Book Launch seminar May 18th; Author: Dan Banik, Title: POVERTY AND ELUSIVE DEVELOPMENT.
Introductory speech given by Ole Petter Ottersen, Rector, University of Oslo
The University of Oslo is a large university and many books are launched every year. For obvious reasons I as a Rector cannot take part each time a new book is published. When I gratefully accepted the invitation to contribute to the present event it was first and foremost because this book resonates extremely well with the ambitions of our University, as set out in our new Strategy plan sanctioned by the University Board just two weeks ago. As discussed in more detail later, Dan Banik’s book deals with global challenges, draws on data and expertise across a wide range of disciplines, and addresses a wide audience, far beyond the rather limited research community that is directly engaged in the work at hand. These are all aspects that figure prominently in our new strategy plan. This plan sees our University as a hub for multidisciplinary and high quality research on the grand challenges that we are currently facing, nationally as well as internationally.
Being a non-expert in the field I cannot and should not go deep into the subject matter of Dan’s book. But I would like to offer a few reflections. After having spent quite some time in the interesting and often provocative company of Dan’s text I must say that I was particularly intrigued by the discussion in Chapter 5 of the coupling between development issues and human rights. The new leadership of the University has a strong focus on human rights and aspires to make the University’s research efforts in this field more visible on the international arena. In this context one is struck by Thomas Pogge’s forceful statement, quoted on p. 127 in Dan’s book: “By maintaining poverty in the world, affluent countries are committing the most serious of human rights violations in history.” The sheer magnitude of the problem certainly calls for more research on the reasons why development has eluded the poor. This is the exact topic of Dan’s new book.
In his book, Dan questions both the moral and empirical foundations of current efforts. What is the role of affluent societies in combating poverty in the developing world? It is equally important to focus attention on the role of affluent actors and elites, including academics, in poor countries. To what extent do they accept and question the continued production of poverty, indeed often extreme forms of it? Whose responsibility is it to confront power imbalances and discrimination in local society and to what extent can we expect the international community to fix such problems, when developed countries themselves are currently battling concerns of their own, be it in relation to finance or climate change?
In accordance with our new strategy plan, I think we need to connect the growing research-based knowledge we possess on development with more interdisciplinary approaches. No one discipline on its own can claim to understand the problems facing the world’s poor today. And Dan himself has drawn on a range of disciplines in his work. Indeed, in addition to refer to political scientists, Dan has drawn heavily on the works of economists, anthropologists, sociologists, philosophers, historians, lawyers and natural scientists. As most of you are aware, interdisciplinary work continues to pose numerous challenges to both academics and administrators, but I am pleased to note that with centres such as the Centre for Development and the Environment, where Dan is based, renewed attempts are being made to reach across well-known divides, particularly between the social sciences and the natural sciences.
Our strategy plan also calls for a stronger and more productive focus on research partnership with institutions in both developed and developing countries. Towards this end I am delighted with Prof. David Kennedy’s visit to our University. We have a long history of collaboration with Harvard and I hope this will be further strengthened through this visit. We are also in the process to initiating new collaborative ventures with institutions such as Berkeley and Stanford in the United States and a host of other institutions in U.S.A. and Europe. However, we also need to focus on other regions of the world. For example, Dan tells me that the work by researchers from Sub-Saharan Africa is seldom cited in well-known publications on democracy, governance and poverty. This is a worrying trend that we must try to reverse.
There has, for long, been a trend to sign agreements with institutions in the South for the promotion of joint academic research. Unfortunately, most such agreements do not result in much, and hence I believe we should focus on select institutions in Africa, Asia and Latin America with which we have well-established contact at the level of individual researchers. We need strong collaborative links to generate new empirical knowledge and to influence public policy related to the production as well as the reduction of poverty. Towards this end we must harness research funding that not only helps promote collaboration with institutions and researchers in developing countries, but also funding that specifically targets the operationalisation of the “buzzwords” and fashionable development jargon that often amount to little more than rhetoric. As Dan shows in the book, we need to question the practical benefit of constantly inventing new terminology and approaches, and rather refocus our efforts in understanding how we can actually translate these into policies that benefit people living in poverty.
Speaking about jargon - the new strategy of the University of Oslo uses the term “grensesprengende” – perhaps best translated as “groundbreaking” – to denote the kind of research that is needed to take on the global challenges that we are currently facing. “Grensesprengende” research is certainly needed to effectively provide an implementable remedy to urgent problems associated with poverty. In particular, the book highlights the need to bridge the gap between research and policy. We need to revisit the role that we at universities can play in not only providing key empirical inputs for policy formulation, but also in terms of influencing public policy – and politics in general – to address the issues that we believe are important. Towards this end we must maintain regular contact with politicians and administrators, and I am pleased to welcome Dr. Ragnhild Dybdahl from NORAD to our University.
I understand that our Centre for Development and the Environment has a long tradition of working closely with the World Bank, the UN agencies, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and NORAD, to name a few. And I note that in this book, Dan draws attention to his numerous research projects and networks that have not only been funded by the Research Council of Norway, but also by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He also tells me that his scholarship has richly benefited from diverse activities such as his role as a Board Member of the Crown Prince and Crown Princess’s Humanitarian Fund, and as Head of the Reference Group of the Norwegian-Finnish Trust Fund in the World Bank on Environmentally and Socially Sustainable Development (TFESSD).
Finally, I want to express my hope that the University will be able to keep and sharpen its focus on development-related issues, where we – through our broad range of disciplines - can provide critical insight into failures and success stories alike. And I trust that the Research Council and political authorities will increase the funding available for such research. Related to this is the need to communicate the findings of our research, which ought to be a major goal if we are to be more successful in becoming a more socially engaged University – a commitment solidly embedded in our strategy plan. This means not only disseminating results among ourselves, and within the confinements of our campus, but also doing so to the society at large – a task that Dan's mentor Prof. Bernt Hagtvet has performed exceptionally well. Indeed, as Dan’s work shows, we cannot expect to conduct research in splendid isolation from social and political realities. And balancing the goal of excellence in academic scholarship, while maintaining a healthy dose of involvement in other activities outside our campuses, remains a challenging task.
Through his new book, Dan Banik demonstrates that he has come to grips with this challenge. My congratulations!