We sat down with Eugenia Kayitesi, IPAR-Rwanda’s Executive Director, on the fringes of the 5th Africa Think Tank Summit held in Accra in April 2018. Eugenia follows in the footsteps of Antonia Mutoro, who led IPAR-Rwanda before her. This places this think tank among a small group of institutions where women have been able to rise to -or join at- the top, although many of the larger think tanks in East Africa today happen to be led by women.
We were interested in learning about the challenges that women in think tanks face in Africa, but there were several other challenges to discuss.
Eugenia Kayitesi:IPAR-Rwanda is a research institute that has existed for 10 years. Since it was founded in 2008, we have been growing and IPAR’s visibility has recently increased. We have been moving up the ladder and really appreciate the work we are doing for the country and with policymakers. IPAR’s work links citizens with top policymakers and this improves the way policies are designed and implemented in Rwanda.
Enrique Mendizabal: We are here in Accra with think tanks from across Africa talking about the challenges related to youth unemployment. But what are the challenges related to think tanks that you and other think tank leaders face?
EK: The main challenge facing think tanks is funding. Funding is going down – most donors have closed their grants to core research in most think tanks and long-term viability of think tanks is not assured. The sustainability of think tanks is becoming a major problem.
We have been getting funds from IDRC and ACBF but now funds have grown thinner and thiner…
EM: … because those two funds are moving away?
EK: Yes, they are moving away. ACBF moved out in 2016 and IDRC will end in March 2019. So we are looking at relying on our self-generating income and looking to options of letting other donors on board where possible.
Another big challenge we have is getting qualified researchers and retaining them. Those that we have are scattered and they are expensive to retain.
EM: Finding the right people is a challenge across the world. Especially mid-level researchers: not too young, not too senior. With a Master’s degree or having recently finished their PhD. As soon as they show they are very good they are poached by the likes of the World Bank, an iNGO or even some of your own funders.
EK: Yes, and maybe some NGOs or other institutions that can pay them more.
EM: Is there a way out of this situation? Fewer funds to hire expensive researchers but you cannot build human capital overnight. What might be a solution for this situation?
EK: Two solutions. One is that we are trying to incentivise the people we have now in an effort to retain them. But the main thing is that we are using research associates who are not on payroll. We have a database of good researchers in the country and when we get money on a project basis we bring them on, keeping them only as long as the project lasts.
This has its own challenges. Most of the time we find that these people are also employed somewhere else and are committing to work elsewhere.
EM: And there might be a conflict of interest. They might be employed in another organisation, a company, even the government and you might not know about that. It could affect the credibility for the work they do for you.
EK: Yes but also getting their commitment to deliver the quality work that we want for the research is a problem.
EM: This is interesting because this is almost a change in business model. Going from having your own staff that requires a particular governance management, even office space, to another model in which you do not have your own staff. That is a different approach.
EK: But, temporarily, it is working. This is the only option we have now. Since we do not have enough funds to put them on our payroll we have to rely on research associates.
EM: Do you see any opportunities of mobilising funding locally, domestically – whether from government, the private sector, local philanthropists or even the public?
EK: Yes, we have worked with the government on big projects since last year on the issue of performance contracts. This is how we are trying to sustain most of our operations. Other donors like USAID or GIZ have come on board with some small project funds and they also offer technical assistance. They sometimes have funded good researchers to work with us.
EM: But these funds are coming in the form of projects or consultancies, rather than in the form of the grants you were getting from IDRC and ACBF. Again, this is a change in the business model.
EK: Yes, it is a change. But it is short term and it gives security to the people that you have. I do not see it as a long-term solution. A long-term solution is to have funds for core research.
EM: Is there any good news in the horizon in terms of funding or new policy areas to work in, or new ways to network with other organisations?
EK: Yes, recently we tried to bid for funding from the EU which unfortunately we did not win. We also have some partnerships with USAID and the Scottish government.
EM: The Scottish government? They are new money for you? So old funders go away and new ones come in.
EK: Yes, other opportunities have come up. This is how we are surviving. But I’d advise that IDRC or ACBF should not leave think tanks. They should get some funding for continuity purposes.
EM: I brought up the business model in part because based on the work we have done looking at women in think tanks we think that one of the problems that women face in the world of policy research is that the business model of the organization does not always fit with the needs that women face. They are likely to be more burdened with household tasks and take care of their families more than men. But the business model of think tanks seems to be designed for men, who are able to work “through the night”, who can travel, etc.
You mention associates hired on a consultancy basis. If you are hired on a consultancy basis you do not get some benefits: you do not get maternity cover, health insurance, etc. Now, this has a larger effect on women than on men.
Besides this, what are other challenges that women face in a think tank?
EK: I’d put it at two levels. We have women at the bottom and at the top. But we have very few women researchers at the middle level. As you said, a lot of times they are required to do field work, but they might be pregnant or breastfeeding, which means they cannot leave their child for three or four months at a time.
Consequently, we are facing a real issue of not having many women in research. We used to have one in our team, but she was recently hired by a funder. On the one hand they are not even there- are not interested- and on the other hand they find it difficult. So the issue is combining household chores with research.
It is very hectic at the top level too. You are required to go to summits, meet development partners, etc. Meanwhile, you have a home and children you are supposed to look after, and a husband as well. It is difficult, but it is doable.
I would imagine it is not different for women in other positions. In Rwanda we are known to have women in senior positions. We have women ministers, directors and members of parliament. All these women face the same challenges. You have to learn to balance. You have to have support at home- you must surround yourself with people who support you.
It requires extra energy. You go home and look after your family until 10 PM, and from then to maybe two in the morning you are work.
EM: But that is one of the reasons why women join an organisation as research assistants, move up to junior researchers,then research officers and they go home at 7 pm to take care of their family until 10, etc.. they do it for year until they have to say: “this is too much!”
EK: My thinking and my wish is that all women should have understanding husbands. These women do not work for themselves. They work for their family. So it is high time for men to understand this and support women.
EM: What would an understanding think tank be like? Imagine you had the resources – because I understand that think tanks could do more for their staff if they had more resources- to support not just women, but also people facing a particular challenge: someone with a particular disability, someone with an ill relative at home, etc.
EK: You need to be understanding of the issue. Management needs to understand. As a woman I understand. So you give them three months maternity leave. Then an hour a day for one year to breastfeed. And then after two or three years they are pregnant again. I have had these issues but, since it is the law, you do it. You council them but you also have to understand.
EM: Do you think that having women in leadership positions makes organisations more understanding of the challenges women face?
EK: Not all women. I would not think that most women are understanding. I am- I went through the same with my kids when I was working.
EM: And besides an understanding leadership, what other things could an organisation do?
EK: In Rwanda, some organisations provide breastfeeding rooms and breastfeeding time. You also have to be able to replace them temporarily. If you have others who can pick up your work when you are not at the office it might be better for the organisation.
EM: This is an interesting point. Avoiding the solo researcher model so that people work in teams because if they work in teams and someone is absent for whatever reason…
EK: …the work should not actually stop. Someone else will be able to pick up their work.
EM: .. and the organisation will be more comfortable with that situation and be more understanding. As a leader you won’t feel that you are losing money or losing a client because there is somebody else to pick up the work.
EK: Yo do this because retaining your staff is a good thing. Losing your staff means that you have to replace that staff at a cost. You should have policies to try to retain them.
If there are two researchers in the team then they should be able to work as a team and produce a good report.
EM: We have crated a directory with data on leadership and gender. We found that for the think tanks we have data on, women led think tanks tend to be smaller and produce fewer outputs. I wonder if think tanks led by women have a different personality or approach to their work.
EK: I would not know much about that, but what I can say is that the big think tanks in East Africa- in Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Uganda- are all led by women… strong women. They have managed to drive the performance of these think tanks even through tough times.