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April 5, 2015

Responding To: Week 10: University Action

Institutional Imperatives and Bias: Why Development Needs Global Research Universities

O. Felix Obi

International development organizations, including the World Bank Group (WBG) have unique institutional imperatives and bias that limits program efficacy. For national aid agencies, path-dependency and national interest can trump requirement for effectual local partners. Non-profits are adept at poverty alleviation, but their programs often lack scale and scope to influence macro-economic trajectory.  Inconsistencies in development outcomes suggest WBG's challenges with influencing endogenous transaction costs of political and economic markets towards competitive conditions that expand economic opportunity.

Critiquing WBG's shortcomings can be easy pickings. A constructive remedy will include a powerful academic constituency that understands WBG's organizational bias and imperatives, and therefore is able to help design better projects. But this knowledge synergy may not materialize if universities and development organizations continue to operate in silos. 

Better cooperation from universities can help. In particular, universities should reward scholar-practitioners by factoring their research in tenure and promotion considerations. The artificial separation between scholarship and practice in many U.S. universities limits the insights scholars have on development (and especially how development agencies function), and inhibits practitioners’ knowledge of scholarly advances in governance and political economics. This university-imposed dichotomy does not exist in the STEM field, and for good reason. 

It's a bad idea to close hospitals so medical schools can focus on research in medicine, not the practice of it. And just as bad for development to maintain dichotomy between scholars and practitioners.

By comparison, knowledge synergy is gaining acceptance in the U.K., where DfID cooperates closely with top research universities. Two in particular, the International Development Department at the University of Birmingham and the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, are staffed mainly by scholar-practitioners.  And some U.S. universities are catching-up. I was the principal author of the "deep-dives" section of The Innovative and Entrepreneurial University: Higher Education, Innovation & Entrepreneurship in Focus, a 2013 White House and U.S.  Commerce Department report on 142 U.S. universities' commitment to innovation and entrepreneurship on campus, and in their communities.  The report concluded that "a new generation of faculty on America’s campuses is striving to conduct world-class research, while working to identify the relevance of their research for solving real-world problems" (p. 23). 

Students would also benefit from greater synergy between scholars and practitioners.

Office of career and alumni services can leverage scholar-practitioners' industry knowledge to better prepare, market, and match graduates with employers. Building contacts and knowing the skills organizations expect from graduates are extremely important factors in the ability of students to get jobs after graduation. 

Ultimately, research universities have a responsibility to leverage their academic strengths by rewarding, rather than punishing, collaboration with development organizations. It’s a win for development, students, and for universities. 

O. Felix Obi is an Alumni Board Member at Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy. His professional background is in economic and international trade development in Africa, especially innovation and entrepreneurship.

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