannot be undertaken by individual effort.

The annual Senior Policy Seminars (SPS) serve as a platform to disseminate collaborative research outcomes and provide an opportunity for a multi-layer dialogue among African senior policy makers including ministers of finance and planning, governors and deputy governors of central banks, and their deputies, as well as heads of government departments, from across the continent In particular, senior policy makers deliberate and exchange views with senior researchers on key issues of contemporary policy interest to the continent, provide an opportunity for dialogue among the policy makers, and allow for feedback by policy makers to AERC on policy imperatives requiring further research. In addition, by bringing together policy makers from around the continent (and beyond) to one place and to discuss a focused theme, senior policy seminars provide a platform for policy makers to learn from each other’s experiences.

At the core of AERC is the concept of ‘networking’ of individuals (researchers, resource persons, faculty, students and policy makers) and institutions from across Africa and other parts of the world to bring synergies for enhanced developmental outcomes.  Over the last 28 years, AERC has built a solid core of highly credible research and a cadre of well-trained economists that has enhanced the professional stature of the network, both locally and internationally, and that has focused attention on issues critical to African development, bringing rigour and evidence to policy making.

The following vision and mission guide AERC:

  • Vision: Sustained development in sub-Saharan Africa grounded in sound economic management and an informed society, and,
  • Mission: To strengthen local capacity for conducting independent, rigorous inquiry into the problems pertinent to the management of African economies, through a synergetic programme combining research with postgraduate training in economics.

Thus, AERC has evolved over the last 28 years to become a diverse, yet integrated knowledge and capacity building organization of research, collaborative training, policy outreach, and a vast network, geared towards:

  • Generation of knowledge pertinent to African development for consumption by African policy actors,
  • Building capacity for generation of this knowledge through policy-oriented research and training,
  • Retention of built capacity and local talent,
  • Building the capacity of African policy makers to design and implement sound economic policies, and
  • Engagement with policy actors and to facilitate dialogue and peer-learning among policy makers.

The diversity and integrated nature of AERC has bestowed on it immense comparative advantage that is hard to replicate. Through its enduring capacity building framework, AERC has become a hallmark of excellence in economic policy-oriented research and collaborative training. In fact, AERC today is a highly respected global brand. AERC ranks highly among global development think tanks, with the latest ranking as among the top 25 in the “Top International Development Think Tanks” category in 2015. While the think tank ranking is impressive, it should, however, be recognized that AERC is not just a think tank. It is a think tank plus with a diversity of products and services spanning research, training, policy outreach, and a vast network as discussed above.

Highlights of AERC Achievements

In the past two-and-a-half decades, AERC has witnessed both short and long-term payoffs. AERC has built capacity of African economists through the research and training programmes. Through its Research Programme, AERC has mentored more than 3,400 African economists from 35 countries. In addition, AERC has contributed significantly to both knowledge generation and policy design in Africa. The quality of the research conducted through AERC programmes is not only highly regarded by a range of national and international bodies, but it has also attracted the interest of respected academic publishers.

Through its Training Programme, AERC runs collaborative programmes in both master’s and doctoral level studies in economics, and supports the improvement of the capacities of economics departments in public universities across the continent. The collaborative postgraduate training brings together over 38 network universities across sub-Saharan Africa covering Anglophone, Francophone and Lusophone countries, and has produced more than 3,200 master’s graduates, and produced and supported over 400 PhD graduates.

Most AERC alumni, who are nurtured through the research and training programmes, are engaged as mid to senior level policymakers, and posted in public universities. From the policy outreach track, AERC has fostered a high-level policy network of senior African policy makers through the convening of regular Senior Policy Seminars (SPS) and national policy workshops. Indeed, over the last 28 years AERC has cultivated a high level policy network of more than 1,200 senior African policy makers comprising ministers and deputies, governors of African central banks and their deputies, heads of government departments, among others. Moreover, the AERC network has increasingly been used as a sounding board for major policy issues by the multilateral institutions (e.g. the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF).

AERC’s achievements can best be viewed in the context of the African growth trajectory. Africa has beaten the odds to become one of the fastest growing continents in the world. This “Africa rising” syndrome is no accidental, however. It is a direct result of concerted efforts at capacity building on multiple fronts—governance reforms across the continent, deepening of democracy, and evidence-based policy making enabled by the supply of well trained, locally based policy analysts and researchers, among others. AERC has been at the centre of these efforts, especially when it comes to the provision of policy relevant research and training for informed policy making. A synopsis of the key achievements by programme is provided in Annex 1.

AERC Research Programme: A Closer Look

The AERC Research Programme has two arms: thematic research, which is the “learning by doing” research modality, and collaborative research, which addresses pertinent policy issues on the continent.

AERC thematic research: The thematic research programme has evolved over time as the primary focus for capacity building in policy-relevant economic research for young and upcoming African researchers. It involves conceptualization, framing, design and analysis of key economic research questions of relevance to policy making in Africa.

Design feature and peer review

The thematic research programme uses a unique framework combining learning-by-doing by researchers, peer review, mentoring and networking through the biannual research workshop, with skills improvement through technical workshops and visiting scholars programmes.

The Biannual research workshop and plenary conference

The biannual research workshop is perhaps one of the most successful innovations and enduring features of the AERC research capacity building modality. The biannual workshop is a flagship event that brings together the largest gathering of economics researchers, including PhD students and policy makers, from across the continent, resource persons from Africa and the rest of the world. The biannual workshop also attracts researchers from international organizations interested in showcasing their research findings to African researchers and policy makers. Examples include IMF, World Bank and United Nations agencies.

One of the key features of the biannual research workshop is the plenary session. This is a one-day conference that features three-to-four state-of-the-art papers addressing issues of contemporary policy interest to Africa, produced and delivered by experienced and leading economists, drawn from around the globe. AERC plenary sessions serve at least three purposes: (1) they inform AERC researchers on emerging issues of importance to Africa’s development; (2) they allow for deep interactions between policy makers and researchers; and (3) they provide a platform for upcoming researchers to learn from accomplished researchers and a forum for signalling directions for future research.

The biannual workshop links AERC researchers to their peers to receive constructive comments and mentoring. The researchers are also linked to a group of dedicated and highly experienced resource persons who provide guidance and mentoring to the researchers, ensuring that the conceptualization of research questions, the design of research, the analysis of data, presentation and interpretation of research findings, among other things, are correct and consistent with international standards of research. Thematic research feeds into policy making in at least two ways: building the capacity of policy analysts and researchers; and generating research results for policy makers and other policy actors.

Collaborative research: AERC has leveraged thematic research over the years by creating a framework, whereby researchers, resource persons and other thought leaders collaborate on issues of great relevance to Africa, such as food security, poverty alleviation and climate change, which cannot be done by individual efforts. Through collaborative research, AERC generates high quality and policy relevant research for consumption by policy makers and other policy actors, thus creating the “evidence base” for informed policy making.

A secondary objective of collaborative research is the building/enhancing of the capacity of African researchers (both senior and junior researchers). In collaborative research, AERC identifies, working closely with African policy makers, key issues of broader contemporary interest to the policy community, and then puts together a team of expert researchers to execute the research. The results are fed to the policy community through various channels, the most prominent of which is the SPS series.

AERC Senior Policy Seminars:  A Closer Look

Bridging the gap between economic research and economic policy is one of the major preoccupations of the African Economic Research Consortium (AERC). AERC Senior Policy Seminars are intended to bridge the research-policy divide, by bringing together researchers and policy makers to discuss key issues of contemporary policy interest to policy making in sub-Saharan Africa. A typical senior policy seminar brings together about 100 policy makers, among them ministers and their deputies, governors of central banks and their deputies, and heads of government departments, and features about four to six research presentations, providing amble time for deliberations, including the exchange of country experiences (peer learning). Policy makers are invited based on the relevance of the SPS theme to their portfolios, their interest in policy research issues being discussed at the seminar, and/or recent experience of substantial macroeconomic reforms in their country. Each seminar draws participants from as many as 25 countries across sub-Saharan Africa.

Policy makers report that they have found their experiences in the seminars very useful. The information exchanged helps them update their knowledge on current research and sieve out those that are relevant for their duties. Seminars of this kind, while not intended or able to make the policy maker an economist, nevertheless afford the opportunity of considering the wider ramifications of their policy decisions.

Besides the specific aims of bringing researchers and policymakers together and sharing the latest research findings in a particular area, the seminars are directly useful to AERC because they help to identify possible areas of policy-oriented research for AERC-funded researchers to consider. They also improve prospects for policy involvement by AERC-funded researchers and increase AERC’s visibility in the policy community. The seminars on the whole provide important feedback to AERC on its research, in particular, identification of research issues of interest to African policy makers. The Consortium is particularly concerned about the policy relevance of its research agenda, and hence largely supports research that responds to particular policy concerns of wider application to the region.

In addition to the senior policy seminar, AERC also supports policy workshops at the national level to prompt well-informed debate on important policy questions of particular interest to the country. National policy workshops are typically built around research done at the country level – so-called “country case studies”. Together with the Senior Policy Seminar, national policy workshops encourage interaction and links between researchers and the policy-interested community. AERC’s view is that research should not only concentrate on the identification of problems, but rather should seek to provide concrete suggestions as to how Africa’s developmental challenges can be overcome. This speaks to the importance of bringing policy actors and researchers together to dialogue. Because they allow researchers and policy makers to engage informally thus allowing for more robust dialogue, the seminars are quite powerful in their ability to empower stakeholders and to identify issues of policy relevance to Africa.

National Policy Workshops – The AERC also supports country level events providing a forum for the presentation of the results of AERC research as well as interaction between AERC researchers and the national policy community. They are fully implemented by local institutions, with some financial support from AERC, usually US$10,000 for each. In a year AERC supports six National Policy Workshops.

General Senior Policy Seminar Objectives and Outputs

The seminars have four aims

  • To provide an opportunity for policy makers and researchers to exchange experiences and views.
  • To identify key priorities for future policy-oriented research in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • To highlight the growing capacity in the region for policy research on these issues.
  • To improve prospects for cooperative policy research between policy makers and researchers.

These are achieved in four ways

  • By synthesizing and disseminating the results of the latest international (particularly AERC-funded) research in a format suitable for senior policy makers.
  • By generating interaction between policy makers and AERC funded researchers on results.
  • By encouraging sharing of experiences among policy makers on the lessons and details of macroeconomic policies oriented towards poverty reduction.
  • By receiving feedback from policy makers on key current policy challenges.

The concrete outputs of the seminars are expected to be

  • Ownership by African policy makers of the menu of options generated through AERC research.
  • Wider dissemination of AERC materials to policy makers, and ideas for improving future dissemination to them
  • Major input into AERC’s policy research agenda, through suggestions for key issues.
  • Ideas for structures and methods to promote collaboration among policy makers and researchers, both within individual countries and across the continent.
  • Proposals for follow-up through similar, research projects or other activities.

AERC researchers present syntheses of research results on the seminar theme and nominated policy makers participating in the seminars act as discussants, one for each paper that is presented. The presentations are followed by a floor discussion in which the policy makers share experiences and express their views on key issues for future policy research.