African governments need to invest heavily in research in order to provide solutions to improve the lives of its people, Ghana’s President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo said at the recent launch of the African Research Universities Alliance, or ARUA.
“We cannot continue to be only consumers of research from other parts of the world, and neither can we rely perpetually on research findings about ourselves from research scientists who have limited knowledge and understanding of the local terrain,” he said.
ARUA, a network of 16 top African universities, was inaugurated in 2015 to develop the continent’s contribution to global research and raise the profile of its research globally. The alliance was officially launched on 3 April at the international conference held at the University of Ghana in Accra.
ARUA Secretary-General Professor Ernest Aryeetey said in a statement that the alliance aims to facilitate collaboration, knowledge transfer, equipment sharing, the pooling of resources and the development of mutually beneficial partnerships across the continent.
Africa as knowledge generator
“Researchers in the developing world should not merely be regarded as data collection hubs, or wellsprings of material waiting to be analysed, or footnotes in north-south collaboration projects. ARUA will strengthen the ability of researchers in Africa to be recognised as world-class generators and producers of new knowledge, capable of successfully accessing and managing resources and relationships in the global knowledge economy off our own bat.”
Echoing this view, Akufo-Addo told delegates that “sustainable solutions in Africa should come from Africa and Africans themselves.”
He said answers must be found to the malaise that breeds the “disconnect” between research findings and policy.
“While findings of research sit on dusty shelves of universities and research institutes, policy-makers operate either with zero data, or grope in the darkness for evidence-based research which could otherwise drive policy, and move the continent forward,” he said.
Centrality of research
President Akufo-Addo said there was a need for African governments to work hard to end the situation that has denied policy-makers the research they need and move towards a recognition that research is central to growth and development.
“I believe in the potential of this continent, blessed with abundant resources, both natural and human. We have no excuse to be in our present dire circumstances. I have always insisted that God did not put us on this continent to be poor,” he said.
“We need [a] renaissance at all levels of leadership to elevate Africa to its deserved place in the community of nations.”
Akufo-Addo said it was lamentable that research and knowledge construction were among Africa’s weakest points, a situation that could be gleaned from the empty slots in various global databases within the Human Development Index under African countries.
“In a continent that is often perceived as war torn and wrapped in poverty and illiteracy, one would need considerable research skills and output to diagnose Africa’s development challenges, and prescribe solutions towards a brighter future,” he said.
He said research in Africa only accounts for 1% of the world’s research output, out of which most comes from South Africa. “Our relatively negligible research output can be partly traced to certain levels of inertia towards research by governments and other stakeholders here in Africa,” President Akufo-Addo added.
“Whereas countries like South Korea spend 3.74% of their gross domestic product [GDP], and Israel spends 4.2% of GDP on research, most African countries spend less than 0.5% on research, even while the benchmark recommended by the African Union is 1%,” he said.
Based on this, it was not surprising that there was a perception of huge disparities in quality between universities in Africa on one hand, and those in other parts of the world, he said.
Such disparities were also reflected in participation levels in higher education.
“While the higher education participation rates in many high-income countries are well over 50%, in Sub-Saharan Africa, they are in most cases below 5%,” he said.
The low level of participation in tertiary education would naturally have adverse effects on development, for there is increasing evidence that high levels of education in general and of higher education in particular, are essential for the design and optimum uses of new and innovative technologies, as well as the development of civil society, he said.
According to a statement from South Africa's University of the Witwatersrand or Wits, one of the alliance partners, 13 key thematic areas for collaboration have been identified. They include climate change, food security, non-communicable diseases, materials development and nanotechnology, energy, water conservation, mobility and migration, poverty and inequality, unemployment and skills development, notions of identity, good governance, post-conflict societies, and urbanisation and habitable cities.
Providing an update on two key projects already underway, Wits Vice-Chancellor Professor Adam Habib, who is also a member of the ARUA executive committee, said: “The migrations and mobility theme is a great example of a universal issue that requires research at multiple levels, and which is best addressed by cosmopolitan teams within different socio-economic, political and historical contexts. A dynamic research project in this area has already been launched through funding from the Mellon Foundation.
"The next project is focused on food security, which is another area that directly affects humanity the world over," he said.
Infrastructure and services
Former director of the Square Kilometre Array project, Professor Bernie Fanaroff, told the gathering that in order to fulfil Africa’s potential, there was a need to build infrastructure and services. The absence of these was both a problem and an opportunity, he said.
“The absence of legacy systems means that we can leapfrog technologies, to create new telecommunications infrastructure, smart ports, smart cities, smart health services… We cannot continue to build infrastructure and services by flying in expatriates to build, operate and maintain them,” Fanaroff said.
He said the launching of ARUA was confirmation that Africa recognises the importance of world-class research universities for development.
“ARUA’s objectives go to the heart of one of the key things we need to do: create universities that are internationally competitive and universities that can attract the best and the brightest and put into our societies young people with excellent skills who are problem-solvers.”
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