Beyond the classroom — The importance of partnering for capacity development into early career

December 14, 2022
Kunal Sen, Director of UNU-WIDER

UNU-WIDER brings a unique perspective to UniPID. Although not a university in its traditional sense, UNU-WIDER has a long history contributing to the education and capacity development of development experts. They focus on engaging in short-term capacity development opportunities, and maintaining long-term connections to deliver opportunities for peer-to-peer learning, knowledge sharing, discussion and debate between researchers and development professionals.

The United Nations University is made up of 13 institutes in 12 countries around the world working on various development issues as distinct as clean water in rural villages to crisis management in post-conflict states. In 1985, The World Institute for Development Economics (UNU-WIDER) became the first UNU institute. For over 35 years the Institute has conducted research and policy analysis on the most pressing concerns affecting the living conditions of the world’s poorest people. To do that, UNU-WIDER has focused on creating and sharing knowledge, building partnerships, and developing the capacity of Global South scholars and policy professionals in a collaborative effort to support sustainable development. With our headquarters in Helsinki, we are often very far away from the people we seek to help, but by focusing on building partnerships and developing the capacity of Global South scholars and policy professionals, we’re able to support sustainable development.

UNU-WIDER brings a unique perspective as an observing member of the UniPID Board. Unlike the other universities on the Board, UNU-WIDER is a blend of research institute, think tank, and UN entity. Although we’re a university by name, our focus is on engaging in short-term capacity development opportunities, and then maintaining long-term connections to deliver opportunities for peer-to-peer learning, knowledge sharing, discussion, and debate between researchers and development professionals.

Supporting the next generation of development researchers and policymakers in the Global South

Although we’re not a university in the traditional sense, we have spent decades contributing to the education and capacity development of up-and-coming development experts. Importantly, our learning opportunities are not just for those who are enrolled in doctoral or master’s programmes, but also those who are already working in the field, career researchers, and people involved in policy processes in the Global South. These people are already out there doing the work, shaping the futures of their countries, and we can support them by providing training and tools that they can apply immediately in their work.

Our ethos when it comes to building the capacity of Global South students, scholars, and policy experts, is to not only share our resources and expertise, but also making sure these trainings are relevant and suitable for the contexts they work in. This point is critical. For example, when we host a SOUTHMOD tax-benefit microsimulation model training to people doing research and analysis in the Tanzanian Revenue Authority, it cannot be the same model, or the same examples, as when the training is done in Uganda, Vietnam, or Ecuador. To provide a truly meaningful and relevant capacity development for these experts requires partnering with local governments.

In the past few years we have also partnered with Cape Town University and Stellenbosch University to host a winter and summer school in South Africa for Global South researchers, analysts, and policy practitioners to learn about new data sources and data analysis methods.

To ensure that the courses had the most impact and lasting use for participants, we felt that creating a space for exchanging knowledge and sharing challenges between participants was just as important as getting the course content right. Although they all come to learn from the instructors, what we find is that quite often they have just as much to learn from each other. During the trainings, participants are often found discussing how they each overcome data, research, or policy challenges in their various contexts, exchanging tips and advice invaluable to their professional development. These conversations also benefit our Institution by identifying challenges participants recognize as important to their contexts so that we can adapt our curriculum and even direct our resources to address new research questions to support our ever-expanding network of Global South scholars and policy experts.

Further, through the research collaborations that we develop in the Global South we’re able to be part of making more and better data available for research and policy experts there. We recently reached a significant milestone in our collaboration in Uganda where the Ugandan Revenue Authority opened their secure research data lab. This new lab has panel data on firm taxation with many more datasets planned to come. This comes after the success of a similar data lab in the South African Revenue Authority.

Opening the doors in Helsinki

In addition to partnering in the Global South to provide learning opportunities there, we also understand the value in opening the doors to UNU-WIDER in Helsinki to share the resources and expertise in the Helsinki office.

Twice a year, our Visiting PhD Fellowship programme invites PhD candidates in development economics or related fields to visit UNU-WIDER for three months. Fellows receive support from a dedicated researcher to mentor them in completing their dissertation, while also regularly meeting with other researchers at UNU-WIDER to build their connections and expand their professional network. Applications from students from the Global South are particularly encouraged in line with our mission. Former PhD Fellow Wei Wei Chen had this to say about her experience: “UNU-WIDER was committed to creating a platform and providing all the necessary support to cultivate talent; especially for those from the Global South who might encounter hurdles and have less opportunity to engage with researchers at the top of their field.”

Collaboration is key

Whether in Helsinki or Zambia, the key to UNU-WIDER’s ongoing impact is in its collaborative approach; both through our capacity development and learning opportunities, but also research projects and policy analysis. And this is what we bring to the UniPID board —a meaningful history of collaborating with the Global South working towards achieving inclusive and sustainable development.