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UNRISD Deputy Director's presentation entitled 'Reflections on the International Forum on the Social Science-Policy Nexus' given to the Intergovernmental Council of the Management of Social Transformations (MOST) Programme,16-18 July 2007, UNESCO, Paris.

18 Jul 2007

  • Author(s): Peter Utting
  • Source: Intergovernmental Council of the Management of Social Transformations (MOST) Programme


Mr. President, Ministers, Delegates and Colleagues,

Thank you very much for this opportunity to address the MOST Council and to reflect on what the International Forum on the Social-Science Policy Nexus (IFSP) was able to achieve and what might be done differently as the Buenos Aires process continues.

UNRISD was extremely pleased to have had the possibility of collaborating closely with UNESCO in our capacity as a member of the International Steering Committee of the IFSP, in organizing two substantive events in Buenos Aires (BA) and participating in others. There we were involved in four main activities:
- Thandika Mkandawire, the UNRISD director, gave one of the keynote addresses on the interface between research and policy making and major challenges for the social sciences in the field of development.
- we organized a round table discussion on Social Development Policies during the opening plenary session.
- we participated in the consultation organized by SAREC to examine relations between donors and social science research networks; and
- we held a two-day workshop on Social Policy and Equality that brought together leading scholars and senior policy makers.

What I would like to do here is say something about two aspects: first, how we felt the Forum as a whole went, and second, how the BA process might be improved as it continues either in its regional or international guise. Our general impressions of the Forum, much of which are anecdotal, can be summarized as follows:

1. A good presence of ministers and policy makers, but not really enough to go round, considering the large number of workshops.
2. Excellent participation of experienced social scientists from numerous countries, and topical conference themes.
3. It was possibly a situation where academics said their bit, policy makers said theirs, and everyone went home without perhaps internalizing too much what the other had said.
4. Overall attendance could have been better. The imbalance between attendance and the number of workshops meant that many events had too small an audience, which created frustration for some participants who had travelled long distances at considerable expense.
5. A fabulous hospitable host city, but costly to get to, which no doubt affected participation from developing countries in Africa and Asia.
6. Good venues, logistics and support staff, including one person with us today – Cecilie Golden – who carried on supporting despite breaking her leg.
7. A useful political statement came out of the event in the shape of the Buenos Aires Declaration, but I wonder whether those outside of the UNESCO circuits know of its existence.

From my perspective as a social scientist involved with policy-applied research, the ISFP was a fairly unique event in the sense that it did bring together a considerable number of policy makers and researchers. Furthermore, as one who is concerned with the nature of learning in international development organizations, a key achievement of the ISFP was that it reminded us that learning needs to be informed by “critical thinking”. In the 1990s, learning in the international development and aid establishment suffered in two ways. First it became somewhat obsessed with one particular approach to learning, namely identifying so-called best practices and their elements of success, and searching for fairly standardized one-sizefits- all models and approaches, in the hope that these would be replicated in different settings.

But as was said yesterday, the one right way of doing things often conformed to a particular worldview that was associated with organizations such as the World Bank or McKinsey& Co. Moreover, this approach often fails to recognize that right ways of doing things can vary considerably in different societal and institutional settings. Learning about what has worked and why is, of course, important but, in practice, it has often crowded out so-called critical thinking and intellectual pluralism. Many of the elite learning or knowledge networks that emerged in the 1990s involved a fairly narrow range of disciplines and were quite selective in terms of the academic institutions and experts involved.

The Buenos Aires process broke out of this mould. It reaffirmed the importance of critical thinking, i.e. of questions and analytical approaches that challenge conventional wisdom; highlight the importance of social and power relations underpinning policy approaches and distribution; recognize that policies and processes of change tend to produce winners and losers; reveal the crucial connection between today’s social condition and macro-economic policies and certain patterns of liberalization and growth; and focus attention on alternative policies and development models. This, I believe, was a major contribution of the Forum.

What could have been done better?

Yesterday we heard a lot about meetings that have been held as part of the BA process and beyond. We should take care, however, not to measure success solely in terms of the number of meetings. More importantly we should be asking whether the participants are really
listening to each other and going away interested in doing something different. One can think of various ways of facilitating more meaningful interaction.

First, in addition to selecting broad topical themes around which to structure the Forum, one could also identify for discussion and debate a number of more specific development problems and issues of particular concern to policy makers, and around which interesting
research has taken place – perhaps topics, for example, such as the effectiveness of contemporary poverty reduction strategies and the MDGs; the problem of conditionality associated with international financial institutions; the social implications of the privatization of public services, etc.

Second, meaningful interaction needs to be locked into the conference and workshop design. I’d like to suggest scaling-up the model that was used by UNRISD in the two-day workshop on Social Policy and Equality that we organized at the Forum. Here researchers presented their findings and policy makers, including ministers, acted as discussants. This format worked well. The selection of proposals for workshops could perhaps prioritize those that incorporate this sort of interaction.

Similarly, there could be more high profile exchanges and debates between academics and policy makers in the plenary sessions, as occurs, for example, at the World Economic Forum.

If we want to strengthen the social science – policy nexus, it is important to understand the relationship between knowledge and policy making. Implicit in the design of the Forum was perhaps too linear a conception of the knowledge-policy nexus, i.e. one that assumed that knowledge is generated, synthesized, packaged, transferred to policy makers who are eager to learn from evidence-based research, who filter and internalize the findings that will inform the policy process.

Of course, as Minister Daniyal Aziz of Pakistan explained so well yesterday, the real world doesn’t work like this. The process is mediated by a variety of actors, institutions and power relations, and is framed by ideologies, institutional cultures and skill sets, and economic circumstances. Governance today is said to be multi-playered and multi-layered. The Forum discussions captured some of this reality by focusing on the global, regional and local levels, but these were sometimes treated in a fragmented way and the relationships not sufficiently addressed.

Similarly, by focusing on researchers and policy makers, other key actors in the policy process were perhaps marginalized, particularly those engaged in advocacy. Key in this regard are civil society organizations, activists and think tanks, and, as Minister Alicia Kirchner of Argentina emphasized during her presentation, , “action-research”. The goal should not be to convert the IFSP into another World Social Forum but it is important to ensure a good dose of something akin to what Gramsci called “organic intellectuals”, i.e. those with one foot in academia and another in civil society.

Events of this nature often suffer because there are too many parallel events in relation to the number of participants. The same thing happens at the World Social Forum and the Helsinki Process. This concern was raised several times in the preparatory process but still the problem arose. A two-fold solution is probably needed: the obvious one is to cut back on the number of workshops; the other is to allow easier access of students, local scholars and civil society persons, by lowering the registration fee, preferably to zero.

In conclusion, I think there is definitely a need for events of this nature, and UNESCO has proved that it is well-placed to convene high level policy makers and academics. The ongoing efforts of MOST to form regional and sub-regional fora of Ministers are an exciting development that bodes well for future encounters.

I have argued here that the type of critical thinking that was in evidence in Buenos Aires, as well the substance of many of the plenary and workshop events, were what policy makers ought to be hearing, but that we perhaps need to fine tune the mechanics of the interaction to ensure that the policy makers are really listening.

Thank you.

For more information on this event, please click here.