Many governments express a commitment to making policy decisions on the basis of scientific evidence, but there are many obstacles to this happening in practice. This column examines the strengths and shortcomings of evidence-based policy-making in Ethiopia.
The interface between research and policy-making is becoming increasingly important in the face of challenges that are both more global and more complex. In an ideal world, the policy-making process would begin with research findings and the participation of all stakeholders, and neither sustainable development nor policy formulation would be made without a firm basis in science. But of course, scientific evidence is not the only consideration in policy decisions.
In the context of Ethiopia, failure to follow evidence-informed policy-making has resulted in several unintended and undesirable outcomes – for example, in industrial policy and rural development policy. Nowadays, science advice plays a greater role in the formulation of Ethiopian policy and decision-making, but there naturally remain limitations and constraints. Efforts at strengthening science-policy linkages include:
· Implementing the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam after a series of scientific reports, which provided evidence-informed analysis to the government on the geological, social, economic and political contexts for the project.
· The use of disaster and risk profile data to align strategies for emergencies and early warning systems.
· The establishment of different technical advisory standing committees under different ministries and/or sectors to ensure that sectoral issues are included when national policies are formulated.
· The use of a population census for the development of population policy, although the last census has been delayed due to different reasons.
· Establishment of different institutions involved in research to provide evidence-informed policy-making for sustainable development.
But the generation of evidence is engulfed with political motivations, and government structures are accustomed to using biased evidence. As evidence on the interface between research and policy-making in South Africa indicates, factors that could widen the divide include but are not limited to:
· Policy-makers inclining to their own perceptions of policy problems by underestimating the potential of scientific contributions.
· Policy-makers wanting simple answers from research in order to implement quick solutions to pressing policy challenges while ignoring the complexity of research to ensure applicability.
· Policy-makers needing results over relatively short time periods, while scientific research tends to take a relatively long time due to the requirements of evidence-based work.
· Researchers seeking to contribute to the understanding of causal relationships and deeming what they recommend as the right course, in contrast with policy-makers tending to use research to legitimize political decisions.
· Scientific advisers recommending comprehensive reforms to address complex situations, but their proposals being rejected by policy-makers.
The scientific advisory process can be thought of as consisting of five stages.
First, framing a question: what causes the problem(s)? Since the cause of a problem might be multi-faceted, it requires the involvement of multidisciplinary experts to analyze the problem and give concrete advice to the government.
Second, mutually selecting the right advisers is key for the government soliciting advice. In the Ethiopian context, the standing advisory committees are selected by higher level government officials and have been given government-mandated objectives. This type of assignment may be biased and fail to give the right advice to the policy-makers as it might not include the right experts from the right field during selection for the advisory committee. Moreover, it also affects the independence of scientific advisers, which might lead them to give scientifically unjustified advice that is inclined to a political standpoint.
Third, balancing diverse viewpoints and understanding the uncertainties are important in producing scientific advice. Reaching consensus on the different views from different fields of expertise and managing the uncertainties is a critical matter in science for policy.
Fourth, however high quality the scientific advice produced, it is not worthwhile unless properly communicated and advocated in ways that exhaust the possibilities of mutual understanding. There are lots of research results in institutes and centers in Ethiopia, which are ‘warming the shelves’. In this case, there is a need to phase-in an evidence culture by creating a sustainable research-policy linkage and boosting cooperation between research institutes and development organizations.
Fifth, impact assessment for the scientific advice provided is an important step to improve the advisory process and the effectiveness of advice in policy outcomes. This is determined by how effectively the advice is communicated. There are only few cases when the advisory group could evaluate the impact of their scientific advice after implementation in the policy-making processes and outcomes.
Timely and quality data for reaching consensus and managing uncertainties should be made accessible to policy-makers in easily understandable ways that enable them to use the evidence in the policy-making process. Resolving ambiguities and challenges allied to evidence-informed policy-making requires:
- Showcasing evidence to the public to build support and trust.
- Following a clear methodology to examine the generalizability of context-dependent data.
- Sharing priorities with researchers to elicit more informed and actionable evidence.
- Transparent evidence in policy-making that can bridge the divide between researchers and policy-makers.