Bold new charter aims for balance in North-South partnerships

Imagine a world in which African universities dominate scientific research focused on communities in North America or Europe. It sounds absurd and skewed, and yet a simple reversal of that scenario captures the present-day reality of much of the global research ecosystem.

A far-reaching new charter seeks to rebalance this ecosystem, and give African research its rightful position as an equal player in global scientific production.

The initiative, which has the endorsement of the Association of African Universities and key higher education and academic organisations in Africa, was presented during a panel discussion at the 13th edition of the Reinventing Higher Education conference hosted by IE University based in Spain and South Africa’s University of Cape Town (UCT) from 5-7 March.

Thus far, the initiative has been facilitated by two universities in Africa – UCT and the University of South Africa (UNISA), although more African universities are expected to join – and the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom where a unique unit known as the Perivoli Africa Research Centre (PARC) is the base out of which the idea for the charter emerged.

Power imbalance

Describing the research ecosystem that gives rise to the need for the charter, panellist Isabella Aboderin, director of PARC and Perivoli Chair in African Research and Partnerships, cited UNESCO World Science data statistics which show that more than 85% of research done in Africa is conducted in collaboration with the Global North, representing a “huge power imbalance” which underpins so much, if not most, of the research on the continent.

“Most of the debates about forging more equitable partnerships have so far been conceived and developed by actors in the Global North,” said Aboderin. “I would suggest that these sidestep the need for a more fundamental change that is required in Global North-Africa research relations.”

Aboderin said the current development framework imposed by the Global North delimits the field of inquiry deemed relevant for the continent. “There’s a unidirectional gaze – with Africa as a site of deficit,” she said. “Never is the gaze returned and hardly ever is it reversed.”

In an interview with University World News at the close of the conference, Aboderin and her co-panellist Divine Fuh, head of HUMA – the Institute for Humanities in Africa at UCT, fleshed out what upending the ‘unidirectional gaze’ of existing North-South collaborations might practically mean for universities in the Global North.

“It might mean that my university might need to change its policies to routinely take the role of junior partner in collaborations with the Global South,” said Aboderin.

“Or that, instead of a unidirectional gaze which positions Africa as the subject rather than the investigator, the research project is always comparative in nature. Or that the gaze is actually reversed and Africans get to interpret what is happening in the North,” she said, pointing to the existence of the African Centre for the Study of the United States based at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, as an example of gaze reversal.

“Or universities say: ‘We are going to set aside, at least in social sciences, existing theories and constructs and start afresh and try to generate a set of alternative Africa-centred approaches’ … this has to be enshrined in institutional policy, otherwise it’s not going to change.”

Emphasising the necessity of a systemic approach to transforming global research rather than tinkering with individual collaborations, she said: “If you look at all the metrics of research – the number of researchers active in global science, outputs, citations and, of course, rankings, you will see that, on all metrics, African scholars and institutions, with the exception of very few, are nowhere.

“And then you need to appreciate that, where a region or country fits in the global research ecosystem has huge repercussions for their political and economic prospects for their place in the global political economy,” she said.

“Because virtually all the research done on the continent is done in collaboration with the Global North, those collaborations have the potential to be transformative. Or, put differently, because such collaborations are a major constituent of the larger, complex science system in which Africa is engaging, they can become a leverage point for rebalancing the system as a whole.

“How do they become transformative? It’s not enough to work at issues of division of labour in particular projects, issues such as who gets to be first author on research outputs, who holds the budget … these are important, but they are symptoms of a much more fundamental power imbalance and, if these research collaborations are to be transformative, they have to redress the fundamental power asymmetries in addition to the more practical arrangements,” she said.

Philanthropy masquerading as science

Fuh told University World News it was time to be honest about the ties between scientific research in Africa and philanthropy, ties which see a large proportion of development assistance come in the guise of research funding – with a specific agenda or development framework.

“If you look at many countries across Africa, whether they are academics or science councils or any of the major institutions that fund scientific research in Africa, they receive their money from development assistance.

“While it is great they are receiving money, it is problematic (not for the Global North, of course – it makes sense that ‘my’ foreign policy should receive priority when I provide resources) but for the globe, because it means there is a lot of fascinating and important research in Africa that could happen but never will.”

Fuh’s argument is that, if you come from the South, your participation in global scientific production and research initiatives is already limited.

Describing this situation as “extraversion”, a concept attributed to Beninese philosopher Paulin Hountondji to describe Africa’s orientation to external sources of authority, Fuh said finding another way to fund science beyond philanthropy and development assistance was imperative, not just for Africa, but for the benefit of the globe.

Pure research of the sort that gave rise after hundreds of years to the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, could never be conducted today in Africa due to the impact-oriented requirements of research funding, he said. “You would never do that [kind of research] on the African continent any more. It needs to be tied to what has been defined as a development priority.”

“When you limit people to do research on 17 different priorities,” he said, referring to the SDGs, “mostly about poverty and public health, it must lead to people’s development. Hundreds of years of researching in advance of the Collider didn’t give anybody extra oxygen, but it has meant we understand fundamentals – how protons and atoms work and we have AI – all because someone had the vision to allow people to waste money.

“Good research is about wasting money, but also knowing it is important to do that because we need to understand something in depth and that curiosity-driven research leads to something else.

“What we’ve done in Africa is to push researchers to abdicate thinking. You don’t have to think. We’ve done it for you. Science has become working with answers, not questions.

“When I talk about equitable partnerships, people think it’s about money, but it’s about these deep conceptual issues.”

Taking up the argument, Aboderin said beyond governments, philanthropic foundations, too, typically orient their research to a development framework which constrains the kind of research done on the continent.

She said such a framework not only delimits areas deemed relevant for inquiry on the continent, it also imposes a set of problematics.

“Already, the frame implies an account of what the problem is; and what kinds of solutions are required. These accounts don’t build on real understandings of the problematics, or desired solutions as they are conceived ‘on the ground’.

“For example, solutions are always sought at the micro, meso or macro level within societies, but never extend to the question of the global dynamics and imbalances that underpin many of the problems in the first place.”

Change agent

Taking on the global research ecosystem from a base in the UK appears paradoxical, but Aboderin said establishing PARC with funding from the Perivoli Trust about three years ago and taking on the role of its director made sense only because she had a clear vision of PARC as a potential change agent. And members of the PARC academic team firmly consider themselves members of the diaspora.

“I had a very strong sense of what I needed to do. It wasn’t to perpetuate or increase Bristol’s footprint in Africa and its number of research projects with Africa because, to me, that is part of the problem.

“I see PARC as a potential change agent, helping to fundamentally shift the way, at least the University of Bristol, engages with the continent, to try to catalyse a more systemic shift.”

There is strong support from the University of Bristol for the shift.

Pro vice-chancellor and vice president for global engagement Professor Agnes Nairn told University World News the university was “proud to be home” to PARC and is “fully supportive” of the charter.

“We believe strongly that the research ecosystem needs to be transformed and the power balance between the Global North and Africa redressed."

She said the principles, goals and guiding frameworks of the charter framework will be used across the university’s research portfolio to ensure it plays its part in facilitating research “in Africa, for Africa, by Africa”.

Since PARC’s birth, there has been “joint thinking” about PARC’s vision with Fuh at HUMA (Institute for Humanities in Africa), and Puleng Segalo, the Chief Albert Luthuli Chair at UNISA.

“We worked to develop intellectual underpinnings for the initiative. But what was always important was that this project should speak to and express directions for change as they are prioritised in the continent. It’s an Africa-centred framework,” said Aboderin.

Facilitated by PARC, UNISA and HUMA, and through discussions in a meeting in Accra in late January, a loose coalition of key African higher education constituencies agreed to pursue the co-creation of a guiding framework as a joint endeavour.

The group includes the Association of African Universities, the African Research Universities Alliance, or ARUA, the African Academy of Sciences, the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), the Inter-University Council for East Africa (IUCEA), the Association of West African Universities (AWAU), the International Network for Higher Education in Africa (INHEA, University of KwaZulu-Natal) and the African Union Commission (AUC).

This will culminate in the launch on 23 June formally – also in Accra – of an initial framework or charter initiative that will kick off the process of articulating basic principles for the reconfiguration of collaborations and set out goals for policy change.

Aboderin said that, once launched, a process to secure broader political buy-in would begin that would include funders, institutions and key global academic networks and encourage them to endorse the principles and commit to ensuring that they find their way into institutional processes and policies.

“We need to make sure we develop a mode to keep this framework alive so we can hold those who’ve signed up to their promise, track what changes they are making, learn from them and foster continued engagement and exchange around the issue.” A website and a mechanism to drive the tracking, and learning, would need to be anchored in Africa, she said.

Ambitious but non-negotiable

Both academics admit the project is ambitious but, at the same time, non-negotiable.

“We have to try because this is so foundational. Yes, it is easy to talk and, at end of the day, it’s a political process and it means certain parts of the world have to cede power and money – and this includes institutions but also governments. One has to carry on and hope one can make some inroads, but I am confident that fundamental change is possible, maybe not in my lifetime, but eventually,” said Aboderin.

African scholars are increasingly realising Africa’s potential influence in the current global research environment, which can be used to its advantage.

“The Global North wants to collaborate with Africa,” said Aboderin. “Research relationships pay off in terms of rankings, funding, influence, and so on. The UK, for example, is clear about the need for strategic investments in international research collaborations: because they increase the country’s global influence, open up markets, strengthen soft power, and boost British companies. The continent needs to seize its power and it needs to seize it and say: ‘If you want to work with us, these are the terms’.”

The ultimate goal is an improved global research ecosystem, which benefits both North and South.

“It’s not a project just for Africa … it’s a project for the world. We do this because we are actually concerned about the world. If we don’t do it, we will have serious problems,” said Fuh.