This week, we share a Q+A with IDinsight’s new Director, Linda Zuze to find out what drives and inspires her to do this work.
Linda Zuze, Director, IDinsight
Linda Zuze is an economist with over 15 years of experience in policy research. She has a PhD in Economics from the University of Cape Town and her PhD was the joint winner of the 2009 Founder’s Medal for the best economics PhD in South Africa. She is currently a Director at IDinsight, based in Lusaka, Zambia. Prior to IDinsight, Linda was a resident researcher for UNESCO, a university academic, a chief research specialist at the South African Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), an independent consultant and a research expert for Financial Sector Deepening Zambia (FSDZ). We interviewed Linda to hear what inspires her to do this work and her aspirations for the future.
Q: Tell us about yourself.
I was born in Zambia and I grew up in a home where there were conversations about social justice around me all the time. I lived in many different countries in my early years, and I think that this experience impressed upon me how talents and opportunities are mismatched the world over. My parents encouraged me to read widely from an early age, to ask questions, to be curious. So, maybe that’s why I ended up asking questions for a living. There was always this sense that change is possible if you just stick with it.
Q: How do you explain to your family and friends what you do?
It’s funny that you should ask because my 9-year old asked me exactly the same question a few days ago. So let me try to explain it to you like I did to a 9-year old. You know how sometimes you run a race in athletics at school? Some kids don’t hear the whistle. So, they are already behind from the start. Some start before the whistle blows, so they have a head start and it’s not fair. Some kids have really cool expensive shoes that help them to run faster. Some don’t have any shoes. Or maybe their leg is hurt. Some kids have people cheering for them and that helps them to run faster. Others have nobody cheering for them. The work that I do is sort of like that race. I am part of a fantastic team and, together, we work out ways to help the people in charge understand these differences so that they can change things. That way everyone has an equal chance at running their best race.
Q: Tell us about what motivates you to dedicate your career to research and social impact.
A belief that we all have equal worth and that the right policy choices can make all the difference for people living in poverty around the world. I read an incredible novel set in Zambia called “The Old Drift” not too long ago. It weaves the story of three families across four generations. At some point, one of the characters says something that really stuck with me – “history, in short, was the annals of the bully on the playground.” I guess I see part of my role as lending a voice to some untold stories.
Q: Much of your work focuses on financial inclusion and education. Why were you drawn to those areas?
Education: I’ve always viewed education as the great equalizer, and I believe in the difference that good policies and programmes can make in education.
Financial inclusion: When women are given opportunities, households and entire communities benefit as well. Access to affordable financial services is crucial for women’s economic empowerment. Women have really felt the toll of the pandemic. Many of the sectors that have been worst hit by lockdowns employ more women than men. Women have also carried a heavier load when it comes to childcare and domestic work during the crisis. So, a focus on the economic lives of women is more important than ever going forward.
Q: You are from Zambia, and have worked and lived there as well as in South Africa. What is your hope for Zambia in the next five or ten years?
Zambia had its fair share of social and economic challenges even before the Covid-19 pandemic came into play. In August last year, in the midst of a pandemic, four million Zambian citizens (most of them young voters) showed up to vote for change. The international media coverage had pretty much written off the outcome before a single vote was cast but Zambians showed the world that a peaceful transition was possible. My hope is that good governance, sound policies and Zambia’s unique ability to do things a little differently will place us on the path to economic recovery.
Q: What attracted you to IDinsight?
The people and the values of the organization. I admire how much time the teams at IDinsight invest in building and maintaining relationships with decision makers. I liked that IDinsight recognizes the constraints that decision makers face in the complex work that they do.
Q: Based on your experience and expertise, do you think providing free education will be the answer to education inequality in Sub Saharan Africa?
Early efforts at free education taught us that increasing access to education doesn’t necessarily guarantee that children will receive quality education. Often, the opposite is true and educational inequalities can worsen. I think we’ve gotten a lot better at assessing learners, training teachers and empowering school leaders since the early days of free education. Scaling up promising interventions is still really hard and for too many children, it’s simply too late. I’m encouraged by the focus on early childhood education and early grade literacy in many African countries. Getting the basics right is absolutely key.
Q: What specific actions can researchers take to proactively bridge the gap between themselves and policymakers? How will you use your expertise to ensure our teams take these actions?
A good starting point is recognizing that no single individual or organization has all the answers. I’ve seen that when researchers take the time to build relationships with policy makers and acknowledge that policy work is often slow and hard, it can lead to better results. Making sure that results of research are communicated in a way that is useful to policy makers is also worthwhile.
Q: What advice would you give young women starting out their careers in research and social impact?
Seeing young women find their voice in the research space is one of the most rewarding parts of my work. I’m passionate about building capacity among women in policy research. Sometimes it’s difficult to figure out where to start as a young woman in research. I’ve always found it helpful to think about those issues that keep me up at night, the ones that I can’t stop thinking about and to use those topics to fuel my thinking.
I encourage first-generation graduates and those who have had to overcome a great deal to complete their education, that nothing that they’ve been through is wasted. If anything, what they’ve overcome can enrich the stories that they tell through their research. And their stories matter.
Q: What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
I love to spend time in nature, hiking, running (not as much as I used to). I love reading and I’ve enjoyed re-reading the books of my childhood, with my own children. Unlike when I was a child, there is a lot more diversity in the main characters and role models of today’s children’s books. I love that. I’d like to write more in the future. My older son and I are working on a concept for a book that’s set in a video game where the main characters are African historical figures. There are so many stories to tell, after all.
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