[Originally posted on the ESID blog]

I have been working as part of ESID for a little over 15 months now, but last week was the first time that I actually saw the faces of many of our partners and realised their passion for what they do. The Cape Town workshop was a whirlwind tour of the latest work on a panoply of policy issues (growth, education, oil, health…) across India, Bangladesh, Ghana, Uganda, Malawi, South Africa, Rwanda, Peru, Bolivia… By the end of it I felt a bit overwhelmed, but also satisfied that I finally had a good grasp of what ESID has achieved so far, and what interesting challenges lie ahead for us over the next three years. Here are some of the things I learned.

The Cape of Good Hope viewed from Table Mountain

The Cape of Good Hope viewed from Table Mountain

(1) We are dealing with the most difficult questions of development

I would say that almost without exception our projects deal with the most difficult questions in their respective fields. For instance, we are not interested in average growth, but the factors behind patterns of growth acceleration and deceleration. Similarly, we are not interested in measuring variations in maternal health provision, but the political commitment that determines variation in capacity for implementation. Across the board, we are not focused solely on the outcomes -certainly not outputs- of development, but the processes that lead to them. Regardless of how successful we are in supplying answers, there is no doubt that these are the central questions of development policy.

(2) ESID is charting new territory in conceptualisation and operationalisation

Perhaps because we are dealing with such complex questions, we have to come up with our own analytical frameworks for conceptualising and operationalising dependent and independent variables. Take the case of “state capacity”, which to this day poses important measurement challenges to researchers and practitioners alike. And now consider the much more nebulous “elite commitment”, a concept with no valid and reliable indicators despite being recognised as significant by everyone. Above all, we are trying to develop further the political settlements paradigm, exploring its nooks and crannies in order to turn it into a compelling analytical toolkit. This is not normal science, as Kuhn would have it; not by any stretch of the imagination.

(3) Our researchers are willing to question themselves and reach compromise

Perhaps it takes a different kind of researcher to undertake an intellectual and professional journey into uncharted territory. I could not possible remember all the conferences and workshops that I have attended in which presenters were utterly closed to constructive feedback: academics seldom have the incentive to listen to others once research is ongoing, or to renege on the ideas or findings that have propped up their careers. And yet our Cape Town discussions have -almost without exception- focused on two-way dialogue: reviewing existing approaches, reconciling disparate interpretations, seeking analytical common ground, and in general drawing a new map for all of us to follow.

(4) The big challenge: Keeping to our allocated time

There is so much to discuss, so many moving parts, that we are not that good at keeping time. Cape Town was a non-stop -and at times grueling- conversation partly because most of us have the tendency to go over time. Nothing throws a wrench into a carefully planned workshop like an opening 10-minute presentation that lasts half an hour. Many of our workshops -often with good reason- simply ran over time. And I suspect that having one or two additional days would not have relieved the pace so much as increased the amount of content crammed into the agenda. Still, this is what academics are usually like. Beware of the speaker who opens with “this will only take 5 minutes”, for before you lies a person who has lost the sense of time…

(5) ESID can’t dance

And speaking of time, timing: it is with a heavy heart that I report that ESID is not for dancers. Despite a jazz night and a dinner accompanied by traditional African music, our researchers have shown themselves to be staunch sitters and starers, the kind of people who smile at the odd dancer and may even discreetly move to the beat but make no attempt to join the one or two researchers-slash-dancers. It may be due to all the political settlements in our heads, but compared to the raucous dance parties at the African Studies Association meeting we are a sad bunch indeed…

(6) This is just the beginning

Jokes aside, my main takeaway lesson from Cape Town was that this is just the beginning. Yes, ESID will end at some point in in early 2017: when the time comes we will close shop, set up some legacy repository of knowledge to go with our books and articles, and move on. But the research agendas that ESID has sponsored and the ideas that we are developing are here to stay: like a handful of other research centres around the UK, we are at the forefront of the analysis of the politics of development. We may not have the strongest “evidence” just yet, but that is because we are delving into policy processes that are not easy to conceptualise or measure. ESID is just the beginning. But what a promising beginning it is.