Report calls for more emphasis on inequalities research

A scarcity of funds for research and lack of academic freedom in universities across Sub-Saharan Africa are key drivers to low academic scholarship, including inequalities research, according to a joint report by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization or UNESCO, the International Social Science Council and the University of Sussex.

The World Social Science Report 2016 says the knowledge gap in Sub-Saharan Africa is not just in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields; the problem is deemed to be particularly acute in the production of social science research publications on inequalities and social justice.

According to Françoise Caillods, a senior adviser at the International Social Science Council, Sub-Saharan Africa produced only 3.2% of total global peer-reviewed publications on inequalities and social justice between 1992 and 2013.

“The issue is serious, taking into account that the study of inequality and social justice has become the research domain par excellence of social scientists globally,” said Caillods, who is also a former deputy director at the UNESCO-backed International Institute for Educational Planning.

More academic voices

The crux of the matter is that while researchers in the economic, social and behavioural sciences traditionally published the highest number of articles on inequality, other disciplines such as education, health sciences, gender studies and social psychology are now adding their voices and deepening our understanding of the diverse experiences of inequality.

“Historians, anthropologists, philosophers and other arts and humanities specialists have also been writing on the subject of inequalities and social justice,” said Caillods, who contributed a chapter to the report on the global knowledge divide and disparities in research capacities across countries.

Commenting on the neglect of social science research in the Sub-Saharan and other developing regions, notably Latin America, the Commonwealth of Independent States, Arab states and South Asia, the report said inequalities should be major concerns for social scientists globally.

The report urges social scientists in Sub-Saharan Africa to fight against academic marginalisation and publish relevant research on inequality and social justice. It notes that over 80% of peer-reviewed publications on inequality in the past 20 years were produced by researchers based in North America and Western Europe and very few of such studies emanate from where those most affected by the bottom-end of global inequality live.

Poor funding

In this regard, the report attributes the biggest inequalities in social science performance to poor funding for higher education and research. Commenting on the issue, Emmanuel Akyeampong, the Oppenheimer Faculty Director at the Center for African Studies at Harvard University in the US, says social science in Sub-Saharan Africa suffers from marketisation of research and a lack of public funding.

“In essence, most governments in Sub-Saharan Africa are investing too little in research in social sciences, a drawback that is hampering research on the long-term impact of inequality on societies and communities in their countries,” Akyeampong told University World News.

Apart from South Africa, available statistics indicate that the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa has fallen in its share of world social science production and there are no signs of recovery in the near future. The diminishing share of African social science production does not reflect a decrease in an absolute sense, but rather an increase in publication output lower than the global growth rate.

Highest producers

Using the Scopus Citation Index, the report shows that South Africa produced 8,296 peer-reviewed publications on social science between 2008 and 2013 and was ranked at 22 globally, while Nigeria, the second highest producer in the region, was in position 44 with 2,056 publications, followed by Kenya with 784 papers in 58th position.

The paucity of research in social science in Sub-Saharan Africa is reflected in the fact that during the period under review, 10 countries produced less than 10 peer-reviewed publications, not just in the area of inequalities and social justice, but in social science as a whole.

Those countries were the Democratic Republic of the Congo (9), Cape Verde (9), Seychelles (8), Gambia (8), Somalia (6), Equatorial Guinea (4), Guinea (4), Chad (3), Guinea-Bissau (2) Comoros (1) and Djibouti (1). Six other countries, Sierra Leone (18), Burundi (14), Angola (14), Liberia (13), Central African Republic (12) and Eritrea (11), produced fewer than 20 papers.

According to UNESCO, 75% of academic publications from Sub-Saharan Africa cited in the Web of Science database in the last two decades come from social scientists from a handful of universities in South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya.

Rich research potential

Commenting on the issue, Jimi Adesina, a professor at the College of Graduate Studies at the University of South Africa, says Sub-Saharan Africa is almost missing out in the global research agenda on inequality and social justice, an area of rich social science research potential and one that creates awareness of inequalities and how to close the gaps.

“It is in our interest to understand the impact of inequalities, as there are indicators that poverty will continue to be concentrated in most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa,” said Adesina.

Noting that over 80% of publications on inequality come from the North, Director-General of UNESCO Irina Bokova said: “To overcome inequalities in the South, we need not just robust knowledge in the subject, but the challenge is for social scientists in disadvantaged regions to mobilise the knowledge of the social and human sciences to inform policies and decisions that would reduce conflict and violence, and shift towards more equitable and inclusive societies.”

Towards this goal, the report roots for a research agenda that is interdisciplinary, globally inclusive, and focused on pathways towards greater equality. It urges social science in Sub-Saharan Africa to start addressing issues related to staggering poverty and social injustice and give a political voice to victims of existing inequalities. However, without resources and academic freedom, it is unclear how African scholars are to fulfil that mandate.