Centring African research actors’ perspectives in research partnerships

by Eyob Balcha Gebremariam

Asymmetrical power relations among multiple actors shape the research and knowledge production ecosystem. Several actors based in the “global north” dominate the knowledge production and research ecosystem, particularly in the African context. International collaboration or research partnerships are the most commonly used terms to describe the relationship between African and non-African research actors (researchers, universities, funders, publishers).

One may question, what role do African or Africa-based researchers play in research partnerships? At PARC, we want to facilitate reflections towards responding to this question by centring the views and perspectives of African research actors.

Multi-layered challenges of the African research ecosystem

African and Africa-based researchers’ contribution to the global and continental knowledge production and research ecosystem is significantly low. Africa’s share of the global population is 15 per cent. However, the continent contributes only one per cent to the global research output. The minor role of African researchers cannot be disassociated from the broader structural limitations that African countries face in the political and economic sphere.

As Paulin Hountondji eloquently explained, Africa’s scientific dependence is a mirror reflection of its economic dependence on the western world, which is an outcome of the nature of the integration of African subsistence economies into the global capitalist market. The adverse integration made scientific studies and knowledge production activities more relevant and valuable inputs to the non-African academic world than to the betterment of African academia and societies.

UNESCO’s 2021 Science Report shows that the world average of 1,368 full-time researchers per one million people is paralleled by only124 researchers per one million inhabitants in the sub-Saharan Africa region. The same report claims that the average investment in research and development as a share of GDP at the world level is 1.79, whereas, in sub-Saharan Africa, it stands at 0.51.

2016 study by the World Bank, on the other hand, indicates that “a very large share” of sub-Saharan African research outputs is a result of international collaborations. In 2012, around 65 per cent of all the research output in the region was produced through international collaborations. Hence, the African research ecosystem is not only poorly financed, and with very few full-time researchers, it is also significantly dominated by “international” research actors.

Epistemological dominance

The dominance is not only at the human resource, technical and financial level. The epistemological dominance is also quite visible. Research projects are often, if not always, conceived by prioritising knowledge frameworks that originate from the socio-historical and political-economic processes of societies in the global north. Conversely, African epistemologies rarely shape the orientation and processes of knowledge production about Africa.

The role of African languages can be one powerful illustration of the marginalisation of African ways of knowing in the processes of knowledge production. Ngȗgȋ wa Thiongo, in his seminal work Decolonising the Mind, argues that language has a “dual character”: a means of communication and a carrier of culture. At present, colonially imposed foreign languages (English, French and Portuguese) are the most dominant languages of post-secondary school education, research and production of knowledge in Africa.

Not surprisingly, almost all international collaborations of research activities use one of these languages. Hence, the marginalisation of African epistemologies through foreign languages as a dominant form of knowledge production can also cause dual harm. On the one hand, it can make research outputs inaccessible for the majority of Africans that have not mastered these colonial languages. On the other hand, it also curtails the potential of enriching African languages as a medium of instruction and knowledge production whilst keeping culturally engrained orientations.

The role of African research actors

So, what does it look like to operate in a research and knowledge production ecosystem that is externally oriented, dominated by international collaborations and where indigenous epistemologies play a minor role? How do the multiple layers of power imbalances and inequities manifest in various phases of research activities, i.e., conception to proposal writing, conceptualisation, securing of funds, partners selection, data collection, interpretation and writing, authorship credits and publishing, dissemination and accessibility of research outputs? What kinds of power relations do African research actors need to deal with in these processes?

Reflections and responses to these questions based on the lived experiences of African research actors can help us understand some of the vital features of the African research ecosystem.

To this end, PARC is launching a new initiative called PARC Conversations. We aim to provide a virtual platform for conversation, particularly for African research actors. We believe that such opportunities for dialogue and debate can meaningfully inform our understanding of the challenges with the African research ecosystem and ways of effecting transformation.

Our mission is to be a connector of multiple actors and constituents of the global and continental research ecosystem, a catalyst for dialogue and reflections and a forum for interdisciplinary inquiry. We strongly believe the PARC Conversation helps us go in the right direction.