Economic Research Southern Africa (ERSA) aims to both broaden the scope of economic research in Southern Africa, and to deepen its quality to ensure greater international exposure of research conducted in Southern Africa. Serving this, ERSA provides development and training, the opportunity for publication, contributions to economic debate and forums for networking.
Like everyone, the past year has thrown up considerable challenges for the organisation and its planned business. At the same time though, it has also presented substantial opportunities to invest in different modalities for the business and how the organisation approaches its strategic imperatives.
Development and training activities were initially significantly affected by the COVID environment, however, the shift to online format has allowed some of these activities to be continued. Under the Skills Development programme, two workshops were held: Cross-Section Econometrics, and Time Series Econometrics. Both these workshops successfully covered intermediate economic techniques, with the attendants predominantly from historically disadvantaged institutions. The Graduate Training Programme provided 3 courses on advanced academic techniques and issues: Advanced Panel Data Econometrics, Topics in the Economics of Education, and Empirical Industrial Organization. While the online format has been successful, there are several challenges going forward. Access to information technology, load shedding and poor access to quality Wi-Fi can be disruptive and undermines the learning opportunities, especially for the financially disadvantaged students. Related to this, access to statistical and similar programmes is a challenge which needs to be seriously considered going forward. The online format does not easily lend itself to engagement between participants, potentially weakening a key learning opportunity in these workshops.
The Working Paper Series continues to be a central pillar of strength in terms of ERSAs activities and remains an important contribution to the development of research as well as academic opportunity. In the past year, 47 working papers have been published, compared with 42 papers in the preceding period. While the number of papers published has remained broadly stable, there has been a noticeable fall-off in submissions from the start of this calendar year. This is something that needs to be closely monitored, but appears to be the result of challenges researchers face in producing work under COVID conditions.
Significant progress has been made in terms of ERSA’s contributions to economic debate in the country. While COVID has hampered some of this activity by making it impossible to meet in person, the COVID environment has enabled the introduction of regular webinar style engagements with a growing and diverse audience. The Workshop Series has been structured according to the four research groups: Bridging the Divide in Economics; Public Economics; Industrial Organization and Digital Information; and Structural Constraints on the Economy, Growth and Political Economy. In total 46 webinars were delivered by these 4 streams. In addition to the workshop series, the Fiscal Futures and the Chief Economists Forum (4 events each) have built on the webinar approach to bridging the discussion between economic research and policy related matters. Going forward, the development of defined and resourced research programmes, with a firm academic base and outputs that speak to policy priorities remains an important focus area for the organisation. Over the past year, 19 podcasts have been produced on topical subjects. Going forward, the focus for the podcasts will be in achieving greater listenership by continuing to develop topical and high-quality content, but also looking into alternative platforms for hosting them. Opportunities to align the podcasts with other outputs (webinars, working papers, etc.) will also be taken advantage of.
One of the challenges coming out of the shift to online learning and engagements is that it’s more difficult for us to suitably measure the diversity of our audience. We continue to pay close attention to the composition of our audience, and it remains an important input to the management of the seminars. However, unlike previous years, we are not able to report on the gender and racial composition of online attendants accurately and fairly. Management is available to discuss this in more detail with the board, if required. Further, ERSA will investigate how best to report on this in the future, taking account of the important priorities of privacy, personal choice and holding ourselves accountable for achieving greater diversity.
Policy Briefs and Bulletins remain an area where significant progress can still be made. Over the past year, 2 Policy Briefs and 4 Policy Bulletins have been produced. The performance of these publications remains a concern and it is not clear that they are consistently addressing the right issues, presenting the information in an accessible form, or reaching the targeted audiences. Their production needs to be revisited in the coming year to ensure that they can have relevance, meet the targeted audience, and perform their intended roles. The Policy Briefs in particular are an important innovation, but present a significant challenge in terms of who authors them, ensuring consistent format and quality, and how they are disseminated to a suitable audience.
In conclusion, the building blocks to develop ERSAs contribution to a broad and diverse audience of interested users are firmly in place. The established business of ERSA remains solid and will continue to evolve to provide its best contribution to deepening and improving the quality of research in the region. The challenge for the organisation is enhancing its role in informing a broader audience and increasing its contribution to economic policy debates.
The foundation of the working paper series provides a solid and extremely valuable contribution to the economics academy on which to build bridges to the broad community of interested users. Webinars, podcasts, policy briefs/bulletins, and our engagements with social media have developed over the past year to provide the technology through which those bridges can be built. With the eventual normalization of COVID conditions, face-to-face meetings will provide further opportunities. What remains is to more accurately describe how these inputs will be arranged in a cohesive work programme based on current and policy relevant issues, adequately financial resourcing, high-quality and diverse academic inputs, and accessible communication initiatives aimed at the right audiences. This will be the management focus for ERSA over the coming months.