The Primacy of Epistemic Justice

The Primacy of Epistemic Justice for a Transformed Knowledge Production Ecosystem in Africa – Eyob Balcha Gebremariam


Cape Town hosted a series of “carnival of ideas” at the fourth biennial conference of the African Studies Association of Africa (ASAA) between 11th – 16th April 2022. Colleagues at the Institute for Humanities in Africa (HUMA) at the University of Cape Town, under the leadership of Dr Divine Fuh, provided us with the most humane hospitality both for our intellectual and social satisfaction. The conference’s overall theme was “Africa and the Human: Old question, new imaginaries”. At the conference, I counted at least a dozen sessions addressing issues such as “the politics of knowledge production and distribution”, “decolonising knowledge”, “transforming research partnerships”, etc. Some of our keynote speakers also addressed the importance of foregrounding African ontologies and epistemologies in our research endeavours. Whilst enjoying the insightful intellectual deliberations, I asked the following two questions.

What is the cost to Africa of the global-north-dominated science and research ecosystem? How can we redress the multi-layered power imbalances that pervade the ecosystem? These questions are at the centre of our work at PARC, and we seek to contribute to finding solutions by facilitating scholarly deliberations. In this piece, I aim to briefly illustrate the depth, enormity and complexity of the challenge by using the findings of the latest report by IPCC on Climate Change: impacts, adaptation and vulnerability as valuable examples.

First, Africa-focused climate-related studies receive a minimal amount of research funding. Between 1990 and 2020, only 3.8% of global funding for climate-related research went to Africa-focused themes. Such research funding imbalance is against the established scientific fact that African countries are disproportionately exposed to the drastic impacts of climate change despite their negligible contribution to the problem.

Figure 1: Source – IPCC WGII Sixth Assessment Report (PDF version page no. 1646)

Second, and related to the first, in terms of division of labour, the Africa-focused climate-related research is significantly dominated by research centres based in Europe and North America. The IPCC report highlighted that 78 % of the funding goes to northern research institutions. Kenya (2.3%) and South Africa (2.2%) are the only two African countries in the top 10 of countries hosting institutions receiving funding for Africa-focused climate-related research.

Figure 2: Source – IPCC WGII Sixth Assessment Report (PDF version page no. 1646)

Both the minuscule funding and unfair distribution of research funding are directly reflected in the participation of African researchers as authors of “relevant” climate-related research. The IPCC report contends that not a single “local author” is found in analysing more than 15,000 publications studying climate-related issues that cover 75% of African countries.

The exclusion of African/Africa-based researchers in climate-related research has severe implications on policy and practice. Exclusion in knowledge production leads to the limited capacity for translating scientific studies into “actionable insights on priority issues” for Africa. The exclusion of locally based researchers also constrains the room to generate locally relevant data and policy advice for practitioners and decision-makers.

Northern-based research centres are likely to prioritise the interests of their northern constituencies and clients in the Africa-focused research. Such misdirected priorities and interests significantly “reduce adaptive capacity in Africa” to the severely increasing impact of climate change. As we have witnessed in the recurring droughts, flooding and crop failures, constrained capacity for adaptation and mitigation cost the lives of humans, livestock, and their future livelihoods.

The root cause is epistemic injustice

I dare to say that almost every scientific and research partnership about/in/on Africa derives from the modern Eurocentric epistemic orientation. One of the fundamental features of modernist epistemic orientation is categorising Africa and African societies as devoid of knowledge systems. Most recognised local knowledge systems are usually framed as “indigenous knowledge”, with lesser relevance and scientific rigour than the dominant modern knowledge. On the contrary, the knowledge that originates from the modernist Eurocentric perspective is considered universal, scientific, hence objective and absolute.

“Scientific knowledge” is monopolised by Europe and North American research actors regarding human resources, technology, finance and institutional power. However, the core of the problem is not only in the monopoly of scientific knowledge per se; it is most notably in the discrediting and trivialising of non-Eurocentric knowledge frameworks. Since the Eurocentric knowledge framework is hegemonic and totalitarian, knowledge production and research partnerships based on this knowledge framework promote power imbalances and inequities.

The examples of power imbalances in the Africa-focused climate-related research are manifestations of the overarching epistemic injustice. The epistemic injustice is then translated into structural and institutional inequalities in the allocation of resources, the extractive research partnerships, the dominance and imposition of research agenda, the use of academic research to pursue the economic and political interests of the global-north, the perpetuation of the unfair and exploitative relations between the global-north and Africa.

The latest IPCC report shows power imbalances and inequities in the Africa-focused climate-related knowledge production. Several other fields of studies also manifest the multi-layered power imbalances that emanate from the epistemic inequalities between the global north and Africa. In international relations and security studies, ‘specific cultures of thought’ derived from the European historical and empirical context and experiences serve as a universal knowledge framework in studying the function, viability and features of African states and politics. In development studies, the inherently colonial underpinnings of “development interventions” and the hierarchisation of expertise through the “white gaze” are often concealed and remain marginal concerns. In education, the use of European languages (mainly English & French) to serve as the medium of instruction, signifiers of being “educated”, “modernised”, and “enlightened” is normalised, whilst African languages are discredited and considered inadequate for intellectual exercise. So, research partnerships that fulfil the principles of “equitable partnerships”  in terms of resource distribution but remain less concerned or unaware of epistemic injustice in these fields of study can hardly offer a meaningful solution.

The same is true to research partnerships in the agriculture sector that take Eurocentric knowledge as the only knowledge framework. The “monoculture of capitalist productivity and efficiency” is at the core of studies in agriculture that favour commodification and privatisation of land, market-oriented mass production and mechanisation. African cosmologies of land ownership, i.e. land belonging to the living, the dead and the unborn, small-scale and self-sufficient models of productivities are rendered irrelevant and unmodern. Some studies even show how global capital dominated the African agricultural ecosystem, policy and decision-making processes to promote its financial interest through genetically modified seeds, pesticides, and other “modern agriculture” inputs.

Centring the problems of epistemic injustice in research partnerships can also contribute to taming intellectual assault disguised as objective and neutral analysis. For example, a study about the much-hyped digital money platform M-pesa contributing to poverty reduction and financial inclusion is debunked for omitting and ignoring essential features of the fin-tech business in Africa. The piece was published in one of the “world’s leading journals”, Science. The article is criticised for advocating a “false narrative” about the positive role of fin-tech in poverty reduction and development through omission, erroneous and flawed methodologies. Most importantly, the embedded role of global capital in advancing fin-tech as the new “development darling” and its role in financing this particular study remain concealed, and the article is published as a “scientific” and “objective” study.

The field of global public health is another field of study where epistemic injustice is engrained as a critical feature of knowledge production and research partnerships. Power asymmetry among research scientists puts scientists from the global south as sample providers and data collectors. In most public health-related studies, the vital role of colonial relations and the enduring legacy is disregarded whilst favouring “objectivist epidemiology”. For example, the vaccine hesitance of Ebola-affected communities in DRC is reported as ignorance without factoring in the legacy of brutal Belgian colonialism and the collective trauma that communities experienced, leading to a profound mistrust for medical interventions.

In conclusion, it is concerning but hardly surprising that more than three-quarters of Africa-focused climate-related research funding is going to research centres in Europe and North America. Almost the entire science and knowledge production ecosystem about/in/on Africa is designed based on Eurocentric epistemic orientations. The finance, human, technical and technological resources are also located in the global north. Institutional and policy frameworks that aim to install “equitable partnership frameworks” in research partnerships by focusing only on distributing these resources may not solve the bigger problem. The core of the problem is at the epistemic level. Hence, efforts to create the conditions for the centring of African and other non-Eurocentric epistemic orientations should be prioritised

At PARC, we aim to contribute to transforming the existing patterns of research partnerships by changing the normative grounds of research collaborations. We are working with our partners to establish a Charter on transformed global north-Africa research partnerships. The Charter aspires to alter the existing institutional settings and policy frameworks of research partnerships that sustain unequal power relations between global-north and Africa in the science and research ecosystem.

Our focus on epistemic injustice remains at the centre of our Charter initiative. As one of the keynote speakers at ASAA 2020, Cheikh Thiam highlighted some audacity to think of “a radical alternative” might be necessary to avoid replication of what already exists. The Charter initiative can be a good starting point to envisage a global research and science ecosystem in which African epistemologies, constituencies and terms take their rightful place in knowledge production. We invite everyone to join hands with us towards realising this transformation.