Research quality on rise in African social sciences

This month, at Africa’s biggest gathering of social scientists, the quality of papers and depth of reflection made it clear that universities are turning a corner. “It indicated significant recovery taking place in higher education systems,” said Dr Ebrima Sall, executive secretary of CODESRIA – the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa.

The 14th General Assembly of CODESRIA and a scientific conference were held in the Senegalese capital Dakar from 8-12 June, under the theme “Creating African Futures in an Era of Global Transformations: Challenges and prospects”.

The general assembly is held every three or so years, and returned to Dakar in West Africa after roaming around the continent for more than a decade – Kampala in East Africa, Maputo in Southern Africa, Yaounde in Central Africa and the last one in Morocco in North Africa.

‘Creating African Futures’

“The ‘Creating African Futures’ theme was a way of connecting with discussions about the future of Africa that are happening at various levels,” Sall told University World News in an interview afterwards.

“We were not only referring to the whole ‘Africa rising’ discussion, which needs to be problematised.” There was interest in “looking beyond crisis and reconnecting with a tradition of planning and thinking long-term”, which had been abandoned for various reasons – such as the World Bank structural adjustment programmes of the 1980s and 1990s.

“Governments weren’t encouraged to do any kind of planning or long-term thinking but to engage in short-term poverty reduction strategies,” said Sall, himself a well-known scholar.

Earlier this year the African Union adopted a very long-term plan, Agenda 2063, discussions around which began during the 50th anniversary of the union’s predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity, in 2013. African leaders started thinking about the next 50 years.

At national level, around 18 African countries have produced “programmes of emergence. Most African countries are interested in emerging out of crisis and leaping forward into development in some way.”

As a social sciences body, typically CODESRIA’s conferences focus on a theme that speaks to current preoccupations of the continent. This year’s theme was “also a way of getting the research community to begin taking reflections about the future very seriously”, said Sall.

“Future studies is not the most developed of fields in African universities and this was one way in which we could get the word out that the community should be taking greater interest in studies and processes that are long-term, not necessarily overlooking the realities of the present or forgetting the past but being aware of having another perspective than the present by having an eye on where you want to get to from here.”

The conference

The conference attracted 500 participants, from Africa and around the world, and comprised plenaries, round tables and parallel sessions, with more than 100 papers presented on a range of fields, themes and sub-themes.

There were respected keynote speakers including Carlos Lopes, executive secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, who spoke about how to project beyond challenges of the moment and achieve structural transformation.

Alioune Sall, director of the African Futures Institute at the University of South Africa, talked about future studies and had a critical take on the Agenda 2063, while outgoing CODESRIA President Fatima Harrak focused on the ‘Muslim question’.

One interesting theme was how to transcend the fundamentalisms of various kinds that are prevalent in Africa, what societies are saying about them and how to build “societies that are more tolerant and democratic where you don’t have that problem”. There were presentations from a gender perspective, on Boko Haram and on fundamentalism in East Africa.

There was also a focus on health, looking at epidemic prevention and control, including what to learn from the traumatising West African experience with Ebola. And there was a panel comprising people from Asia, Europe and Africa that debated the need to rethink South-South relationships as part of the transformation of global relations.

“One could see a community engaging with a number of issues that are of great importance to the continent today. There is a dynamism in the social sciences and humanities that was clear, and there are new directions. It was a very vibrant and lively discussion,” said Sall. One of the messages that came out clearly was that “the future is right here”.

The papers were high quality and the reflections were deep, he continued. While this had to do with a stringent selection process, “it also means there are improvements going on in African universities and that the scientific community is turning a corner”.

The previous CODESRIA scientific conference produced some 12 books, and the body hopes that this month’s event will also generate substantial publication. “We’re discussing different options to publish as many of the papers as we can.”

CODESRIA business

This year’s was a special assembly, Sall told University World News. Last year CODESRIA turned 40 and amid the celebrations it commissioned three reports – on membership and governance, on management, and on CODESRIA’s intellectual agenda.

The first has been completed, the others are due in September and all three were presented at the general assembly.

“They are part of a comprehensive, internal review of CODESRIA, not commissioned by funders but coming from within CODESRIA itself. We’re talking about the future of Africa but we also need to think of CODESRIA – as it is now, where we need to improve and what new roads we need to chart.”

The governance review made several recommendations and a number of amendments to the charter to improve governance and ensure that CODESRIA is “well prepared to face current challenges and also to assume the initiative over the coming years”.

A major change, for example, is moving away from electing two people from each of Africa’s five regions to the CODESRIA executive committee. “CODESRIA is a scholarly organisation and there is probably a better way of representing the scholarly community than sub-regions.”

From now, election to the executive committee will be on the basis of capacity and standing in the African scholarly community. A panel will be created to review nominations.

A second important amendment is that voting will not only involve academics who attend the general assembly. “We will make use of technology to have the possibility of electronic voting being done well before the general assembly. That will enable a lot more people to participate in the decision-making process,” Sall explained.

A new executive committee has meanwhile been elected, combining new and returning members from the regions.

The new president of CODESRIA is Dzodzi Tsikata, a legal professor and gender activist in the Institute of Statistical Social and Economic Research at the University of Ghana. “In the past 12 years we’ve had four women presidents out of five,” said Sall.

“The general assembly wants to be a moment when we discuss science and research and where it is going, and also a moment when we think about the council itself and what it ought to do to be able to fulfill its mission.”

View from the outside

In an article published by the USA Africa Dialogue Series, participant Abdoulaye Saine, a professor and distinguished scholar in the department of political science at Miami University, described the general assembly as a “resounding success”.

“While the primary goal of the general assembly was administrative, it was its intellectual plank that glued together and gave thematic coherence to the participants and events for five days in this truly royal King Fahd Palace Hotel – overlooking the Atlantic and facing the beautiful island of N'Gor,” wrote Saine, adding later:

“The conference was truly a ‘Who is Who’ in the global African-Africanist community. It included among many others the world-renowned political-economist Samir Amin, a one-time executive secretary of CODESRIA, Mahmood Mamdani, Peter Anyang' Nyong’o, Fatima Harrak and Fatou Sow – just to name a few.”

Alioune Sall's ‘Futures’ keynote address, Saine continued, sparked “debate and controversy in all languages”. With French, Portuguese and English commonly spoken, as well as Arabic, CODESRIA conferences are highly multilingual, with translators to bridge language divides.

“Here was a gathering of Africa's best scholars, thinkers and activists – all deliberating on Africa's past, current and future. Africa and its diverse peoples were their primary concerns – not as a site or byproduct of some diabolical imperial scheme but at centre stage.

“African agency informed the proceedings to support policy-making. Without illusion and certainly with much debate and candour, Africans tasked themselves with shaping their future(s) and that of the continent.”