Created in 1970, Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) is one of the few organisations funding development research in Egypt.
At this point, the organisation is setting its worldwide strategy for the next five years.
IDRC President Dr Jean Lebel and Regional Director Bruce Currie-Alder speak to the Daily News Egypt.
Lebel has been working with IDRC for 17 years. In the Middle East, he has worked on projects in Beirut, Syria, Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, the West Bank and Occupied Palestinian Territories, as well as projects in Fayoum and Alexandria in Egypt. He says he has travelled to the Middle East, one of the regions where the IDRC is most active.
Currie-Alder brings in a fresh perspective, having lived in the Middle East for just one year. He has been with IDRC for 10.
Sharing his thoughts on the region, what he has experienced over the years and the current transition, Lebel said:
There is something in this region not sufficiently known; a level of happiness and culture that you rarely see in other regions.
In the Middle East, you do not take a plate out of the table; people know how to behave and have this happiness around meals. That is something that I have learned that is very personal.
What I have learned over the years is that each country has its own particularity; the common denominator is Arabic.
What we have been seeing in the last few years and a little bit before is this transition that touches on more democracy and touches on the regional dynamic. There is also, I think, a desire for pluralism to come up, but it is still in transition, still struggling.
The second thing is the participation of the citizen that takes all kind of forms, the new media, youth employment, jobs, and openness to the information, the data.
The last element in transition is the quest for social justice, which still needs to be defined in many ways.
These are things we are seeing in this transition.
The fundamental [shift] that I am seeing these days and that which we have been discussing revolves around this transition, transition for the regime, transition in participation and transition in social justice.
Is the transition affecting scientific research in the country?
Lebel: From my perspective as the CEO of an agency that provides funds to conduct research, we are always eager to respond to demand, and demand comes from the researcher. What we are seeing, not withstanding all the difficulty that sometimes turns into a very negative perspective of the region, is that there are elements that are quite interesting.
Let me give you a few examples on the verge of the Arab Spring; we had this programme called HarassMap that put at the forefront sexual harassment of women, despite this great Arab Spring. This is taking place in an environment where the issue is discussed, put on the table and contributing to make a change.
Another topic that is totally different is climate change. IDRC has been providing support for a number of countries on climate change and adaptation. Egypt is becoming a leader; you have a team in Alexandria that is working with a team in Bangladesh. Together, they are seeing similarities and together they build better research and are finding better solutions in order to face challenges.
Whether the political environment is conducive is something you should ask researchers and political actors.
As an organisation that is facilitating research, providing support, trying to make change with real researchers, working in the real world, and having a real impact, I think we have [created] a positive outcome.
How is IDRC putting itself out there for researchers?
Lebel: We are currently doing regional consultation. We started here in Cairo with a slate of roughly a dozen specialists coming from different parts of the [Middle East] to talk about regional issues, what they perceive as the being the key challenges, what the key opportunities are, what IDRC should be looking for and what IDRC should not be looking for. This conversation helps us to build a plan for the next five years.
Our teams in Cairo and elsewhere in the world are interacting with the research community; we have calls for proposals, and we send invitations broadly through the net, through Twitter, Facebook pages and have regional offices communicate with people.
It will be in different areas, they will apply, some are competitive and some are less competitive; there is multiplicity of modality.
The third thing that we have been doing as a mainstay for over 40 years is giving support to students that can apply for grants in order to conduct their research and build their capacity.
There are three things the IDRC is doing extremely well.
We are building leadership.
The researcher we are providing support to today can be a leader in the future. One of our guests was a recipient of funding and turned out to be a minister at the Egyptian government at one point. They can be leaders in science, they can be leaders in society and they can be leaders in business.
The second thing is that we are catalysing collaboration. We are good at soliciting ideas, funding them and bringing people together to collaborate between research disciplines, between the government and science, between the private sector and science. And all this leads to solutions that are better defined to tackle complex problems.
Because problems we are facing, like food security and health, the social economic policies are complex by nature, and bringing these actors together is [creating] an opportunity for a lasting solution.
Thirdly, we are having an impact, sometimes at a small scale, one village and one region [at a time]. Other times, it is at a higher scale. On this, I think we have a track record of working with researchers. We have to remember that it is always our researcher doing the work. We are only contributing by bringing in some money, technical experts, support and ability to make this network connection.
Can you provide examples of a research project that’s had a positive impact on Egypt?
Lebel: HarassMap – this has already shown an impact. I don’t know if people know that this is IDRC, but it’s a good example.
I have a good example on small and medium enterprise polices, as well. We’ve sponsored a research programme that looks at the entire sphere of regulation around small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs) [in cooperation with] the government. We have identified that it was taking 16 different [steps] in order to register a small enterprise, one for the regulatory [issues], one for a permit, one for a business plan, one for micro credit, one for this, one for that… imagine the burden that creates.
This has been [consolidated to a single destination], so rather than go to 16 places, you go to one – that is something that has an impact on the life and livelihoods of Egyptians
What are the main challenges you face?
Lebel: One that is most important in my view… [is the lack of] resources to respond to every challenge that comes our way. So we have to be very strategic in deciding what we are doing. I would not say that the environment in Egypt is that problematic; we can always cope. We have been here since 1975, so that’s almost 40 years. There is always opportunity, the difficulties notwithstanding.
But for us, we have to be very strategic with our limited amount of resources. The IDRC is a small organisation; we cannot finance everything, but within our means, we are trying to make the best choice. I gave you some examples.
That, to us, is what’s important: to create the capacity over here for people to solve problems they are seeing.
We are not here to tell people, do this, do that. We are here to learn from researchers how they are solving the problem.
Currie-Alder: We have worked on health financing, not in Egypt. But IDRC tends to not only fund research but also identify where there are interesting lessons elsewhere in the developing world. Look at the dynamics in term of population structure and economy. Should Egypt always be comparing itself to Europe and North America? Maybe not; in some cases, Latin America has very interesting stories; India has a very similar demographic structure. The wonderful thing about research is the spill-over. It doesn’t only benefit one spot but it can serve as a lesson.
What are your priorities for the next phase?
Lebel: If you were to ask me [that] next year, I would come to you with an answer. Right now, I can [just] tell you in terms of priority. In the world we are living in and the world of our parents’, grandparents’, there are things that are always present [as needs]: food security, health, your life and livelihood, job… socioeconomic issues. They will always be present in one form or another.
For more specifics, though, I would wait a little bit.
Currie-Alder: The Key message I’m hearing these days is that research can make constructive contribution in times of transition. This is a period where Arab countries are going through transition. Research can sometimes be seen as not on the front lines, not on the headlines. But [it has] the important role of ensuring that citizens are informed [about] basic issues like understand what choices our societies face given the fiscal space, the use of public resources, how they’re being used, how power is being exercised, and whether the government is accountable. Research helps citizens understand the choices facing them in development.
Is there enough awareness on the importance of research in Egypt?
Lebel: We are asking ourselves the same question in Canada.
One of the challenges we often have is that we don’t know how to translate research. We talk in complex languages, and have examples that are complex.
The formula I would use in order to break that barrier is that IDRC helps to find, build, and work with the best minds in order to create the best change, whatever the area. We are in a world that is changing extremely rapidly, but are the changes being made the right ones? That is why we need research. So, it’s [about finding] the best mind for the best changes.
Currie-Alder: Egypt now has a science adviser to the president as a position.
You had increasing opportunities for funding research in Egypt even before 2011, but now it gets specifically mentioned in the constitution. But more generally, [you have] the hunger of citizens to known what is going on; that’s where you see a reflection in the world of research. You find open inquiry, access to data and dialogue. Researchers put forward ideas, you have open debate, you ask yourself what the evidence does, you have rival interpretations but you actually discuss it. You don’t throw stones at each other.
Do you fear that the political instability may get in the way of IDCR activity?
Currie-Alder: We are developing a strategy that is responding to needs of developing countries worldwide. Our office is the regional office, based in Egypt, which is the centre of the Arab world and attending to research communities from Morocco to the Gulf.
We also don’t go on autopilot. We are constantly aware of what the environment is like and how to adapt to it.
Whatever happens in Egypt over the next year, we will find a way of continuing a dialogue between what the research community is interested in, the opportunities for development, and the priorities that we have identified across the world.
I spent a quarter of my life in developing countries, mostly Latin America, which means I have two unique perspectives.
One, I am coming at it fresh. I accept Egypt in the world as it is today, not remembering pre-2011.
You look at countries elsewhere that have faced similar experiences. I was in Ecuador in 1996 when the population decided to fire the president. I have lived in countries that have gone from one style of government to another. I think this helped me bring a sense of calm into the office and an awareness that whatever we are experiencing in Egypt and in the region is a process of 10 or 20 years. So whatever the events have been since late 2010, they’ll eventually [be found] in chapter one of a history book. Knowing that larger history – what will the end of the book will say – that is a path, we have to determine over the next few years.