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Scientific advice, adaptive management, and public policy

Crafting scientifically enlightened management interventions that address environmental and socioeconomic challenges can be treacherous terrain. To do both, it sometimes isn't enough to simply lay the evidence before the public in a dispassionate way.

At times, one has to assume the role of an advocate and use the tricks of the trade. But it is well-advised to maintain respectable distance from professional advocates who, like some politicians, are paid to exercise their passion and persuasion on behalf of clients or courses in which they may not privately believe. Rather, science-based discourse, procedure, and delivery offers tremendous potential in repositioning adaptive management as a useful framework in guiding public policy design, implementation, and review in Botswana and the developing world.

Scientific and technological advances are the bedrock for socio-economic development and progress. Science is a venerable way of knowledge acquisition and application. In the mainstream mode, science is a formalised protocol of accumulating factual knowledge and understanding of practical natural phenomena.

Properly pursued, the process seeks sequential observations, controlled experiments, and staged management actions that distinguish among alternative possibilities, progressively zeroing in on a better understanding of the phenomenon or problem under interrogation. We may think of understanding as what we use in order to adequately apply our wisdom and our knowledge in guiding our actions. Understanding is more often used to try to alter an outcome than to repeat or perpetuate it.

That’s why psychologists and psychiatrists try to understand the minds of poachers, passion killers, murderers, and rapists, why social historians try to understand tribalism and genocide, and why medics try to understand the causes of disease. In their respective fields, these professionals do not seek to justify poaching, passion killings, murder, rape, genocide and illness. Instead, they seek to use their understanding of an intricate train of causes so as to modify or interrupt the chain. Management, governance, and administration should thrive on similar principles and approaches.  

As benevolent custodians of the truth, scientists are supposed to reinforce existing paradigms of management by increasing the precision and efficiency of data collection rather than merely testing questions that may overturn policy. Scientists accumulate knowledge that may be called upon for policy formulation; they should have the various pieces ready if needed.

Scientists must announce crises through alerting society of the failures and dangers of past, perceived, and existing policy on challenges such as biodiversity changes, human-wildlife conflict, HIV/AIDS, alcohol use and abuse, poverty alleviation and eradication, deteriorating moral fabric, etc. Scientists should systematically interrogate and integrate the requisite knowledge, if and when solicited so as to advise policy reform. They should also use their knowledge and experience to contribute towards new, evidence- or science-based policy with the intention of better and adaptive management.

Generally, adaptive management incorporates research into strategic action. Specifically, it is the integration of design, management, and monitoring to systematically test assumptions in order to adapt and learn from coordinated experience.  Adaptive management is good management, but not all good management is adaptive management. Adaptive management requires common sense, but that is not a licence to just try whatever crosses, or appeals to, the mind.

Instead, adaptive management requires a scientific approach to challenges through testing hypotheses and systematically trying different actions to achieve a desired outcome. It is not however, a random trial-and-error process as reported in lay terminology. Instead, it first involves conceptualising the problem at hand, then developing a specific set of testable hypotheses carefully crafted from existing theory, aligned with what actions might be undertaken to explain those phenomena.

These actions are then implemented and results thereof actually rigorously monitored to gauge how they compare with predictions. The key here is to develop an understanding of not only which actions work and which do not, but also how and why. Adaptation is about taking action to improve delivery based on the results of past or existing monitoring regimes. If actions do not achieve the expected results, the likelihood is that; a) actions were poorly executed, b) conditions of application have changed, c) monitoring was sloppy, or d) some other permutation of the above.

But the sad reality in Botswana is that we are having some policies and legislation supported by the grossest of superstitions, suspicions, and other degrees and expressions of ignorance and religiosity, especially those attempts reportedly aimed at correcting environmental problems and societal discord. And it is some celebrated professionals, experts, and consultants who are supplying government and the public with latently terminal advice on how to behave into the future.

It becomes worrisome when experts deliberately manipulate and dupe government and the public that misinformation, mediocrity, dishonesty, deceit, and coercion are sustainable premises for successful policy delivery.  We need formal peer review that helps reassure the consuming public that the policies advanced are founded on sound scientific footing. Once we abandon strict adherence to what science tells us, once we start arranging the truth in media briefings and other consultative fora, then anything is possible.

In one context, we might accomplish some mobilization against some environmental and socioeconomic challenges, but in another context, we court disaster. The danger is always there, if we subvert science to extreme partisan and business ends. As humans, scientists are not quite impartial, but science should be impartial. That is why it is so important for the future of science in Botswana that the line between what science can say with certainty, and what it cannot, be drawn clearly and defended.

In one sense, the practice is that, with a trendy name and purported objective, with a strong policy position and an impassioned and aggressive public campaign, nobody will dare to criticize the science, and in short order, a terminally weak policy thesis will be masqueraded as scientific gospel. Thereafter, any criticism becomes beside the point.  Such is how bad science is used at times to promote what some people would consider good policy. Uncertainties in scientific evidence are glossed over in the unseemly rush for an overarching policy, and for consultants to invariably propose and support policy by delivering findings that are desired by the patron or commissioning institution.

Next, there is organised marginalisation, discrimination, and isolation of those scientists who sound technical and procedural deficiencies to policy formulation and review, and the characterization of those scientists as “academics”, “outsiders”, and "sceptics" – suspect individuals with suspect motives, reactionaries, or simply anti-establishment nutcases. In short order, debate ends, even though citizen scientists are uncomfortable about how scientific protocols are being trampled. Is this what science has become? Hopefullynot. But this is what it will become, unless there is a concerted effort by citizen scientists to reconcile science and public policy, and also aggressively separate science from politics. Scientists best serve public policy by living within the ethics of science, not those of politics.

The connection between scientific evidence and public policy has regrettably become elusively elastic in Botswana. Several hypotheses help explain this observation; a) the complacency of the citizen scientific profession, b) the lack of good science education among the public; c) the rise of specialized advocacy groups which have been enormously effective in getting publicity and shaping policy, and d) because of civil society’s failure as independent assessors of evidence.

When distinguished institutions no longer differentiate between factual content and institutional opinion, but rather mix both freely in press statements and workshops, then who will hold anyone to a higher standard? We should strive for broad education about science, and about its methods and uncertainties. But we should do this precisely because it will promote wide and engaged debate, and airing of worries and precautions, not under any delusion that such a scientifically literate society will be a passive consumer.

Especially in the early stages, questioning, dissent, and dissident opinion are hugely useful. It is important that consensus is not reached too early least it inhibits important lines of investigation. That initial resistance or opposition is a fundamental characteristic of human nature. It is quite valid because it accords the progenitors and the public critical opportunity to reconsider and interrogate procedures and the prevailing evidence. Sharing ignorance is important in gaining confidence from the public.

True to its practical expression, science will provide no miracles, but science can do a lot to ameliorate the dislocations that are gaining currency in Botswana as it has delivered for the developed world. While much of science deals with things that are indeed well understood, many of the topics that engage public attention in Botswana lie at or beyond the frontiers of what is currently known.

Regrettably, the fair majority of current science advice to government policy-makers is routine, grounded on tired and fairly plodded areas of science. Here, public expectations – “tell us the facts” are the order of the day. In this instance, it is necessary to understand that science is as much – or more – a way of asking illuminating questions, as it is a collection of tidy and certain answers. There are areas of science where, for all practical purposes, certain answers can be given, while uncertainty looms in other areas. This needs to be taken in sobriety.

The key to credibility lies in soliciting inputs from a wide range of stakeholders and in being open and sincere about the process, institutions, and people involved. This amounts to a matter of accountability: both the policy-makers and the advisers have to be accountable – ultimately to the public – for the advice given and the use made of it. What is clear, however, is that on environmental and socio-economic challenges, science and policy have become inextricably mixed to the point where it will be difficult, if not impossible, to separate them out.

The primary role of the scientist is not to determine which risks are worth taking, or deciding what choices we should take, but the scientist must be involved in indicating what the possible choices, constraints, and possibilities are. Policy-makers have to know what they can expect from scientific advisers. There is much that science does not know, otherwise research would be redundant! Policy issues arise in areas of scientific ignorance as well as scientific knowledge.

But the uncertainty and controversy that can characterise science at the limits of current knowledge do not mean that science has nothing to contribute or that all ‘scientific’ opinions are equally plausible. Although there will be cases where the science is inconclusive and experts agree only that further research is needed, established scientific knowledge should often be able to set boundaries to the uncertainty and thus provide a guide to advised and reserved action.

Science is about exploring and discovering new things rather than deciding how, or even if, these things should be used. It is the role of society as a whole to decide how the new knowledge discovered by science should be used. In the end, the debates on scientific matters are not just about science. They involve not just our rational minds but also aspirations, emotions, and experiences of the greater public.

Kabajan Sam KAUNDA is a Nature Detective: People & Wildlife
Senior Lecturer & Research Coordinator: Wildlife Ecology & Conservation 
Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Botswana

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Botswana to Become a Vaccinated Nation: Pandemic Anxiety Over?

30th March 2021

OSCAR MOTSUMI

This is a question that should seriously exercise the mind of every Botswana citizen and every science researcher, every health worker and every political leader political.

The Covid-19 currently defines our lives and poses a direct threat to every aspect and every part of national safety, security and general well-being. This disease has become a normative part of human life throughout the world.

The first part of the struggle against the murderous depredation of this disease was to protect personal life through restrictive health injunctions and protocols; the worst possibly being human isolation and masks that hid our sorrows and lamentations through thin veils. We suffered that humiliation with grace and I believe as a nation we did a great job.

Now the vaccines are here, ushering us into the second phase of this war against the plague; and we are asking ourselves, is this science-driven fight against Covid-19 spell the end of pandemic anxiety? Is the health nightmare coming to an end? What happy lives lie ahead? Is this the time for celebration or caution? As the Non State Actors, we have being struggling with these questions for months.

We have published our thoughts and feelings, and our research reviews and thorough reading of both the local and international impacts of this rampaging viral invasion in local newspapers and social media platforms.

More significantly, we have successfully organised workshops about the impact of the pandemic on society and the economy and the last workshop invited a panel of health experts, professionals, and public administers to advance this social dialogue as part of our commitment to the tripartite engagement we enjoy working with Government of Botswana, Civil Society and Development partners. These workshops are virtual and open to all Batswana, foreign diplomatic missions based in Gaborone, UN agencies located in Gaborone and international academic researchers and professional health experts and specialists.

The mark of Covid-19 on our nation is a painful one, a tragedy shared by the entire human race, but still a contextually painful experience. Our response is fraught with grave difficulties; limited resources, limited time, and the urgency to not only save lives but also avert economic ruin and a bleak future for all who survive. Several vaccines are already in the  market.

Parts of the world are already doing the best they can to trunk the pestilential march of this disease by rolling out mass-vaccinations campaigns that promise to evict this health menace and nightmare from their public lives. Botswana, like much of Africa, is still up in the disreputable, and, unenviable, preventative social melee of masked interactions, metered distances, contactless commerce.

We remain very much at the mercy of a marauding virus that daily runs amuck with earth shattering implications for the economy and human lives. And the battle against both infections and transmissions is proving to be difficult, in terms of finance, institutional capacities and resource mobilization. How are we prepared as government, and as citizens, to embrace the impending mass-vaccinations? What are the chances of us  succeeding at this last-ditch effort to defeat the virus? What are the most pressing obstacles?

Does the work of vaccines spell an end to the pandemic anxieties?

Our panellists addressed the current state of mass-vaccination preparedness at the Botswana national level. What resources are available? What are the financial, institutional and administrative operational challenges (costs and supply chains, delivery, distribution, administering the vaccine on time, surveillance and security of vaccines?) What is being done to overcome them, or what can be done to overcome them? What do public assessments of preparedness tell us at the local community levels? How strong is the political will and direction? How long can we expect the whole exercise to last? At what point should we start seeing tangible results of the mass-vaccination campaign?

They also addressed the challenges of the anticipated emerging Vaccinated Society. How to fight the myths of vaccines and the superstitions about histories of human immunizations? What exactly is being done to grow robust local confidence in the science of vaccinations and the vaccines themselves? More significantly, how to square these campaigns vis-vis personal rights, moral/religious obligations?

What messages are being sent out in these regards and how are Batswana responding? What about issues of justice and equality? Will we get the necessary vaccines to everyone who wants them? What is being done to ensure no deserving person is left behind?

They also addressed issues of health data. To accomplish this mass-vaccination campaign and do everything right we need accurate and complete data. Poor data already makes it very hard to just cope with the disease. What is being done to improve data for the mass-vaccination campaign? How is this data being collected, aggregated and prepared for real life situation/applications throughout Botswana in the coming campaign?

We know in America, for example, general reporting and treatment of health data at the beginning of vaccinations was so poor, so chaotic and so scattered mainstream newspapers like The Atlantic, Washington Post and the New York Times had to step in, working very closely with civil society organizations, to rescue the situation. What data-related issues are still problematic in Botswana?

To be specific, what kind of Covid-19 data is being taken now to ready the whole country for an effective and efficient mass-vaccination program?

Batswana must be made aware that the  end part of vaccination will just mark the beginning of a long journey to health recovery and national redemption; that in many ways Covid-19 vaccination is just another step toward the many efforts in abeyance to fight this health pandemic, the road ahead is still long and painful.

For this purpose, and to highlight the significance of this observation we tasked our panellists with  the arduous imperative of  analysing the impact of mass-vaccination on society and the economy alongside the pressing issues of post-Covid-19 national health surveillance and rehabilitation programs.

Research suggests the aftermath of Covid-19 vaccination is going to be just as difficult and uncertain world as the present reality in many ways, and that caution should prevail over celebration, at least for a long time. The disease itself is projected to linger around for some time after all these mass-vaccination campaigns unless an effort is made to vaccinate everyone to the last reported case, every nation succeeds beyond herd immunity, and cure is found for Covid-19 disease. Many people are going to continue in need of medications, psychological and psychiatric services and therapy.

Is Botswana ready for this long holdout? If not, what path should we take going into the future? The Second concern is , are we going to have a single, trusted national agency charged with the  mandate to set standards for our national health data system, now that we know how real bad pandemics can be, and the value of data in quickly responding to them and mitigating impact? Finally, what is being done to curate a short history of this pandemic? A national museum of health and medicine or a Public Health Institute  in Botswana is overdue.

If we are to create strong sets of data policies and data quality standards for fighting future health pandemics it is critical that they find ideological and moral foundations in the artistic imagery and photography of the present human experience…context is essential to fighting such diseases, and to be prepared we must learn from every tragic health incident.

Our panellists answered most of these questions with distinguished intellectual clarity. We wish Batswana to join us in our second Mass-vaccination workshop.

*Oscar Motsumi: Email:oscar.motsumi@gmail.com

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The women you see in the news matter. Here’s why

9th March 2021
Jane Godia

Jane Godia

Today is International Women’s Day – it’s a moment to think about how much better our news diet could be if inequities were eliminated. In 1995, when the curtains fell in one of the largest meetings that have ever brought women together to discuss women in development, it was noted that women and media remain key to development.

Twenty-six years later, the relevant “Article J” of the Beijing Platform for Action, remains unfulfilled. Its two strategic objectives with regard to Women and Media have not been met. They are
Increase the participation and access of women to expression and decision-making in and through the media and new technologies of communication

Promote a balanced and non-stereotyped portrayal of women in the media.

Today, as we mark International Women’s Day, it’s an indictment on both media owners and civil society that women remain on the periphery of news-making. They cannot claim equal space in either the structures of newsrooms or in the content produced, be that as sources of news or as the subjects of reports. Indeed, the latest figures from WAN-IFRA’s Women in News Programme show just one in five voices in news belong to women*, be they as sources, as the author or as the main character of the news report.

Some progress was evident several years back, with stand-out women being named as chief executive officers, editors in chief, managing editors and executive editors. But these gains appear short lived in most media organisations. Excitement has turned to frustration as one-step forward has been replaced with three steps backwards. In Africa, the problem is acute. The decision-making tables of media organisations remain deprived of women and where there are women, they are surrounded by men.

Few women have followed in the footsteps of Esther Kamweru, the first woman managing editor in Kenya, and indeed sub-Saharan Africa. Today’s standout women editors include Pamela Makotsi-Sittoni (Nation Media Group, Kenya), Barbara Kaija (New Vision, Uganda), Mary Mbewe (Daily Nation, Zambia), Margaret Vuchiri (The Monitor, Uganda), Joyce Shebe (Clouds, Tanzania), Tryphinah Dongwana (Weekend Post, Botswana), Joyce Mhaville (Independent Television -ITV, Tanzania) and Tuma Abdallah (Standard Newspapers,Tanzania). But they remain an exception.

The lack of balance between women and men at the table of decision making has a rollback effect on the content that is produced. A table dominated by men typically makes decisions that benefit men.

So today, International Women’s Day is a grim reminder that things are not rosy in the news business. Achieving gender balance in news and in the structure of media organisations remains a challenge. Unmet, it sees more than half of the population in our countries suffer the consequences of bias, discrimination and sexism.

The business of ignoring the other half of the population can no longer be treated as normal. It’s time that media leaders grasp the challenge, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it also makes a whole lot of business sense: start covering women, give them space and a voice in news-making and propel them to all levels of decision making within your organisation.

We can no longer afford to imagine that it’s only men who make and sell the news and bring in the shillings to fund the media business. Women too are worthy newsmakers. In all of our societies, there are women holding decision making positions and who are now experts in once male-only domains such as engineers, doctors, scientists and researchers.

They can be deliberately picked out to share their perspectives and expertise and bring balance to the profile of experts quoted on our news pages. Media is the prism through which society sees itself and women are an untapped audience. So, as we celebrate International Women’s Day, let us embrace diversity, which yields better news content and business products, and in so doing eliminate sexism. We know that actions and attitudes that discriminate against people based on their gender is bad for business.

As media, the challenge is ours. We need to consciously embrace and reach the commitments made 26 years ago when the Beijing Platform for Action was signed globally. As the news consuming public, you have a role to play too. Hold your news organization to account and make sure they deliver balanced news that reflects the voices of all of society.

Jane Godia is a gender development and media expert who serves as the Africa Director of Women in News programme.  
WOMEN IN NEWS is WAN-IFRA’s ground-breaking programme to increase women’s leadership and voices in the news. It does so by equipping women journalists and editors with the skills, strategies, and support networks to take on greater leadership positions within their media. www.womeninnews.org

Jane Godia, Director, Africa, Women in News

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Why is the media so afraid to talk about sexual harassment?

9th March 2021

MELANIE WALKER

The eve of International Women’s Day presents an opportunity for us to think about gender equality and the long and often frustrating march toward societies that are truly equal.

As media, we are uniquely placed to drive forward this reflection and discussion. But while focusing on the challenges of gender in society, we owe it to our staff and the communities we serve to also take a hard look at the obstacles within our own organisations.

I’m talking specifically about the scourge of sexual harassment. It’s likely to have happened in your newsroom. It has likely happened to a member of your team. It happens to all genders but is disproportionately directed at women. It happens in every industry, regardless of country, culture or context. This is because sexual harassment is driven by power, not sex. Wherever you have imbalances in power, you have individuals who are at risk of sexual harassment, and those who abuse this power.

I’ve been sexually harassed. The many journalists and editors, friends and family members who I have spoken to over the years on this subject have also been harassed. Yet it is still hard for leaders to recognize that this could be happening within their newsrooms and boardrooms. Why does it continue to be such a taboo?

Counting the cost of sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is, simply put, bad for business. It can harm your corporate reputation. It is a drain on the productivity of staff and managers. Maintaining and building trust in your brand is an absolute imperative for media organisations globally. If and when a case gets out of control or is badly handled – this can directly impact your bottom line.

It is for this reason that WAN-IFRA Women in News has put eliminating sexual harassment as a top priority in our work around gender equality in the media sector. This might seem at odds with the current climate where social interactions are fewer and remote work scenarios are in place in many newsrooms and businesses. But one only needs to tune into the news to know that the abuse of power, manifested as verbal, physical or online harassment, is alive and well.

Preliminary results from an ongoing Women in News research study into the issue of sexual harassment polling hundreds of journalists in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia indicate that more than 1 in 3 women media professionals have been physically harassed, and just under 50% have been verbally harassed. Just over 15% of men in African newsrooms reported being physically harassed, and slightly less than 1 in 4 reports being verbally harassed. The numbers for male media professionals in Southeast Asia are slightly higher than a quarter on both forms of harassment.

The first step in confronting sexual harassment is to talk about it. We need to strip away the stigma and discomfort around having open conversations about what sexual harassment is and isn’t. Media managers, it is entirely in your power to create dynamics in your own teams that are free from sexual harassment.

Publishers and CEOs, you set the organisational culture in your media company.

By being vocal in recognising that it happens everywhere, and communicating to your employees that you will not tolerate sexual harassment of any kind, you send a powerful message to your teams, and publicly. With these actions, you will help us overcome the legacy of silence around this topic, and in doing so take an important first step to create media environments that truly embrace equality.

Melanie Walker is Executive Director of Media Development of the World Association of News Publishers (WAN-IFRA). She is a creator of Women in News, WAN-IFRA’s ground-breaking programme to increase women’s leadership and voices in the news. It does so by equipping women journalists and editors with the skills, strategies, and support networks to take on greater leadership positions within their media. www.womeninnews.org

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