[This interview was undertaken by Founty Fall in November 2019 and the article written by Founty Fall and Cristina Ramos.]
Abdoulaye Diagne is the director of the Consortium pour la recherche économique et sociale (CRES), and a professor at the Faculty of Economic Sciences and Management at the Université Cheikh Anta Diop (UCAD) in Dakar, Senegal. CRES was established in 2004 by a group of professors and researchers from across different disciplines at the UCAD, with the goal of promoting quantitative research to inform policymakers, local organisations and civil society in the planning of social policies. In this interview, Professor Diagne talks about his experience as director, his main functions and the challenges he faces.
Founty Fall: Could you please tell us about your background?
Abdoulaye Diagne: I am a full professor in economics. I had my master’s degree at UCAD Dakar and then I did my PhD at Orleans University in France. On my return, I joined the Faculty of Economic Sciences and Management of UCAD in Dakar as an assistant professor, then as a full professor. I held the position of head of department first and then I became director of the Centre for Research in Applied Economics (CREA) in the same faculty.
As far as my research is concerned, I was originally interested in monetary issues (a topic I explored in both my theses), and then gradually moved on to education, where I have been for more than 10 years. At the same time, I continued my work in macroeconomics and taught this discipline for a very long time at the university. I have also worked in the field of agriculture and regional integration, particularly with the CRES team, which has given considerable support to the WAEMU Commission and ECOWAS in the framework of an economic partnership agreement between the European Union and Africa.
FF: How did you become executive director?
AD: I was first director of CREA for six years, after we felt the need to create a structure independent of the university from the point of view of governance with fellow researchers who are all academics. I was unanimously appointed by my colleagues.
FF: Could you please describe the transition period (when becoming a director)? Was it challenging?
AD: The period between the time I left the position of director of CREA and became the director of CRES was very short. The challenges we faced were enormous. As academics, there were many issues that did not previously concern us. For example, paying rent was something we knew nothing about; we also had to have a staff at the expense of the institution, while before we had been under the full care of the university.
Another challenge was to mobilise resources for the functioning of the institution and to be able to conduct quality research, especially since we already had a high profile at CREA. But the very diversified contributions of the different researchers made it possible to take up these different challenges. In less than four years we had found our cruising speed in research.
FF: What are your roles and functions as executive director? What function takes the most time and which one is the most important?
AD: I have many duties as executive director. It is necessary to oversee the management on a daily basis; it is also necessary to exercise the mobilisation of resources, which is extremely important, but also to represent the institution to the decision-making authorities and the various audiences.
It is also necessary to oversee the research function; in particular to carry out research programmes while at the same time knowing what else is going on and working on upcoming research opportunities. So many challenges that add to my responsibilities as professor at the university.
However, I think the function that takes the longest is research. Personally, I invest a lot in research. It is true that management also takes a lot of time, but I delegate a lot of responsibility in order to have more time for research. It is necessary to know what happens in the research programmes, it is also necessary to work on the development of new opportunities and projects.
In my role as researcher, I must ensure that research activities run smoothly, participate in research programmes, motivate the team and make sure that the work we are doing is quality work. This is really essential to the success of our programme and therefore to the success of the institution.
The mobilisation of resources may be in third position and finally the representation of the institution in fourth position.
We can consider that the executive director must be less involved in research activities and focus more on day-to-day management, the mobilisation of resources and institutional visibility. All the more, we also have the function of influencing policies, which means that everyday contact with decision makers is important to what we do.
However, given the size of the institution, and the fact that we often have junior researchers to train, I think it’s important to be involved in research activities.
FF: What are the main personal challenges you have faced as executive director?
AD: Currently my personal challenge is to find someone who can replace me, who tomorrow will be able to exercise the function of executive director even if I stay in the institution. I could play another role in the institution, such as a counsellor, but also continue to play a role in the administration and intervene in research activities. I believe today it is my main challenge. In addition, there are always challenges to mobilise resources, to better respect the commitment with the various partners, but also to ensure the financial sustainability of the institution.
In short, the challenge is to find a successor who tomorrow will raise the institution and ensure the financial autonomy of the institution to ensure its sustainability. That is to say, having the capacity to mobilise resources that ensure the operation – to at least cover its recurrent expenses knowing that no institution can finance these research activities.
FF: What are your major concerns for leading the organisation, the key challenges you face as an executive director?
AD: My challenges were really first of all to mobilise resources that would allow the institution to function; and to mobilise resources for conducting research programmes, for which we had the skills to conduct quality research. Apart from this mobilisation of resources, we had the challenge of influencing policies. We have always had the desire to attract and work with decision-makers while conducting research.
Another challenge was how to maintain the quality of human resources that enable the institution to meet its commitments and deliver the expected results.
FF: Who do you go to when you need support and advice?
AD: Regarding the internal support that can be expected, there are colleagues and friends with whom we have created CRES and with whom we have very deep friendship. Each of them tells me what they have to say in all sincerity.
We also have the management board, which gives advice and is also very important. Internally, I always try to listen to others, to take into account the opinions of the staff. It is also a source of improvement, to my way of managing and directing the internal and external activities of institution.
At the external level, we have benefited greatly from the technical support of the Think Tank Initiative, through workshops and seminars including on internal and external communication or on the influence of policies and on the mobilisation of resources. We have received so many tips that have been of great contribution to the functioning of the institution.
FF: What do you think are the main skills and knowledge that you bring to the organisation?
AD: It is difficult for me to say what I bring to the organisation in terms of competence, leadership, etc. As far as skills are concerned, I can say that I have invested more on the research side; I try to promote teamwork within the institution but also at the external level. I knew how to federate the team and to promote the collaboration between different entities even if it was not always easy.
In addition, my management training, because I had a master’s degree in management before I specialised in economics, was a great contribution. This management knowledge allowed me to know how financial administration works and to identify the key points that must be constantly monitored.
FF: And can you tell us something about your leadership style?
AD: It is very it is difficult for me to answer the question, because some will find that I have a lot of defects while others will find in me some good qualities. In my day-to-day management I hold values such as moral integrity, in the sense that we must make a clear distinction between the resources of the institution and its own heritage. Never do unlawful acts that would have a bad influence on the staff. Also, you have to be fair to every staff member. Moreover, to know one’s strengths and limits, to speak frankly, to be able to criticise objectively and constructively and to move on.