By Ronald Munatsi and Rejoice Ngwenya
Evidence informed policy making is now a very topical feature in the global discourse and there is no dispute over the importance of using evidence to inform policymaking. The mandate of Zimbabwe Evidence Informed Policy Network (ZeipNET) is to develop and coordinate overarching national processes that support the use of research evidence in policy making. To this end ZeipNET, in partnership with Africa Evidence Network, organised a forum that sought to strengthen the evidence institutional landscape in Zimbabwe thus actively promoting the use of research evidence in policymaking. Effective research-to-policy systems rely on multiple players working together. These stakeholders include policymakers, researchers and research intermediaries, civic society, think-tanks, academia and the media. However, many times these different players work in isolation.
There was general consensus on the importance of evidence and its critical role in shaping positive policies as demonstrated by a number of policies that have been informed by evidence, for example the growth with equity policy in health, education and social services. What was seen as lacking in Zimbabwe is the culture and commitment to systematically and routinely use research evidence in policymaking processes.
The forum put under the microscope EIPM the institutional landscape, noting that Zimbabwe Economic Policy and Research Unit (ZEPARU), the Scientific Industrial Research and Development Centre (SIRDC) the Research Council of Zimbabwe (RCZ) are example of institutes that support the use of research evidence in policy making. This is mainly because these institutions have a direct remit to do so considering legislative instruments on whose basis they have been established. With the exception of disciplines like health and agriculture, there are very limited active linkages with other equally important non-governmental research institutions and other stakeholders generating policy-relevant research. This is a post-independence scenario, unlike during the colonial era when there were active links between the government and the academia. A case in point to demonstrate such synergies is a project where biological warfare chemicals were developed by the then Rhodesian government in a partnership with University of Rhodesia during Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle.
Forum participants considered a myriad of factors that tend to stifle EIPM in Zimbabwe: policy illiteracy on the part of legislators; misconceptions regarding stakeholders’ understanding of policy making evidence; the volatility of evidence that is generally subject to interpretation and different framing depending on the context and the challenge of defining policy uncertainty and policy consistency or inconsistency.
Other stifling factors are: research from academia lacking commercial value and policy relevancy; lack of access to data on important socio-economic performance indicators; limited collaboration and coordination between government and other stakeholders in setting up research priorities and also ideological issues and personal commercial interests.
The discussions proffered options for strengthening EIPM. The government, being chief policy maker, is not entrusted with doing everything but must be pro-active in demanding evidence and providing an enabling environment for engagement with the various actors in the research-to-policy mix. Application of effective tools like collaborative evidence gap mapping and policy uncertainty indices not only define research priorities but also promote a culture of using evidence. Policy making is a political process, thus researchers and other actors should identify strategic entry points while adhering to equity and of social justice. It was recommended that government invest more in research, science and technology development since there is a direct relationship between concentration of think tanks in a country and its level of development.
The conclusion was that research institutions should innovate to survive in the current environment of donor fatigue and shrinking fiscal space. This calls for collaboration, multi-disciplinary consortia and active communities of practice being key in innovation. Ultimately, EIPM is more sustainable where researchers are not only accorded recognition, but also motivated with incentives to produce research that is both policy relevant and suitable for commercialisation.
Ronald Munatsi is the Executive Director of the Zimbabwe Evidence Informed Policy Network whilst Rejoice Ngwenya is he head of Comaliso, a Harare-based public policy think tank.