Opinion: The intellectual vacuum in our policy-making

by Ayo Olukotun

Concern and apprehension continue to be raised regarding the quality and character of policymaking in the context especially of such misadventures as the proposed, mercifully aborted, change in our currency denomination, the abrupt renaming of the University of Lagos and the still elusive arithmetic of alleged petrol subsidy removal. Recently too, consternation and outcry trailed the failure to verify certain claims made by the President regarding the status of Nigeria’s anti-corruption rating by Transparency International. President Goodluck Jonathan came under heavy criticism for claiming in his Independence Day broadcast that TI had rated Nigeria as “the second most improved country in the effort to curb corruption after the United States.” Although Jonathan’s media aides attributed the source of the claim to Business Day newspaper, TI stated categorically that it “does not have a recent rating or report that places Nigeria as the second most improved country in the fight against corruption.”

No matter what is revealed by the investigation reportedly being conducted into the embarrassing gaffe, there is no doubt that the controversy connotes wider issues such as the extent to which high state officials take time to crosscheck government claims and data contained in speeches written for them; the intellectual capacity and predisposition of the policymaking machinery to deploy and verify relevant data; the authenticity of such data as well as the extent to which the country is inserted into evidence-based policymaking which indexes a system’s capacity to situate policies and their implementation into the scientific mainstream typified by the best available evidence from research. To take the anniversary day speech howler for example, was it possible for Jonathan, who launched a campaign for an improved reading culture while seeking the Presidential office, to have taken personal responsibility for the text of the speech by instituting verification procedures of crucial data like the one in question? It raises, too, the wider question of how seriously the top echelons of the political class take seriously the production of official speeches and Presidential declarations.

Obviously, the older generation of politicians, some of who were authors and prose stylists in their own rights, preferred to write their own speeches even if they had assistants to collect the data that go into them which of course they would have verified. On this score, Professor Poju Akinyanju’s insightful remarks published in The PUNCH on October 5 are pertinent. Queried Akinyanju: “What are the thoughts of our leaders? Where are the books they have written about the path the nation should take? After the work produced by the likes of Obafemi Awolowo such as Thoughts on Nigerian Constitution, which other political leader has put forward a coherent treatise about his or her vision for the nation?”

The current administration, to be sure, has in the cabinet a sprinkling of well-known technocrats and academics but it is doubtful whether the administration can be said to have created an environment in which evidence-based policy making can flower.

One of the thorny issues in bridging the gap between research and policymaking is to recognise the value-laden nature and cognitive biases of certain forms of policy discourse.

As is well known, economic policies in the industrialised countries including notably the Asian Tigers respond to the ferment both within neo-liberal economics with key economists rejecting its assumptions; as well as to criticisms of it voiced by experts operating outside of the framework. In the Nigerian case, policy continues to be dictated by Bretton Woods institutions or those heavily influenced by them.

One finds the same kind of policy dependence in other areas of governance where the only data and the only perspective available to government is the ranking or rating of Nigeria by international institutions forgetting the fact that sometimes these institutions are none the wiser about Nigerian circumstances. Only last week, the Chief Economist of the World Bank in Africa, Mr Shanter Devarajan, remarked frankly, “We (at the World Bank) don’t know Nigeria’s poverty rate. We don’t know whether it is going up or coming down. There is a lot of controversy surrounding it. There is need to invest in data.” Devarajan, if he chose, could have invested the fragmentary data available to the Bank with an air of know-it-all authority. But in deciding to be frank, he revealed the need for nations that wish to move ahead not to be one-sidely dependent on the often ideological-laden expertise of international institutions.

Launching evidence-based policy making is not just about using expertise to enrich policy, important as that is. It is also about cross-fertilising policy conversation by inviting expertise based on a variety of policy assumptions as well as inculcating the knowledge of a spectrum of experts across the stakeholding community involved in particular policy universes in order to arrive at a balanced and judicious perspective.  In other words, policy makers, and especially political leaders, must have the wisdom and the concern to interrogate expert knowledge which philosophic points of view may be narrowly economistic in the case of issues dealing with the economy or formally academic in the sense that it leaves uncaptured or assumes away a number of issues which are relevant to policy making. To do this, our decision makers must have to employ a favourite expression of Chief Awolowo, ‘mental magnitude’, which refers to a certain intellectual gravitas and fecundity of mind which can enhance policy by the intelligent adoption and creative adaptation of expert knowledge.

There is at least anecdotal evidence that many stakeholders including those with expert knowledge do not get invited at any level to the process of formulating policy often because the governmental machinery is blissfully unaware of their existence and sometimes because policy formulation is often not driven by the genuine concern to raise the quality of governmental output. This is by no means typifies the divorce between policy and science as well as the failure to buttress policymaking by stimulating an inclusive policy discourse that take on board a variety of perspectives and actors including for example non-governmental organisations and single issue advocates.

This lacuna cannot be understood in isolation of an anti-intellectual temper among our current crop of politicians even when they flaunt several degrees and is of course related to a certain crisis of values in which policymaking itself appears to be no more than an instrument in the pervasive game of spoils sharing and primitive accumulation.

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