Countries in Transition

Nurturing research in times of turmoil is key to transforming societies


When South Africa’s first post-apartheid government took office in 1994, it faced many daunting challenges. But the newcomers were well-prepared to tackle them, thanks in part to a bold IDRC initiative that helped South Africa’s government-in-waiting build the policy-making, economic, and consensus-building capacities it would need to run the country and begin healing the wounds of the past.

A fruitful relationship

Relations between IDRC and South Africa’s exiled democratic movement began in 1988, amid growing international recognition that the country’s whites-only rule was on its last legs. Ivan Head, then-president of IDRC, believed that the Centre should look beyond the fall of apartheid to ask what kind of government would take its place. Would the new South Africa play an important role in an open global economy? Would it have the economic means and technical capacities to provide its citizens with employment and health care and to generate effective policies?

That challenge was taken up in a non-partisan way, with the goal of ensuring a South African government that could meet its population’s needs once international sanctions were lifted. IDRC chose to support South African researchers focusing on concerns such as health, urban issues, and economic and industrial policy.

IDRC sponsored a meeting in Switzerland in 1989, for example, that brought together economists from South Africa’s private sector, the then-government, and the opposition-in-exile to discuss the country’s economic future. It also supported research on topics such as urban migration, labour issues, HIV/AIDS, and the strength of local health systems.

The insights generated by this research directly influenced later government policy-making: more than half the cabinet members in President Nelson Mandela’s first post-apartheid government, elected in 1994, had been involved in IDRC-supported research. On a visit to Canada, Mandela noted that IDRC played “a crucial role in helping the African National Congress and the Mass Democratic Movement to prepare for negotiations [and] was instrumental in helping us prepare for the new phase of governance and transformation.”

Research support for countries in transition

South Africa is just one of many examples of IDRC's commitment to support countries in transition. Understanding that times of flux bring both the risk of chaos and the promise of rapid social and economic progress, IDRC has been involved in some 25 countries on the move from war to peace, from dictatorship to democracy, or from a closed economy to free markets. Vietnam, Algeria, Burma, Cambodia, Chile, and Kenya are among the countries on that list.



IDRC support for Chilean social scientists during the dark years of the military dictatorship helped nurture a core group of researchers ready to set their country on the road to democracy.

Few scholars were more under threat than social scientists, whose probing work often challenged the regimes themselves. About 3,000 social scientists left Chile after the 1973 coup. In 1980, more than 500 professors were fired from Chilean universities in a single semester.

The suppression of social science research menaced lives and livelihoods — and undercut the region’s prospects for future development.

IDRC responded by approving a special program of grants to research centres and individual researchers in Chile. Support also went to researchers in Argentina and Uruguay, which were in similar turmoil. The goal: preserve the spirit and skills of independent inquiry against determined and entrenched military dictatorships.

Research on diverse topics

Funding from IDRC enabled researchers at the Corporación de Investigaciones Económicas para Latinoamérica (CIEPLAN), as well as in other vulnerable institutions, to pursue research on diverse topics. These included economic policy, education, and urban and rural development. IDRC joined forces with the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency and the Washington-based Inter-American Foundation in this program of support, which funded CA$3 million of research between 1978 and 1986.

“What IDRC represents in Chile… is how it is possible to keep ideas alive,” says Ricardo Lagos, a former CIEPLAN economist who went on to play a key role in Chile’s democratic and economic revival. He served as Chile’s president from 2000 to 2006.

These ideas had a real impact. The work of these researchers contributed to the difficult transition to democracy. For example, CIEPLAN studies showing that inflation rates were higher than the dictatorship claimed are credited with establishing the democratic movement’s economic credentials and bringing Chile’s private sector onside.

Some of the recipients of IDRC grants later assumed senior posts in post-dictatorship governments. Among them is Alejandro Foxley, Chile’s former foreign minister. CIEPLAN’s key players, he says, were “the very same group of people who, when we recovered freedom and democracy in Chile, [went on to hold] key positions in the last four democratic governments.”



The primary goal of the e-Fez Action Research Project was to make public services more efficient. In doing so, it has also boosted public accountability and promoted the spirit of democracy in Morocco. For these achievements, the IDRC-supported initiative has received both national and international accolades, winning Morocco’s e-Mtiaz prize for electronic administration in 2006, and the Technology in Government in Africa and United Nations Public Service awards in 2007.

On the surface, e-Fez’s goal was purely practical: make life easier for the residents of the city of Fez by streamlining the process for receiving documents, particularly the birth certificates required for everything from job applications, to accessing health care, to school registration.

Before, getting documents required waiting while officials searched for the original and hand-wrote each copy. A minor transcription error meant going back and starting over. Now, the system has been computerized so “the service is delivered more efficiently and faster,” says IDRC senior program specialist Adel El Zaim.

But there were also further-reaching social benefits. Computerizing services meant researchers from Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane had to “restructure the whole business process,” says El Zaim. Introducing open concept offices and self-serve kiosks made the whole process more transparent and reduced opportunities for corruption.

A further spin-off is that the municipal website became interactive so citizens can more easily reach their elected representatives.

These innovations were greeted, El Zaim recalls, “with a kind of pride by both citizens and employees,” and helps explain their adoption by other municipalities. With the help of the project team, the cities of Larache, Ifrane, and Elhajeb are now modernizing their services delivery systems. Morocco’s national government is now also computerizing its services.



A new approach to finding local solutions to armed conflict and to build lasting peace — now being practiced in 15 countries — grew out of a response to a disturbing trend in the early 1990s.

Although the Cold War had ended, new civil conflicts — sometimes extensions of long-simmering ethnic tensions, often involving irregular armies — were on the rise.

“In 1994 there were 65 armed conflicts across the globe,” recalls Matthias Stiefel, the founder of Interpeace — today an international peacebuilding organization. Sending peacekeeping troops to these regions was — at best — a short-term fix, and when ceasefires failed “nobody knew how to stop those countries from falling back into an endless cycle of violence.”

With funding from IDRC, a UN pilot initiative, the War-torn Societies Project, sought durable, locally rooted solutions to the conflicts in four test countries: Somalia, Eritrea, Mozambique, and Guatemala. The goal: bring together credible representatives of rival factions in a “neutral space” to search for solutions acceptable to all parties. The process was later formalized for use in other countries, and a new organization — Interpeace — was born in 2000.

Today, Interpeace facilitates this kind of peace process in 15 countries. With IDRC support, it has also launched a multi-country project to address gang violence in Central America. IDRC also backs Interpeace’s efforts to create guidelines for constitution-building, an essential process for countries emerging from conflict, but one that can reopen old wounds, leading to renewed fighting.

"IDRC was visionary in supporting new approaches to ensuring local ownership of the peacebuilding processes. This meant that local people from their own society needed to run the processes rather than the typical approach of flying in a great expert from the north and then leaving. IDRC remains a ‘catalytic’ supporter to this day."
– Scott M. Weber, Director-General, Interpeace

"In the early 1990s “it became clear that what the international community had been trying to do — imposing solutions — was not going to work. We had to find a way to get all these people who had been fighting each other, at times for generations, to sit together around the table and find some kind of consensus. Peace had to be built from inside these war-torn societies."
Matthias Stiefel, founder of Interpeace

"The issues the projects were working on were defined by the stakeholders — all of them Guatemalans. They were not dictated or imposed or suggested by the international community. These projects were always implemented by teams that were 100% Guatemalan. All the project directors, research directors, and advisors were nationals."
Bernardo Arevalo de Leon, Director of Interpeace’s Joint Programme Unit for United Nations/Interpeace Initiatives, on Interpeace-sponsored peacebuilding in Guatemala

Published: 14 Jun 2010

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