(This blog contribution was first published on the global health minders web page www.globalhealthminders.dk where you will find comments to it as well.)
First of all the Ministry fails to do its home work. The minister openly admitted that the process around the new Building Stronger Universities (BSU) has been, and still was, his headache. The decision to stop the process leading to the planned phase two was his and he expressed concern for the researchers that thereby experienced difficulties. It was obvious that the Minister felt a political need to do something about BSU because as he put: everybody he spoke to were dissatisfied with the way BSU had developed.
But it was not clear from the Ministers presentation why he choose to drop an important aim of the BSU phase two: to support and strengthen the administrative side of masters and PhD programs and to fill the enormous gap of missing associate professors at African universities. Instead the Minister chooses to skip this development stage and move straight to a South based demand driven research policy. Asked how he could skip the step where administrative structures and lecturers are created the answer was that the Ministry had persons on the ground to monitor the situation. The same was the answer to the question of how the Minister expected university managements at African universities to be able to formulate their demands: we have men on the ground. It was not specified who the men are and my worry is that it effectively means Embassy staff without any competencies in research or research capacity building.
Never the less, the Ministers headache is not caused by the immediate problems related to phase two of BSU – they are rooted in the fact that when DANIDA decided on the BSU model instead of the well-functioning long lasting ENRECA research network, they asked Danish Universities and the rectorate to define the BSU program together with DANIDA. The Minister for development cooperation at the time even promised Danish Universities funding and threw meat in the form of 25 mio Danish kr into the lion’s cage expecting competing universities to deal with it sensibly and to the benefit of Universities in low income countries. They were promised even more meat if they succeeded in launching the BSU initiative. Now the Minister has a headache and felt he had to stop the initiative his Ministry had themselves designed because universities were fighting, some lions didn’t get enough meat while others had become a little too fat. Some lions were young in the cage, others were small of stature. The phase two proposal revealed that the Danish administration side had exploded at all universities.
The blame and headache lies with DANIDA that in a sudden urge for change in fashion decided to discard a well working capacity building structure that even underwent a thorough evaluation (The Hermes report) just years before it was suddenly closed down and replaced by a vaguely founded and conflict bound construction. Any employee at a Danish University would know that universities are legally obliged to compete, and they do. Why that is not known by DANIDA or its minister is a mystery. The fact is that the day it was announced that 25 mio Danish kr would be thrown into the crowd of universities, several researchers in the field started getting direct hints from their rectorate about how they would secure that they would obtain a large chunk of meat for their university.
Apparently, the same vice chancellors that had, just a week before, sat in the same room at Danish Universities agreeing on this new collaborative BSU initiative, now turned their back on the collaborative part and started a process of grabbing as much as possible. The same vice chancellors apparently didn’t understand that from DANIDAs point of view the funding and the initiative were aimed at investing in African universities, not in Danish Universities. Some Danish researchers were even approached before the 25 mio kr from DANIDA was officially announced. The headache DANIDA caused them requires more than a double dose of pain killers. It requires careful consideration and reflection in DANIDA and in Danish Universities.
The decision to close the ENRECA initiative and replace it with BSU atomized the Danish research environment in International health and introduced a previously unseen conflict between universities and researchers. Danish Universities and the rectorate have no direct competencies in research capacity building in low income countries, yet they were asked by a ministry (that itself hasn’t much competency in the field either) to form and launch a completely new model for research capacity building. That decision was unfounded, unnecessary and has bombed the, admitted ly globally small-, but nevertheless influential Danish research environment back 20 years.
The consequences are showing up now where the weak structure with 10-15 smaller unfunded working groups under BSU have lost their framework with the decision to stop BSU in the form that it was planned. This means that the last reminiscence of the former productive and creative network ENRECA now has been lost. DANIDA is to blame. They didn’t do their homework and they caused and now worsened the situation. Danish Universities do what they are obliged to do and are hardly to blame. If it ain’t broken don’t fix it is not a mantra in DANIDA.
Furthermore DANIDA hasn’t done their homework when it comes to the decision to move from a supply driven to a demand driven approach with South partners defining needs and Danish researchers subsequently answering fulfilling those needs. First of all we have several research groups that are global leaders in their field and we have researchers that have worked an entire lifetime in a range of African and Asian countries. It is devastating to the research environment of a small player like Denmark that it now has to focus on whatever comes out of the demand driven approach instead of pursuing what has always kept them among the top global research teams. That decision is going to give not only the Minister but all of the Ministers a headache because it will set back on of the few fields were Denmark is up front.
The Minister also didn’t do his homework when it comes to the actual analysis of the situation on the ground at universities. Masters programs are ghost programs; there is a huge generation gap among university teaching staff: there are no associate professors. Matters of lacking transparency and corruption in obtaining a masters or PhD degree keep coming up right from obtaining an ethical clearance to having somebody evaluate your thesis or even supervise you when you want to produce a paper. Universities are weak and overburdened and the only system that seems to facilitate production is paying a little money at each step of a masters or Phd until graduation day.
Administration and teaching resources, even salaries, are not prioritized and nobody seems to care to invest in it. Phase two of BSU was to take care of that and the Universities were very keen to start this capacity building process. This is not going to happen now and we will have difficulty coming back with new university programs in the future because Danish foreign aid is seen as unreliable and unpredictable. Because there is no clear research career path at their university, promising young researchers do what is best for themselves: they start working for NGOs or UN programs or they migrate abroad. The accounting audit system that was created by our previous ENRECA project collaboration between three Danish Universities at the medical faculty at a University in Uganda is a model for transparency and the University is very proud of it. But the plan to expand it to the rest of the university and the creation of project management office now has to be abandoned.
One little detail also came out that could give the final deadly stab to BSU from a Danish researcher perspective: the new BSU will not be offering PhD scholarships. That is probably the end of that marriage.
The Minister told the audience at the meeting that long term commitment in research and supply driven research capacity building it not the name of the game anymore. Being a country that has to survive in the global competition entirely by doing something that the rest of the world don’t – that decision seems to be a counter productive and naïve policy to follow. We in the Danish global health research have survived and thrived on long term commitments, long term investments and by defining the research agenda based on evidence and experience. That’s the name of the game.
We have sound and productive research environments that have produced hundreds of masters and PhDs now functioning as heads of research departments, research programs, and departments or as decision makers. If the Minister had done his homework and based the DANIDA strategy on what is proven to be working for over 30 years such as the research groups working in Tanzania, Ghana, Uganda and Guinea-Bissau he wouldn’t have a headache – and we would be happier in our marriage.