May 19, 2020 Sujeev Shakya

We need more economists

And we need firms and organisations to invest more in research and analysis.

Two events last week prompted me to write this column. First, for a work-related meeting, we listened to an analysis given by Swarnim Wagle, current executive chair of the Institute of Integrated Development Studies (IIDS), on the impact of Covid-19 on the economy and what to expect. It was full of insights; during the team meetings later, we discussed how we need more people like Wagle, people who are willing to provide analysis backed by deep research and share it in an easily understandable language. The second event was after the finance minister spoke on the government’s economic plans. I was scrambling across different media for some review and understanding, yet even the mainstream media was more than happy to carry a report from the national news agency, RSS.

For every hundred opinions on Lipu Lekh, why is it that we do not have one good analysis on the economy? Is it because this requires reading and analysis, in contrast to off the cuff opinion? Even when economic news or analyses are featured, most media outlets are seen to be relying on validation quotes from either some cartel head (irrespective of whether the person has an understanding of the issue or not) or the same ‘experts’ who have been used to seeing their picture in the news for the past 30 years. It is also interesting to note how some in the media ask for opinions in these issues—as if they are doing the expert a favour by having their opinion in their news stories, in print or television. Personally, I have now begun asking journalists to pay me for any analytical content they need. In Nepal, there are only a few media outlets that actually pay for opinion pieces. It is not about the amount paid, but it is about recognising the time and effort put in by people to produce content. Perhaps people who do not have the habit of spending time to formulate their thoughts would never recognise the value of research and analysis.

Lopsided priorities

Many budding economists who have taken the route to establish think tanks and research institutions complain about not being able to find funds to run institutions. A year back, a team that I was involved in got together to figure out why people find it difficult to pay for research. We discussed how banks that have combined deposits of $30 billion and operate in an economy of this size neither hire economists nor are willing to pay firms that have them. I remember talking to a banker about a monthly arrangement for providing exclusive research and analysis. We had several meetings, but eventually, it became clear that they were not even willing to pay a token amount each month. When I saw them spend millions of rupees in jacket advertisements in newspapers welcoming a visiting boss, their priorities were made clear. Sycophancy keeps your jobs safe, not research and analysis.

Many institutions have been shuttered when the funds they were getting from development partners dried up. Even in large multilaterals, glossy publications emerge whenever there is a leader that values analysis and pushes for research; they dry up once the person leaves or the funds are spent. Billions of rupees spent on research projects do not leave any repository of knowledge or data that people in the future can refer to. There have been times my firm has been approached by organisations, after a leadership change, to ask for copies of reports that they themselves published! This is what happens when research is seen as an offshoot project, and not taken seriously in institution-building. Further, with many development partners preferring to hire individuals over firms or institutions, most of them do not promote building a knowledge repository. If such organisations find some talent in local institutions, they find it easier to poach the person rather than help build the local firm to benefit many.

Transformational mindset

At Nepal Economic Forum, we have been consistently working for over a decade in producing economic research and analysis supported by a unique model where people who work at Beed—our management consulting firm—volunteer time to keep the not-for-profit going. We have also been inspired by people like our Senior Fellow Chandan Sapkota, who despite his busy days during his PhD and now working at a key position in Asian Development Bank, India finds time to analyse economic issues back home. There are many who are following Chandan’s footsteps. They need support so that they may keep one foot in Nepal, even when living and working in other parts of the world.

We stare at a new paradigm in the post-COVID-19 world, where the lines between economic, physical, behavioural or mental health-related issues and issues relating to development and finance are blurred. The world of big data will make extrapolating the future easier than it was in the past; more pracademics will enter the world of analysis. With online courses from the best universities and institutions in the world becoming accessible and people getting trained better by lockdowns to manage the virtual learning environment, we only can hope more people are going to take up research and analysis with more interest. It is critical to do so to make informed decisions. The hope lies in these new-age analysts who will emerge with a transformational mindset. If entrepreneurs and next-generation leaders in family-run businesses are willing to invest in research and analysis as a comparative advantage vis-à-vis their competitors, we will not only see a paradigm shift, but we will see more Nepali businesses going global.   

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