Inequality research centre at SALDRU sets sights on development goals

Image: Johnny Miller/Unequal Scenes, used with permission.

The potential contribution of the University of Cape Town to evidence that will inform Africa’s progress towards achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has received a substantial boost through SALDRU’s participation in the ARUA Centre of Excellence for Inequality Research (ACEIR).

This comes as ACEIR, which is hosted by SALDRU under the direction of Prof. Murray Leibbrandt, was invited to submit a multi-million Rand funding proposal to support capacity building and partnerships as one of the 13 centres of excellence of the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA). The funding is made available through ARUA’s partnership with the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), which will channel a total of £22.8 million (roughly R421 million) to the ARUA centres.

The ARUA-UKRI GCRF partnership was set up in August last year and aims to address the SDGs, strengthen Africa-United Kingdom research collaborations, and enhance research capacity across the African and UK research communities.

African inequality placed centre stage
Inequality has emerged as the social challenge of the decade, explains Leibbrandt, who holds the DST-NRF SARChI Chair in Poverty and Inequality Research: “While the available international evidence suggests that inequality between countries has fallen in the last quarter of the 20th century, the average inequality within countries has increased since the beginning of the new century. Africa is the most unequal continent, but the regional picture is complex and often obscured by problems with unreliable and non-comparable data, both over time and across countries.”

ACEIR was launched in May 2018 to address these analytical, empirical and data needs. Key objectives include informing both policy interventions and civil society action to help turn the tide against inequality. Speaking at the ACEIR launch workshop, Prof. Ernest Aryeetey, secretary-general of ARUA, said that ACEIR was one of the Alliance’s most advanced centres of excellence and that he believed that it would provide direction for its other centres. The themes of the 13 centres of excellence all map onto the SDGs, or aspects of them.

ACEIR currently comprises three nodes – based at the universities of Ghana – Legon, Nairobi and Cape Town. These represent the western, eastern and southern nodes respectively. A partnership with the Université de Bouaké, Côte d’Ivoire, and a possible partnership with the University of Ethiopia are extending ARUA’s reach across the continent.

The pending funding proposal to UKRI can boost ACEIR’s capacity building across the hub-and-spoke model with up to £600 000 (R11.1 million) over three years to support activities for researchers, workshops, networking, and interactions with research projects. In the present moment, work is well underway with the support from the Agence Française de Développement (French Development Agency/AFD) to advance the analysis of African inequality and policy discussions on strategies to overcome inequality on the continent through a series of country-level engagements.

Research tools with the potential for policy engagement
One of our current projects involves the production of a report that, based on the existing literature, takes stock of the state of discussions on inequality in Africa. The paper aims to provide a conceptual framework on African specificities, while recognising country-level heterogeneity and context. It will also draw on the country teams’ country diagnostics to give insight into the commonalities and differences between the experiences of the participating countries (Ghana, Kenya, Ivory Coast and South Africa).

Given the increased focus on the SDGs both globally and locally – South Africa is due to table its first progress report to the UN in July – one of ACEIR’s objectives is to ensure that Africa is included in the international measurements. ACEIR’s work is given structure and impetus through the development of a diagnostic tool that will be piloted in the node countries.

The diagnostic tool will consist of a thorough analysis of the various inequalities in a given country. This will help governments to identify the priorities and policy options to reduce these inequalities.

A handbook has been drafted to build the diagnostic tool; it sets up a common evidence base that will allow cross-country comparisons. To extend its use and improve accountability, it will be supported by a central data hub (located at UCT’s DataFirst centre) together with strong data centres in each partner country.

The country diagnostics will be published as reports that will give an overview of the inequality within a country, across all relevant dimensions, at a moment in time as well as over time. They will also summarise the main policies in place that could impact on inequalities. Each country node will use their diagnostic as a platform for policy engagements on strategies to overcome inequality; to stimulate national dialogue and national research on inequality; and lead the national discussion through further high-impact research papers on inequality in the respective country.

The diagnostic tool will also facilitate the comparability of results and findings across participating countries. Leibbrandt says that this externality represents one of the major motivations for a multi-country collaboration such as ACEIR:

“By following the methods and interpretation described in the tool, researchers will ensure that data is prepared and analysed in similar ways, meaning the results can be compared across the different country nodes.”

An inclusive, engaged and African research agenda
Inequality has many adverse effects on the texture and functioning of societies. International Monetary Fund research, for example, shows that inequality harms growth at an aggregate, cross-country level, and that there is scope for growth-enhancing redistributive policy.

“There is thus a very strong mandate to research – seriously – policies and broader strategies to overcome inequality”, says Leibbrandt. “ACEIR seeks to take up this challenge and position African researchers centre stage of the analysis of our inequalities and to build the quantity and quality of African researchers working in this area.”

As the go-to centre on the topic of inequality, ACEIR is positioned to become a key player in the development of methodological tools on how to better integrate the fight against inequalities in public policies and development strategies such as the SDGs.

UCT’s contribution to this agenda through SALDRU’s hosting of the ACEIR hub and southern African node is therefore maximising an “opportunity to respond to our strategic plan and vision of being inclusive, engaged and African,” as was pointed out by UCT Vice-Chancellor Prof. Mamokgethi Phakeng at ACEIR’s launch workshop.

The first ACEIR working paper, titled “Worlds Apart: What polarization measures reveal about sub-Saharan Africa’s growth and welfare distribution in the last two decades”, is now available online.

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This article was written by Charmaine Smith, ACEIR communication manager.