Research on Africa: on whose terms?

- Stephanie Kitchen -

This was the apt title of a key Round Table discussion held at the 2017 ECAS conference organised by the Swiss Society for African Studies and CODESRIA. Two main questions were posed by the panel convenors: About the balance and relationship between ‘basic’ and ‘applied’ research on/in Africa. About the politics and priorities of research funders and councils. Who should fund such research in Africa in a new moment of decolonisation?  

The two questions struck me as being immediately relevant to current debates in the UK, particularly around Global Challenges Research Fund(GCRF) calls. Channels for GCRF include arts and humanities research, which traditionally carry out what is here referred to as ‘basic’ research, e.g. in such disciplines as literature and archaeology. Such programmes as GCRF are effectively only looking to fund research that is ‘applied’ or ‘policy relevant’, which needs to be ‘ODA (Overseas Development Aid)-compliant’, contributing to ‘capacity building’. 

This panel discussion provided detail and perspective on the African context. Included in the discussion were Godwin Murunga, Executive Secretary of CODESRIA, Joyce Nyairo from the Ford Foundation in Nairobi, Mamadou Diawara, representing Point Sud, a research programme based in Mali in cooperation with five other countries with funding from two German universities and the Volkswagen Foundation, and representatives from the South African Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) and the Swiss Research Council. 

The Swiss National Science Foundation’s ‘Research for Development’ programme was discussed. Its challenges included how to deal with the practical application of research findings, a debate that resonates in the UK with discussions about DfID-funded research and concerns for GCRF. 

Joyce Nyairo felt that ‘application’ could be an extension of such development research, sometimes referred to as ‘action research’. This is linked to the role of the ‘public intellectual’. She advocated that researchers ‘take a serious interest in funding organisations’ and help ‘shape their priorities’.

HSRC’s model as a South African government grant-making body is to carry out a mixture of basic and applied research. Their goal is ‘knowledge for the public good’ and focus is on poverty and inequality in South Africa. But the speaker emphasised that basic scholarship should not be lost even when there is pressure from government to conduct ‘policy-relevant’ research.

Godwin Murunga reminded us that there is a history of ‘policy-relevance’ in many African countries; civil servants have long used research, and often basic research. In the 1960s and 1970s there were in-depth debates, such as in the journal Transition, about the interactions between academia, policy development and journalism. He argued that the ‘policy process’ is one of ‘contestation’, and ‘basic research will be there, ignore us or not’.

Divine Fuh, an anthropologist and currently director of publications at CODESRIA, pointed out that CODESRIA is considered Africa’s top think tank. This has been shaped by ‘deep policy research’. Engaging with African epistemologies and education is a way to bridge the basic/applied research divide.

Mamadou Diawara also queried the perceived dichotomy between basic and applied research, but acknowledged that the tension between the two is now ‘very stressed’, and in Africa, there is a tendency to widen it. This is a most challenging issue. Donors are investing in consultancy and NGOs and not universities. Consultants are therefore much more present than academics who in African universities barely have access to grants. Diawara described this as a ‘permanent contradiction’, creating an image of ‘La recherche alimentaire’, or ‘research for the belly’ – a serious problem as basic research takes a back seat as academics try to make a living. 

The wider discussion broached the relationship between social movements and policy change in which social sciences and humanities scholars have to have a role. Walter Bgoya, the Tanzanian publisher, pointed out that academics who moved into government – a common phenomenon – tended to become less critical. There is also a need for African universities that were established as colonial projects to ‘democratise’ themselves if they want to democratise society.

Further, there is a need to decolonise research and ‘expat knowledge’, dependency on which goes to the heart of the tensions within African governments. Then, in thinking about decolonising research, we need to engage with funding agencies and indeed ask ‘what does it mean to decolonise funding’: to shift the dependencies on funding agencies beyond the African continent to consideration of what funding infrastructure is needed in Africa. African governments are not funding pan-African research. This is ‘everyone’s challenge’.

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