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Annual Report 2019

6 July 2020

Director’s Statement

ERSA is a national programme designed to both broaden the scope of economic research in Southern Africa, and to deepen its quality in order to ensure greater international exposure of economic research conducted in Southern Africa.

During the course of 2019/2020 ERSA has been engaged in revitalizing its legacy programmes.

Under the new leadership of Professor Guangling Liu the Executive of ERSA devoted close attention to the editorial processes surrounding its Working Papers. The result is that both the quality, and we hope the speed of the refereeing process of manuscripts should be much improved in future. Professor Liu has also been actively engaged with expanding the publications of papers to cover not only academic papers under the Working Paper banner, but to widen the scope of publications to include papers with active focus on policy questions, by reactivating the Policy Paper series of ERSA.

While ERSA has continued to publish its Policy Briefs, we have also added the ERSA Policy Bulletin to the publications output. Policy Briefs represent short nontechnical synopses of scholarly papers, to make them readily accessible to policy makers and wider lay audiences. By contrast, Policy Bulletins are stand-alone discussions of questions of significance to economic policy makers. The intention of this series is to be a vehicle for research focused on current policy issues and debates, that emphasizes brief, focused, and timely interventions. The desk review evaluates ethical and professional standards, basic research design, and the inherent interest of the topic.

Across the Working Paper, Policy Paper, Policy Brief and Policy Bulletin platforms ERSA is therefore now offering a much-increased diversity of output in terms of content and means of presenting information, targeting a diverse set of audiences, and allowing for a much wider range of discussions to be generated.

An important element of this expansion of output, has been that ERSA is utilizing social media dissemination strategies more actively. Margaux Giannaros has been appointed to develop a social media strategy, with a brief that strongly encourages proactive experimentation with alternative platforms and dissemination methods. Thus far, the ERSA website now includes podcasts addressing topical questions, and links to webinars that present research results. For list of podcasts produced to date see page 30 of this report. Information and links to these explicitly social media focused means of delivery of content, as well as the formal ERSA publications are being distributed more aggressively via Facebook, Linked-In, Twitter, and other social media platforms. Initial indications monitoring the impact of this new strategy is that ERSA output is reaching a wider and more diverse audience. Part of the social media strategy is to continue to monitor the impact through web diagnostics on an ongoing basis.

The social media strategy of ERSA is in addition to the continuing dissemination of ERSA output via the ERSA database of email contacts, and via the website.

The Working and Policy Paper series has now grown to a total of 813 published papers. Approximately 40 – 50 papers are appearing in the series each year, while the peer review process that selects the papers for publication referees considerably more contributions. The volume of publication, the width of coverage of sub-fields of economics, and the range of methodologies represented in the ERSA Working and Policy Paper series remains unmatched by any other working paper series in Southern Africa.

The success rate of ERSA Working Papers appearing in scholarly journals also continues to be impressive. The number of published papers has reached 398 (a 49% publication rate – high for any working paper series), of which 246 have appeared in international journals, and 152 in national journals. The high publication rate of the Working Paper series reflects the quality of referee input in helping to ready papers for peer review in journals, as well as the quality of the papers that are being published under ERSA’s auspices.

Since 2015 ERSA has now published a total of 206 Policy Briefs. While for a period of time ERSA maintained a publication rate of one Policy Brief per week, we have now reverted to publishing only research results that are deemed particularly significant by the ERSA Editorial Board. The publication rate in future will therefore be more infrequent.

The COVID-19 pandemic has inevitably affected ERSA, in some areas very fundamentally. The most directly affected areas have been the Workshop programme of ERSA, and its Training programmes. The obvious reason why the impact of the pandemic was strongest in these two activities, is that historically both relied fundamentally on in-person delivery of the workshops and the training. Travel and social-distancing restrictions rendered such approaches impossible to maintain. Fortunately, I believe that the Executive of ERSA has met the challenges this posed creatively. To the extent that the innovations that have resulted may become a permanent feature of the Workshop and Training programmes.

For the Workshop series, delivery has shifted from in-person formats, to delivery through webinar-based delivery. It is undeniable that this entails a loss, particularly in terms of the opportunity for networking and extended organic forms of debate and exchanges of ideas. But there are also significant benefits. The most immediate relate to the significant reduction in the opportunity cost to participants in terms of time committed to travel and attendance. Workshop formats have changed from the presentation of a group of research papers over one to two days, to single research presentations delivered via Zoom, that occupy at most two hours. Thus, instead of having to travel to the workshop venue, and to allocate one to two days to the workshop, participants are able to participate virtually, with significant efficiency gains in terms of time allocation. Needless to say, the elimination of travel and accommodation costs represent a significant saving to ERSA’s budget also. This in turn allows ERSA to grant access to participation to potentially much larger numbers of participants, since neither travel costs, nor accommodation capacity present constraints any longer. An additional upside to the new presentation methodology is that ERSA can maintain a steady ongoing stream of web-based delivery, providing for continuous streams of engagement.

In terms of the volume of activity, during 2019-2020, ERSA presented 5 physical events/workshops. Since the COVID-19 lockdown, presentation has been online. The new conveners of the three research groups, Industrial Organization and Digital Information, Public Economics and Structural Constraints on the Economy, Growth and Political Economy have been delivering workshops in the form of weekly or fortnightly online webinars over the course of April – June 2020. For the list of webinars convened during that period and still forthcoming please see page 12 of the Annual Report.

An important and interesting new initiative launched during 2019/2020 has been an explicit examination of the question of Race and Gender representativity in economics in South Africa. Noso Obikili and Neryvia Pillay-Bell have led the programme. While the intent was to begin this ongoing examination through the medium of a two-day workshop, under the COVID-19 lockdown this has also been switched to online delivery. To date there have been two webinar presentations and discussion, with one more planned during the course of the next month. Given the continuing imbalanced in representativity that economics experiences in South Africa particularly, ERSA intends to continue to pursue this line of enquiry, and discussions surrounding this issue for the foreseeable future.

The second major ERSA programme cluster affected significantly by the COVID-19 pandemic, has been training. In-person training delivery was effectively impossible under South African lock-down rules. In response we have shifted delivery to an online format.

The Skills Development Initiative is aimed at raising the technical skills of young faculty members in economics for an active research career. This programme continued in 2019/2020 with a call for a new cohort of trainees being issued. Relative to historical levels of demand, the response was exceptionally strong. A total of 85 applications were received, of which 38 applicants were accepted. Since any one training cohort is limited to 20 participants, we will therefore proceed by treating the accepted applicants as two separate cohorts, the 5th and 6th under this initiative. The 5th cohort began its first training session in Time Series Analysis in early December 2019 for the 5th cohort. The 6th cohort is scheduled to replicate this in June/July 2020 in online webinar format.

In 2020 ERSA has also introduced training programmes in more advanced or sub-field specialized techniques for graduate students or faculty. The two training courses were set as Panel Data Analysis (Professor Tomson Ogwang), and The Economic of Education (A/Prof Andrew Hill). Initially planned for July/August of 2020 as in-person sessions, these will switch to online webinar based delivery spread over the second half of 2020.

ERSA continued the initiative of awarding of prizes to the best economics students in South Africa. The motivation for this initiative is that in general, relative to accounting and finance related subjects, economics often has few prizes to award. In addition recognition for student performance is one of the key mechanisms departments have available in order to motivate students to continue with studies in economics. To this end, ERSA offers prizes for all universities in SA with an economics teaching programme. Thus far this year ERSA has awarded 60 prizes to students from 6 institutions across SA.

Finally, the ERSA website has been revamped to provide a more modern and engaging feel, as well as to improve the functionality of the site for users.

ERSA has benefited from the time, effort, and contributions of many people. Particular thanks are due to the ERSA Office team of Gloria Halland, Megan Matthews and Yoemna Mosaval who have distinguished themselves by their efficiency and dedication without which none of our operations would be feasible.

In addition, the Executive team of ERSA has contributed a considerable amount of time and effort to revitalizing the ERSA programmes. Such contributions are frequently thankless since they are not rewarded through the standard incentive mechanisms that academics have to respond to. All the more reason to extend recognition to the contribution of the Executive for their contributions.

Johann Fedderke
Director

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