How to undo the disconnect between researchers, policy-makers
There is a ‘disconnect’ between policy-makers and researchers and, to some extent, even the community, said Sanusi Bello Shamaki, a professor at the Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto, north-west Nigeria.
He is co-author of a paper, ‘Desertification in the Sahel Region: A product of climate change or human activities? A case of desert encroachment monitoring in north-western Nigeria using remote sensing techniques’, published by the Swiss open-access publisher Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute, or MDPI, earlier in 2022.
The authors, from universities, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and public bodies in Nigeria, Germany and Ireland, warned that, if nothing is done, at the current rate by 2040, sand dunes may cover about 20% of the present landmass of the study area, which is [the] northern regions within Yobe state, north-east Nigeria.
It suggested several solutions to overcome this issue, mainly caused by human activities, such as “adoption of sustainable energy-saving stoves”. Yet, thus far, these findings have not even prompted a reaction from the government of Nigeria, a country whose northern flank is threatened by desertification, said Shamaki.
He believes policy-makers fail to implement research findings because “they are not going to make money out of it”, and the society at large, who would benefit from such findings, sometimes even regard researchers as people who are trying to do something that will stop their usual activities. Overall, researchers in Africa are just invited for roundtable discussions, he observed.
Besides, to get more visibility, papers should be published in internationally reputable journals which charge very high fees, or impose very strict conditions on publishing, explained this expert in forestry inventory and biometrics.
Given that many African scientists get limited funding from governments and universities, forcing them to use their personal income for studies, which is not enough for their domestic needs, this work can be discouraging, said Shamaki.
But academics persist. Between June 2021 and May 2022, the universities in North Africa and the Sahel regions generating the most papers on earth and environmental studies were Makerere University, Uganda; Cadi Ayyad University, Morocco, and Egypt’s Helwan University and Zagazig University. That is according to Nature Index, a database that captures all affiliation information of primary research articles published within 82 science journals.
According to Shamaki, African researchers usually see their efforts followed up practically only if they work in projects monitored by some international organisations, such as the Great Green Wall, an African Union-led ecological restoration project in Sahel, working with the secretariat of the United Nations (UN) Convention to Combat Desertification.
In most cases, he explained, such cooperation happens before the research itself, but sometimes it also results from research ideas being forwarded to the international organisation. Then, only through such collaborations, their research gets more respect from government officials because they associate it with potential funding, he added.
One of the entities taking research and literature in very high consideration is the United Nations’ International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), a UN specialist agency which is also an international financial institution, said Romina Cavatassi, lead economist of IFAD’s research and impact assessment division.
Research is “particularly important” to promote progress in the environment, climate and social inclusion, she argued, stressing that IFAD supports researchers through grants, and promotes and uses work with research centres and universities which leads to collaborative outputs and publications.
For instance, said Cavatassi, the IFAD’s Climate Adaptation in Rural Development – Assessment Tool was developed “to explore the effects of climate change on the yield of major crops and used to better design projects with the most suitable crops” for a warming planet.
This tool has already been used in some West African countries and was developed in collaboration with a number of academics, researchers and institutions, she said.
Researchers’ flexibility needed
Researchers can also be their own worst enemy in reducing practical applications of their work, however. Shamaki noted that “most researchers pay more attention to some aspect of the research”, for instance, physics, but miss social aspects, which compromises any serious suggestions for its implementation, when they should be more flexible and cooperate with scientists from other areas.
Likewise, some policies fail just because community citizens are left out of the process of formulating them, added the lecturer, suggesting that scientists should try as much as possible to involve the communities impacted by the project by, for instance, choosing citizens to become field assistants.
They should also involve community leaders, either traditional or religious leaders who are more respected in Africa than government officials, and local non-governmental organisations to achieve community engagement.
Similarly, public-public partnerships, whereby two public entities cooperate, have also achieved positive results, said Shamaki.
He participated, for instance, in the Nigeria National Forest (Carbon) Inventory between 2018 and 2019, which was sponsored by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, which worked with the project alongside universities, research institutes, NGOs, Nigeria’s federal department of forestry and other relevant ministries.
Cavatassi advised environmental academics to cooperate with “investment institutions or implementation centres ... to talk to policy and decision-makers”.
Then they could formulate hypotheses and questions in a collaborative way and generate scenarios signposting different potential developments linked to policies, if possible directly linked to national and international policies, such as National Adaptation Plans, which help countries to conduct comprehensive medium- and long-term climate adaptation planning, she said.
Additionally, the economist suggested that academics increasingly use the new opportunities provided by information and communications technology and social media ... to ensure they are answering the relevant questions nowadays and in the future and to have people’s engagement and buy-in and their understanding that actually, with better and more sustainable management, the challenges can be overcome.
Cavatassi considers that researchers can contribute to improving policies even in countries with dysfunctional governments: “Research that contributes to governments’ progress towards achieving ... national and international commitments, is potentially a key and effective entry point,” she argued.
Shamaki hoped that academics’ advocacy efforts would cause citizens to demand better governance, because, for now, given the dominant “abject poverty and illiteracy”, “politics in Africa is about money” and leaders “don’t understand the concept of these activities”.
Also, the lecturer recommended more researchers’ penetration of the political class, making relationships with politicians and officials without the need to actually participate actively in politics, instead of distancing themselves from politicians, which is often the case today.
The need for imaginative ideas to fight desertification is particularly clear in North Africa.
Take Tunisia: Mohamed Zmerli, the director general of that country’s environment ministry’s National Coordination Unit on Climate Change told University World News that desertification is being generated by the “deliberate removal of woods and the population’s growth at the expense of green spaces in Tunisia”. His ministry says that 80% of Tunisia is threatened by desertification.
And, while the government has a solution-oriented plan to combat desertification for the period 2018-30, to protect 2.2 million hectares of land from degradation by 2030, the integration of academia with this work could be better, say some specialists.
For instance, “the media is not fully engaged in raising awareness of the great danger that is brought by climate change”, said a masters-qualified journalism trainer and international video journalist reporter, Mabrouka Khedir.
“As long as we do not have a vigilant generation when it comes to environmental matters and as long as we do not teach them about the environment and sustainable development, we cannot achieve any goals when it comes to protecting our environment. We need to teach youth about environmental awareness to have a generation that can protect their nature and environment,” Khedir told University World News.
Mariem Ayadi, an academic and environmental researcher at the Centre of Biotechnology of Sfax in Tunisia, added that there is a lack of follow-up of environmental researchers’ ideas and solutions in Tunisia.
“There is no significant buy-in from civil society and the government for environmental researchers and academics in Tunisia. There are many PhD holders and researchers that have numerous pieces of research related to waste management, climate change and others, but their research and ideas were never achieved, and they end up on the shelf as masters degrees or PhD theses,” she said.
Even projects with foreign financial support only yielded policy influence while that funding lasted, with the ministry not providing follow-up finance, she said.
“This shows the need for environmental researchers and academics in Africa to ... get buy-in from civil society and the government for their proposals and policies,” said Hamdi Chebaane, a Tunisian environmental expert and activist with campaign group Tunisie Verte.
These political follow-up weaknesses are “not only related to environmental projects or plans – it is a common one for all ministries and government administrations,” said Zmerli. “This is due to the slow pace of Tunisian administrations and a lack of qualifications among those in charge of project implementation,” he added.
To succeed, ministries need experts “with experience in fieldwork from the ministry’s administration and the one with the scientific knowledge from research centres, to find environmental solutions, especially for climate-change matters,” he said.
Combining political and administrative expertise with academic support for environmental issues should be prioritised because “the environment does not affect only nature, it has an effect on agriculture, energy, the health sector, construction, coastline, and natural resources,” said the senior ministry official.