In this exclusive interview with IFMR LEAD, Dr. Sultan Hafeez Rahman, Executive Director of BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), Bangladesh discusses the importance of and barriers to evidence based research for policymaking. He also specifically talks about the current research and development scenario in Bangladesh and how regional cooperation can help address key development challenges of collaborating countries.

Drawing on various country experiences, what is your take on the importance of research evidence in the current policymaking environment of low and middle-income countries?

Globalization and sustained technological change has ushered the world in the 'age of knowledge.' It is absolutely imperative for governments to take advantage of the growing body of knowledge (based on rigorous research) and research methods that can be used to solve the complex challenges they face in transforming their countries into more just and prosperous societies. They need to rapidly develop their capacity both to undertake research within their own system as well as draw on the wider academic research and think tank community to inform policy making. Otherwise they will not be able to develop 'smartly' and lag behind in their national development goals. On the positive side, it has to be said that a growing number of countries are beginning to realize the importance or research evidence for policy making.   

What in your opinion is the biggest barrier in supporting policy decisions with research evidence in low and middle-income countries – Demand, supply or research tools? 

I feel the constraints are structural in nature relating to the way in which governments in these countries conduct business and an entrenched mind-set. Government's, more often than not, need to take decisions 'on the fly.' Matters are always 'urgent' because government leaders/politicians must take a host of decisions relating to issues/demands/concessions. They tend to use their own understanding, past practice, advice of senior bureaucrats, follow instructions of higher authority or even their 'instinct' to take decisions. Such ad hoc decision making is not conducive to a considered assessment of evidence based on research in formulating public policy. Second, The government leaders and the bureaucracy tend not to take evidence into consideration (or seriously enough) because it may be at odds with their own views on the content of specific policies; or because they lack the capacity to engage with researchers. This seems to reflect an entrenched mindset which causes 'tension' between political leaders and the bureaucracy on the one hand, and researchers on the other. Government leaders and the bureaucracy often describes the output of research, ie, evidence as being 'theoretical' and hence not quite 'applicable to the practical solutions' they demand. 

How would you suggest addressing the barriers in research and development in Bangladesh?

While the barriers noted above are challenging, there are some politicians in government and senior bureaucrats who understand the relevance and importance of research evidence for policy making. Researchers need to identify these 'champions' and work with them over the 'long haul' to gradually increase their influence and impact. It is also important to recognize that the government are beginning to realize the importance of research in policy making, even though they are hesitant or unable to institute this on a large enough scale across the government.   

How far can regional collaboration, exchange of ideas and learning between countries contribute towards tackling development challenges in low and middle-income countries?  

Regional collaboration in research via exchange of ideas, learning from each others' problems and policy applications/solutions, enhancing the research capacity of academic institutions and think tanks can be a powerful instrument in addressing development challenges of the collaborating countries. This should be viewed as intangible 'capital flows' across two countries; 'captial' in this case would constitute 'human or knowledge capital.' More importantly such collaboration could have more powerful development impacts than investment capital flows, and indeed can also be a good example of 'south-south' cooperation in some cases.   

In your opinion, which are the key partnerships aligned to the Digital Bangladesh Vision 2021 agenda of the government, and how do you see them contributing towards achieving financial inclusion in the country? 

Digital Bangladesh is a major plank of Vision 2021. Bangladesh will celebrate 50 years of independence and has sent itself the goal of becoming an upper middle income country by then. Web based technologies have revolutionised the world in opening up ever new horizons of possibility for countries to transform and develop. I believe that countries like Bangladesh can benefit enormously from such technology solutions. However, its downsides are also all too clear---it can be risky and costly--as the recent hacking of the central Bank's account with with New York Federal Reserve Bank indicates.  Digital Bangladesh is in essence a vision of a 'IT-connected country in which the rural-urban divide in connectivity is eliminated to enable the poor and less developed regions of the country to benefit from smart solutions such us mobile banking, mobile cash transfers for safety nets and other anti-poverty programs, making rural urban migration more efficient and profitable, IT systems based solutions in agriculture, off farm activities, industry and services---and so many other prospects. In a decade's time we will live in an unimaginably technology-enabled world to which virtually the entire population of developing countries would have access. Bangladesh will has already been a pioneer in some of these areas--mobile phones (now 'connected smart' phones) and mobile banking. Key partnerships across countries not only to build capacity on the technical side, but also to undertake research to evaluate the impact of introducing public policies using such technology based solutions will be critical to reaching the targets of Vision 2021 and Digital Bangladesh; domestic partnerships between the wider research community and government research and policy making entities will also be crucial.

Dr. Sultan Hafeez  Rahman is serving as the Executive Director of BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), BRAC University. He is also the Country Director of the International Growth Centre's research programme in Bangladesh since 2013.  In June 2012, he retired from the Asian Development Bank as Director General, South Asia. He has served as a member of several high-level government, regional, and international expert panels, task forces and committees. These included the expert panels of 3rd, 4th and 7th Five Year Plans of Bangladesh. In addition, he was Adviser/Consultant to the Ministries of Jute, Industry, Commerce and, Finance and Planning. Dr. Rahman also served as a Director in the Board of Directors of the state owned Agrani Bank from 1988-91 as a nominee of the government. 

Dr. Rahman is a reputed economist and his current research interests are in the areas of economic growth and inequality, macroeconomic policy, governance, regional economic integration and sustainable development. Dr. Rahman obtained his Ph.D. and M.A degrees from Stanford University and Vanderbilt University. He was also educated at University of Dhaka, Chittagong University and Faujdarhat Cadet College.
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