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Jimi Adesina champions UNRISD and the University of South Africa

17 Mar 2014

  • Author(s): Kirosha Naicker

Jimi Adesina champions UNRISD and the University of South Africa
In an article first published on the website of the College of Graduate Studies, University of South Africa (Unisa), UNRISD's recently appointed Board Member, Professor Jimi Adesina, talks about how his new role with UNRISD relates to his work and research on transformative social policy at Unisa. We reproduce the full article below.


Professor Jimi Adesina has taken Unisa’s place on the global map to another level. Professor and Department of Science and Technology/National Research Foundation SARChI Chair in Social Policy at the Archie Mafeje Research Institute, Adesina was appointed in July 2013 by the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the United Nations to the Board of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) in Geneva.

The appointment is for an initial period of four years and the statute establishing UNRISD gives the Board three primary roles. The first is to ensure the institutional integrity of UNRISD by making general rules governing its operations. Second is the intellectual and financial oversight of UNRISD—the Board reviews and approves the programme of work and budget of the institute, including reviewing and setting its strategic direction. Finally, the Board is accountable to ECOSOC for the operations and health of the institute and this involves submitting regular reports to ECOSOC on the work of UNRISD.

As the DST/NRF SARChI Chair in Social Policy at Unisa, Adesina explains the effect this appointment has on the work being done in his role at the university. “The focus of our work at the SARChI Chair fits quite well with the work of UNRISD. Indeed, the idea of ‘transformative social policy’ that underpins our approach to social policy emerged from the earlier work done within the ‘social policy in development context’ research programme at UNRISD. Thandika Mkandawire, a truly inspirational fellow and seminal thinker was Director of UNRISD at the time. Our insistence that the Africa experience offers unique insights into social policy was something that working within the UNRISD programme afforded us the space to test and demonstrate. And this was within a collective of leading scholars on social policy from around the world.” Adesina believes the appointment to the Board offers Unisa the space to strengthen the interaction between the SARChI Chair and UNRISD and maintain a two-way flow of ideas and collaboration, in what he hopes will be a sustained site of innovative thinking and research in social policy.

Innovative, agenda-setting research with impact on the human habitus

Currently there is an urgent need for research and effective policies for social development around the globe. UNRISD’s 2010–2014 research agenda is responding to this need. Hence higher education institutions like Unisa come under the spotlight regarding their role in research and the policy gap. “Let’s keep in mind that universities are fundamentally sites of knowledge production – innovative, agenda-setting research with impact on the human habitus. However, how innovative ideas and research impact the policy terrain is more complex than the simple assumption that policymakers value ideas and will use the best outcomes of research out there. In the area of social sciences and social policy, even more so, ideas have to conspire with power to truly transform the world we live in. Regardless, we start from the position that ideas matter and placing the work we do in the public arena is important for how ideas impact the world we live in. It is also important to realise that ideas impact the world through a diversity of agencies in society,” explains Adesina.

In addition to research projects, UNRISD undertakes a number of activities that allow them to respond to special requests for collaboration, or to take up new challenges to contribute to the development debate. Research-related activities include special events and conferences and writing commissioned papers. Adesina hopes to get Unisa involved. He says, “An important role of a Board member is to be a champion of the institute. My position at the SARChI Chair and location at Unisa provide important spaces to be a champion of UNRISD and its work. I can imagine a period of greater visibility for UNRISD and its engagement with South Africa and our university.”

Adesina firmly believes in the intrinsic value of UNRISD as an autonomous research entity within the UN System. “It has a distinguished track record of really outstanding and independent research that needs to be protected and nurtured. For fifty years, UNRISD has been the site of truly innovative global research and ideas in social development and social policy,” he says with pride. And perhaps there’s no time like the present to get Unisa involved.

The original article is available on the website of the College of Graduate Studies, University of South Africa.