At the end of the first stage in PARC’s journey, and with an initial strategy now in place I’d like to reflect on its basis and underpinnings. Or – to use the analogy that Perivoli in this context meaning ‘orchard’, by chance, offers – on the ground and seed from which we envision the Centre to grow and take shape.
Both are as much personal – arising from my own history and experience of navigating relationships between African and international institutions, as they are collective – arising from established or emergent scientific debate.
The point of departure for PARC is the necessity of a fundamental shift in the balance of power between African research constituencies and those in the global North. A shift, in which African institutions, interests and terms take their rightful place in the global research ecosystem and, most importantly, in knowledge production in and for the continent’. At the end of such a transformation, a commanding role of say UK or US institutions in research on ‘challenges’ in the continent must strike us as misplaced as would the thought, today, of African Universities dominating inquiry on communities in North America or Europe. How far we are from this goal is clear: we see a centrality of western institutions in ‘Africa research’ as normal. We have, in many senses, come to expect-and to be proud of it.
The asymmetries in research systems, crucially, involve more than the financial control and management of projects. They shape who decides on agendas, priorities and locations for inquiry, on what methodologies are to be used, by whom (the recent debate over research to test a potential COVID 19 vaccine being a recent illustration); and what conceptual frames and theories are employed and how. They shape how ‘findings’ from the continent are related to established ‘bodies of knowledge’ and they shape, lastly, who, interprets their implications for policy and practice. In so doing, the power imbalances have imposed limitations not only on African institutions and actors but also, as importantly, on the relevance and use of evidence in the continent’s pursuit of its own aspirations and the global scientific endeavour itself.
Recognition of these historically rooted power imbalances and inequities in research collaboration with Africa has, of course, intensified in recent years, going beyond long established discourses of ‘decolonization’ scholars, to reach the wider academic and public realm.
A growing number of initiatives in the continent, my former institution the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC) among them, are oriented, explicitly, as a challenge to these asymmetries. It is the same ethos that I brought to the task of establishing PARC and that, at the outset, raised inescapable questions:
If the unique gift to Bristol that made PARC possible was intended, expressly, to support Africa’s capacity to thrive – why was the investment not made in an African institution? And: what, exactly, is the value of a UK university’s involvement in the quest to engender a transformation, including in the research system, in favour of Africa? (and how would we view a reverse situation: a scheme to establish a research Centre at, say, the University of Ibadan to help Europe succeed?). The sense of conflict – over interests and, ultimately, loyalties – I felt in confronting these queries, resonated with, and forced me to think harder about, tensions that have been integral to my experience of being of mixed African and Western European heritage.
Categorical and stark at first, however, the sense of conflict over PARC’s role evolved into something more nuanced, constructive, and exciting: A realization that the Centre’s defining challenge must be to ensure that Bristol plays its part in moving along the transformation in the research ecosystem that we so urgently need.
There was another recognition: that ‘playing its part’ could, ultimately, be in Bristol’s interest, too – and that (though Lorde’s observations on the master’s tools loom large) precisely this University could offer a seedbed for such a part. This potential, to me, rests not so much in Bristol’s already wide spectrum of Africa-focused scholarship (important though that is). Rather, it rests in the University’s embrace of, or even investment in, critical thought about how it conducts its engagement with science and the world. Some of this work, such as GCRF-related analyses on how to foster more equitable and meaningful research relationships and on limitations in the impact agenda as it is presently pursued, speaks directly to questions of collaboration with stakeholders in the continent. Other initiatives are equally relevant: Bristol’s now genuine search for concrete approaches to decolonizing the higher education it offers; its acknowledgement of systemic racism within the University and the consequences for its black students and staff; its contribution to debate on research cultures and the degree to which they enable or hinder evidence generation that is a social good. And, lastly, Bristol’s initiative to not only examine its past connections with, and benefits derived from the transatlantic slave trade but to engage the City’s black communities to explore its implications – among others for its work as a civic University.
This fertile ground at Bristol, together with the ‘seed’ of PARC’s defining challenge align, I believe, to offer a strong foundation for the remainder of the Centre’s journey, and for forging the deep partnerships with African institutions and actors – from policy, academia, advocacy and civil society – that must anchor it.