SOUTHERN AFRICA: Partnership model leaves legacy

The legacy of seven-year-old international agency Development Policy Review Network, DPRN - created by the Netherlands and Belgian governments to close the gap between science, policy, practice and the corporate sector - includes emphasis on partnerships that benefit all parties. The agency has used this same win-win model in its collaboration with research colleagues in Africa, Asia and South America.

The DPRN officially comes to an end in February, and concluded its second phase last year. A Cape Town-based workshop in December reviewed the results of the agency's work with South African universities.

The two-day workshop with the theme 'collaborate to innovate' was put together by scholars interested in international collaborative research from Ghent University in Belgium, Wageningen University in The Netherlands and South Africa's University of the Western Cape.

Within the context of a global world and shrinking resources for research, participants from Europe and African universities canvassed for new research approaches based on equality, mutual respect and recognition of the interests of the producers of wealth in developed and developing countries.

The DPRN model focuses on promoting collaboration between university-based researchers, policy-makers and private-sector industrialists. As Karen Vandelvelde, a research policy advisor in the Department of Research Affairs at Ghent University, explained: with this model researchers are no longer alienated from their research findings.

She cited the Belgian examples of the Science Park Bridge in Ostende and the Science Park in Ghent, where several hundred university-based researchers are now directly involved with industrialists in transforming their research findings into viable economic and commercial products.

Nancy Terryn, coordinator for university development cooperation at Ghent University, catalogued successful DPRN overseas research collaborations, where researchers from the universities of Ghent and Wageningen and their counterparts in African, Asian and Latin American countries had come up with projects of direct economic and commercial benefit to the people involved in the production of goods and services.

"These projects are conceptualised and executed together with the men and women involved in small- and medium-scale industry. Their input does, in most cases, change the initial concepts put together by the researchers. And their input is reflected at the production level. This is an example of collaboration and innovation," said Terryn.

According to Annelies Verdoolaege, a researcher in the faculty of humanities at Ghent University, the humanities are also involved in this new process of linking research with addressing real-world problems in developing countries.

She gave the example of collaborative projects between her university and the University of the Western Cape in conjunction with those directly involved in the resolution of social problems in Western Cape province with regard to HIV-Aids in pre-school and school-going children in South Africa.

She also criticised the underfunding of projects emanating from the humanities and the 'overfunding' of projects from the sciences: "The humanities and the biological, physical, social and applied sciences have to be complementary," she argued.

Two projects attracted attention for their originality. The first is the regional and multi-faceted approach to water supply in Southern Africa. The paper was presented by Lewis Jonker of the University of the Western Cape and Pieter Van der Zaag of the Institute of Water in the Netherlands. It involves universities in Southern Africa, where rivers flow across borders. The study focuses on the rivers' ecological, social and economic impacts.

The second project uses participatory action research to investigate the conservation of wild rooibos (tea) and the role of small-scale farmers. The research was undertaken with farmers by a research collective comprising Tim Hoffman, Noel Oettle, Betina Koelle and Rhoda Malgas, all from South African universities.

A common denominator in the DRPN research projects is reciprocity and mutual orientation. While researchers end up producing innovative postgraduate papers, the farmers and small-scale traders involved manufacture products that are beneficial to their livelihoods.

But according to workshop participants there is still room for improvement.

Carlos Lucas of Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo, Mozambique, summarised the views of the workshop participants on collaboration and innovation in calling for closer collaboration among African universities, with African governments funding research operations - especially those of direct benefit to producers of material wealth.