The African Economic Research Consortium (AERC), established in 1988 is a public not-for-profit organization devoted to the advancement of economic policy research and training. AERC's mission is to strengthen local capacity for conducting independent, rigorous inquiry into the problems facing the management of economies in sub-Saharan Africa.
That mission rests on two basic premises. First, that development is more likely to occur where there is sustained sound management of the economy. Second, that such management is more likely to happen where there is an active, well-informed group of locally based professional economists to conduct policy-relevant research. Specifically, then, AERC intends to:
- Enhance the capacity of locally based researchers to conduct policy-relevant economic inquiry,
- Promote the retention of such capacity, and
- Encourage its application in the policy context.
Donor governments, private foundations, and African and international organizations support the AERC programme, which has two primary components: research and training. The AERC Research Programme uses a flexible approach towards improving the technical skills of local researchers, allowing for regional determination of research priorities and strengthening national institutions concerned with economic policy research. The programme also fosters closer ties between researchers and policy makers. The Training Programme supports both master's and doctoral level studies in economics and helps improve the capacities of departments of economics in public universities across the continent. A comprehensive communications and outreach strategy encourages the application of AERC products to economic policy making.
Publication and dissemination of AERC research results receive considerable attention. Over the decade-plus of its existence AERC has built a critical mass of highly credible research that has enhanced the professional stature of the network both locally and internationally - and that has, moreover, focused attention on issues critical to African development. Apart from the highly regarded series of refereed AERC Research papers and other publications, many collections of project papers have been published in joint ventures with esteemed academic presses. Individually, many members of the network have seen their work published in international scholarly journals. This recognition is further shown by the large number of requests through AERC and directly for involvement of the researchers in various professional undertakings internationally and locally, including for regional ministerial consultations, joint projects with international financial institutions and other high level activities.
For example, AERC network members contributed to the conference of African Trade Ministers in Abuja (September 2001), which deliberated on a set of common African positions for the 4th Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO) held in Doha in November 2001. Similar workshops in Mauritius (October 2001, November 2001), in Oslo (June 2002) and in Geneva (September 2002) provided the opportunity to present and discuss some of the project results with African trade negotiators and policy makers. Most recently, a set of five background papers was prepared to assist African countries to prepare for the 5th WTO Ministerial Conference in Cancun, Mexico, in September 2003.
Similarly, it is no exaggeration to state that without AERC's Collaborative Research project on poverty, many African countries would not have been in a position to prepare the poverty reduction strategy papers increasingly required by the donor community. The project built an indigenous capacity to prepare these plans as it aimed to build general analytical capacity in poverty analysis in Africa.
On the policy front, senior policy seminars provide a forum for the discussion of policy-oriented syntheses of AERC research and for obtaining feedback from policy makers on the AERC research agenda. There have been six such seminars to date. National economic policy workshops are also very useful tools for promoting policy dialogue. In some countries these have become annual national events and are largely self-financed. Involvement of some of the senior researchers in policy advisory roles has grown considerably as confirmed by a questionnaire administered to the network. Internationally, the network is increasingly used as a sounding board for major policy considerations by multilateral financial institutions and other donor agencies. AERC researchers have to date been invited as witnesses to four testimonies to the US Congress on matters pertaining to African development and the operations of the international financial institutions affecting it.
The quality of the Collaborative Master's Programme is widely recognized; its history of very positive reports from external examiners and high-grade achievements in the courses formed part of the rationale for establishing the Collaborative PhD Programme. The regional interaction among students and teachers at the Joint Facility for Electives sets a stage for future collaboration not only among the participating universities but also more importantly among future policy makers and policy making institutions. Furthermore, the training programmes contribute to the regional retention of scarce capacity of teaching staff as professional opportunities for excellence have been enlarged.
AERC has also embarked on building an electronic network among the universities participating in the collaborative PhD and MA programmes. This is aimed at facilitating information sharing and improved access to world resource centres. It should almost go without saying that the impact of the AERC network of researchers and institutions crucially depends on the continued strengthening of its professional stature, the members' enhanced credibility with policy makers, and their active professional involvement in their respective countries.