This series tracks the working lives of our part-time PhD fellows. Many serve at the highest of levels, both nationally and internationally, including for other parts of the UN system. And from all around the world, they come to Maastricht for our unique PhD Dual Career Training Programme in Governance and Policy Analysis (GPAC²). Shortly before the lockdown of spring 2020, we caught up with two PhD alumni: Clovis Freire, who now works at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in Geneva, and Bernard Nikaj, Ambassador of Kosovo in Brussels. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity. See the original video below.
What were your personal and professional goals when starting this PhD (alongside your full-time jobs)?
Clovis: The PhD was a process of transformation: to validate my skills and research while becoming a part of a community. I wanted to have that sense of purpose, that discipline and that network – these were all-important to me on my PhD journey.
Bernard: For me it was different when I started from when I finished. When I started the PhD, I was teaching at the University of Pristina in Kosovo, and I was trying to develop my research skills, get a PhD and become a researcher and lecturer. Then in the meantime, while doing the PhD, I ended up in this very different world of public policy and politics.
The PhD helped me, in that it solidified that quest for method, for process, for looking at things more systematically, for looking at things differently than you did before. What a lot of people don’t understand is that a PhD is as much about the method as about the content of what you’re studying. For me that’s something that I carried into every other field I joined. Of course, switching to a different career path posed some difficulties along the way, but now that it’s over I appreciate the whole experience of learning. And as Clovis says, becoming part of the community is also important!
You enjoyed being part of the academic community. Now that you’re policymakers, do you have more sympathy for academics?
Bernard: Yes, first because you gain insights into how the academic community works. For example, you get to see just how ruthless academic discussions can be when research is presented! In other fields of public life, people are not that straightforward with their opinions and critiques. So I always have sympathy and understanding for what comes out of the academic world. On the other hand, it enables you to give to academia a different perspective. A lot of policy proposals that come from academia are great, but policy decisions require political mandates – and politicians cannot think as long term as academics. For politicians, policymaking is a much shorter process. So it was a learning experience for me, to have an insight on both worlds.
Clovis: I think we end up being this interface between policy and science. Before joining the PhD, I was very close to the policymakers, with policy advice and trying to bring knowledge from science, from academia to the policy world – and then to bring back what is important from the policy side to the scientific world. But once you go through a PhD, you become much more critical of the process, of what is coming out of science, of what are the essential questions from the policy side. So it gives you a much clearer perspective on how to act as an interface between science and policy.
Your PhDs focused broadly on innovation and technological change. How did that come about?
Clovis: That was a significant part of my PhD. I was interested in innovation, had a background in engineering, and over time I realised that bringing technology to development settings and poor communities was important but somehow didn’t bring that transformation that you see going on in certain countries in Asia – i.e. the rapid development and transformation that only comes through innovation. Simply put, I was trying to understand the economics of technological change. So my whole PhD was linked to better understanding that process, how it works, and the theory behind it.
Bernard: I was looking into how technology impacts the building of state institutions. My interest was to look in a state-building environment, which is much more undefined than a modern state and in a lot of developing countries. I wanted to see how technology impacts the building of state institutions. So my first quest was to get all the process information, which wasn’t easy because it involved a lot of foreign actors. Overall I found that technology and innovation is not a seamless tool, but an actor per se that impacts the development of institutions.
It’s fascinating. In the early days of my PhD, the usage of technology in government was in its infancy. It was a novelty, so you had to look for cases. But as time went by, it became mainstream. It’s still not understood properly, but the investment is there, the hype is there. It used to be called e-government, then it was called technology in the public sector, now it’s called AI in the public sector. It will be called something different in a couple of years.
Clovis: New technologies are coming, so what Bernard found in his PhD are applicable now on the frontier of knowledge. The same applies with the process of innovation: different countries are going through different stages of development. Yet they go through more or less the same process, even though the technology is different now with new frontier technologies coming out. We were among the GPAC fellows working on the technological side, while many of our colleagues focused on governance. For me that was a privilege: to study at UNU-MERIT, which is so well-known for its research on the economics of innovation and technological change.
Bernard: Looking back on our sessions here at UNU-MERIT, it was fascinating to participate because you would listen to so many perspectives from all over the world, from people who are not just reading and writing papers but actually involved in the latest major innovations as part of their jobs. Whenever we joined the sessions here, we would hear so many new things. And so many interesting things that would spark us beyond what we were thinking before we came.
One of the other elements that is very important to talk about is the friendships you create here because some of these span the time of your PhD and these people continue to be doing fascinating stuff all over the world. As Clovis said, he was in Bangkok, New York and now Geneva. Another fellow, Sebastian, was doing cutting edge research into education in the Middle East, then moved to Argentina. So for me that was also an important element.
Clovis: Yes, here we have a community that is very strong and solid on the academic front, but also has a lot of knowledge and experience on the policy side. So, you listen to people that were in the development context going to countries and advising policymakers, bringing their research directly to these countries – it’s really different from other places.
You’re busy gentlemen. Why did you decide to come today, to give back to the programme?
Clovis: I remember fondly when I came for the first workshop with my cohort. I felt so honoured, proud and privileged to be here with them and I remember listening to alumni coming here and sharing their experience with us. It was very important for me at that time. So now I would like to give back and share a little bit of my experience.
Bernard: Yes, I believe that part of our being researchers and academics, no matter what we do it’s always with us. This whole academic community is based on the feeling of giving back: in terms of knowledge, in terms of sharing. So it’s a great pleasure to be here and to do whatever we can to help the new cohorts, while also staying in touch with the institution and colleagues.
Some of the friendships that you create during your PhD are as important as the PhD itself. Some friendships are also a big driver for you to progress, because whoever has completed a PhD knows that there are very some very dark times in the process, so you need all the support you can get. For me it’s always great to be back in Maastricht, to see the professors, the alumni and the colleagues. So why not to try and give back some of the experience and lessons learned during the years we were here?
The opinions expressed here are the authors’ own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU. All references to Kosovo should be understood to be in the context of the United Nations Security Council resolution 1244 (1999).