It is my great pleasure to write this article as the incoming Director of SALDRU, effective January 2024. In it, I outline my vision for the organisation, identify some of the challenges that we face, and discuss our unique position in the global think tank (research unit) space. But before doing so, I beg your indulgence for a brief personal reflection. I am a few months older than SALDRU, having been born in December 1974 while SALDRU was established in 1975. I was born in the rural town of Alice in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, roughly 30km away from the town called Hogsback where Francis Wilson – SALDRU’s founding Director – grew up. I dare say it is not inconceivable that Francis was contemplating the inauguration of SALDRU that very same December of 1974 when I made my introduction to the world. I was also at SALDRU’s thirty-year celebratory event in 2005 when the Directorship of SALDRU was passed from Francis to Murray Leibbrandt. Never did I think I would be the next recipient of this leadership opportunity. It is a privilege and an honour for me to take up the challenge. I will do my very best to continue the success that both Francis and Murray achieved for the organisation.
My vision for SALDRU is a space where continuous methodological innovation is normalized in the research processes and data that we generate and curate. To fulfil our mission of “challenging inequalities through policy relevant academic research” requires that all of our staff must feel invested in what we do, how we do it, and why we do it; with no task seen as too small or insignificant. It is important to note that SALDRU is a soft-funded organisation, meaning that we raise all our own funding. To achieve this vision and carry out our mission, we therefore have to ensure that we are financially sustainable, and that means we must continue to provide relevant and innovative research and data products to the world.
SALDRU’s value system with respect to research and data provision has always been to publish open source wherever possible, meaning that the data we produce or curate are free to download anywhere in the world once confidential information is protected, and that even when we publish in subscription-based peer-reviewed journals, there will always be a free, open-access working paper version available for download on the openSALDRU platform. Emerging researchers can also learn from the code that we use to work with the data and generate our results because the code is often published on our website or otherwise available online. The only time that we depart from our open access principles is when we are asked to generate or work with secure data, in which case we develop appropriate gate-keeping modalities to ensure that all of the legal rights concerning confidentiality are strictly adhered to. This altruistic service to the research and policymaking communities has not only built a deep trust between ourselves and our stakeholders, but has also provided the stimulus to develop unique and bespoke training courses for government and civil society.
So how does this position SALDRU uniquely in the global research unit / think tank space? To understand this, one has to understand what SALDRU’s social return on investment (SROI) is. A narrow way of thinking about the SROI is to ask the question: “for every Rand invested in SALDRU, what are the outputs, outcomes, and impacts that SALDRU will deliver?” To answer this, let’s firstly consider the inputs. SALDRU comprises a diverse and dedicated team, currently numbering 66 individuals. This includes 18 researchers, 10 associates from the School of Economics, 3 support staff, and 35 project staff. Furthermore, we maintain a network of 24 local and international affiliates. Our researchers collectively constitute one of the strongest groups of quantitative social scientists on the African continent. Notably, they are actively involved in research-led teaching, postgraduate supervision, and training, thus contributing to the development of the next generation of social scientists. We are also physically housed in the University of Cape Town’s School of Economics building, in which we are surrounded by seven other research units and nearly 50 other academic economists, all of whom actively engage in research, lively debates, and weekly seminars that are free to attend and contribute to. These academics, like all Saldrupians, are deeply invested in the welfare of Afrika, and their collective work makes a major contribution to the University of Cape Town being ranked 12th in the world in the field of Development Studies in 2023. This vibrant community creates an incredibly stimulating and productive home for our staff, where the very best of human potential can be actualized.
Now let’s return to the question of SALDRU’s SROI. If we calculated an SROI for each project, it would differ by project. So, let’s take a far-reaching example. One of the most impactful contributions that SALDRU made to policy making was right at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in the second quarter of 2020. We recommended that the Child Support Grant (CSG) be increased immediately to provide a greater measure of support to families who had lost breadwinners to temporary employment layoffs and furloughs, and whose children were prohibited from going to school, where many of them received their main meal of the day. This grant was reaching about 13 million children aged 0-17 in March 2020. The grant was increased with a special COVID-19 top-up that resulted in the monetary amount increasing from R450 per month in March 2020 to R720 on 1 June 2020. This top-up ended when the special COVID-19 grants were promulgated, namely the Social Relief of Distress (SRD) grant and Temporary Employment Relief Scheme (TERS). But this preceding intervention resulted in critical financial support for families at one of their most vulnerable times.
The fact that SALDRU was able to have such a profound impact on South African policymaking at a historically unprecedented juncture in South Africa’s history is testimony to the strength of relationships and trust that our researchers have built with policymakers. It should serve as a powerful message to our past, present and future funders – be they philanthropic, private-sector or public-sector based – that SALDRU’s contribution to the world is significant and far-reaching. Investing in SALDRU is therefore both financially prudent and socially one of the most impactful investments that can be made in the research and data production landscape.
As an organisation, we look forward to expanding this footprint on the African continent in the years to come. We also welcome opportunities to collaborate internationally on comparative socio-economic research projects, and have already signed up for two new such projects in the last year that will be highlighted in future editions of the SALDRU Newsletter. Please don’t hesitate to contact me directly to explore how SALDRU can be of service to your organisation.