The need to foster and develop research collaborations between researchers and institutions across Africa and with their counterparts in Europe has been a long-standing preoccupation for research policymakers and institutions. For example in 2009 the British Academy and Association of Commonwealth Universities’ Nairobi Report set out a comprehensive framework for Africa-UK research collaboration in the social science and humanities . Despite this focus, the challenges that such collaborations seek to address have endured.
Rooted in the recommendations of the Nairobi Report, the British Academy funded Writing and Researching Inequality in Africa (WARiA) programme has been established to support research capacity building in Africa among early career researchers (ECRs) and postgraduate students, to build institutional links between African and European research institutes and universities and develop global research networks. The research focus of the project is the political economy of inequality in Africa, with the programme providing monthly online workshops over a 6-month period and concluding with an online policy conference, where participants have the opportunity to disseminate their research. Twenty-five ECRs and postgraduate students, predominantly from South Africa and Nigeria, have taken part in the programme and been supported by mentors, who are established academics from Africa and Europe. In addition to the workshop programme and conference, the programme is developing a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) designed to provide open access resources and training that will be freely available to all.
The rationale for projects such as WARiA reflects the existing challenges facing many African universities. These include unmet infrastructural and institutional needs, increasing class sizes, and the ‘brain drain’ of academic staff to other countries (Kingiri, Hanlin et al 2019). Such challenges persist despite the efforts of various institutional initiatives and the advances in government policies and programmes across Africa (as well as in Asia and Latin America) particularly in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. O’ Brien and Arvanitis (2019) argue that in this context governments have placed increased emphasis on higher education, research and business innovation, as key contributors to knowledge-based growth and development. The rising prominence of theories of endogenous growth within economic development policy has prompted a narrowing of the North-South divide in research capacity and spending. Research collaborations have also increased, with co-authorships buoyed by the creation of new research networks, including strengthened South-South research cooperation (O’ Brien and Arvanitis 2019).
The emphasis placed on the knowledge-based economy, particularly in the wake of crisis, highlights the generative and developmental roles African universities are increasingly asked to play (Kingiri, Hanlin et al 2019). Within the narratives of the ‘developmental university’ there is a particular emphasis on the indigenisation of knowledge (through the stimulation of new research and innovations that are rooted in and reflect the needs of local populations) that brings benefits to marginalised populations whilst also building capacities to absorb new knowledge (Unterhalter, Allais et al 2018; Kingiri, Hanlin et al 2019). Despite these efforts, multiple challenges remain for African universities to improve their contribution to meaningful economic and social change (Kingiri, Hanlin et al 2019). Moreover, while there has been a narrowing of the gap in the North South divide, longstanding inequalities in research investment and capacity endure. Allais et al (2018:139) point to the huge funding challenges they face, particularly in resource -constrained environments where there are there are multiple competing demands on public budgets.
In this context there have been numerous initiatives to support research capacity building in Africa, for example the Royal Society-FCDO Africa Capability Building Initiative https://royalsociety.org/grants-schemes-awards/grants/africa-capacity-building/. Such efforts tend to focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects, with relatively fewer opportunities to undertake research collaborations and build capacity in the social sciences. Kingiri, Hanlin et al (2019) argue this undermines the wider developmental role of universities by missing the contributions that social sciences graduates and researchers make to social change and innovation. This point is reinforced by Mkandawire (2009) in his forward to the Nairobi Report in 2009 (BA& ACU 2009). Programmes that have focussed on the social sciences have delivered positive outcomes. For example, the evaluation of the African Network for Economics, Learning and Competence Building (AfricaLics) Project showed significant success and high levels of satisfaction from the participants (Kingiri, Hanlin et al 2019). This project, created in 2012 focused on social sciences training, particularly in innovation studies, and included training for PhD students and supervisors, a visiting fellows programme, networking opportunities, small collaborative research grants, an online forum, and curriculum development.
The review of the project concluded with a number of policy and practice recommendations (Kingiri, Hanlin et al 2019). First rather than focusing on full PhD and Master’s level programmes, more attention should be paid to shorter term post graduate training activities for individual competence and institutional capacity building. Such training can augment the skills and support provided for students in their home universities. Second, capacity building programmes need to have significant institutional buy-in and support from senior academic staff, particularly through the involvement of research active staff. Third the creation of networks of researchers across universities and countries, underpinned by strong one-to-one relationships, are vitally important. Opportunity to build such networks are often missed due to institutional pressures and the lack of resources to enable African researchers to attend international events. Projects that develop and enhance formal and informal networks across countries, career stages and projects are therefore essential (Kingiri, Hanlin et al 2019). What should not be ignored also are the opportunities that Covid-19 has provided in developing such networks due to the advances in use of online facilities.
When located in the post crisis (financial and covid) context, the contributions that research collaborations can offer individuals, institutions, and research communities, appear positive. However, any such assessment and commitment to developing future collaborations should first recognise, reflect on and address the structures of power that North-South relations rest on. This calls to attention not only the relations between individuals, but also the nature of institutional structures and systems of knowledge. Nyamnjoh (2012) points to education in Africa being victim of a resilient colonial and colonising epistemology, embedded in the politics of global competitiveness in which African creativity, agency and value systems are devalued, and a sense of inadequacy is internalised. This prompts Kingiri, Hanlin et al (2019) to argue new theories, methods, and indicators are needed to address the challenges facing research and researchers. Central to this is the proliferation of South South partnerships, with southern intellectual leadership driving new thinking and knowledge production.
These are concerns and recommendations that we have reflected on and sought to address in designing the WARiA programme. The programme has focused on providing support for the development of the participants own research projects and ideas, and opportunities for knowledge exchange and collaboration, for example through online discussion forums and groupwork. The monthly workshops have provided training in key competences and skill development such as generating impact, publishing research, applying for funding, and managing projects. Through the support of senior research active academics drawn from institutions across Africa and Europe who have provided contributions as keynote contributors and as mentors for each of the participants, the programme has laid the foundations for ongoing research networks and partnerships. The policy conference on the 2nd of March 2022 will provide an important opportunity for participants to disseminate their research and share their ideas with a wider audience. By building a MOOC based on the workshop programme, researchers from across Africa and beyond will also have opportunity to share and engage with this common resource.
To register for the Writing and Researching the Political Economy of Africa policy conference on the 2nd March 2022 visit this link
To find out more about the WARiA Programme visit this link:
O’ Brien, D. and Arvanitis, R. ( 2019) ‘The transformation of Research in the South: An Introduction ‘ in Arvanitis, R. and O’Brien, D (eds). The Transformation of Research in the South Marseille: IRD Editions
The British Academy and Association of Commonwealth Universities [BA&ACU] (2009) The Nairobi Report: Frameworks for Africa-UK Research Collaboration in the Social Sciences and Humanities London: The British Academy/Association of Commonwealth Universities
Kingiri, A Hanlin R Tigabu, A. Holm Andersen, M. (2019) ‘Strengthening Innovation and Development-Research capacity in African UNiversites’ in Arvanitis, R. and O’Brien, D (eds). The Transformation of Research in the South Marseille: IRD Editions
Nyamnjoh, F. B. (2012) ‘Potted Plants in Greenhouses’: A Critical Reflection on the Resiliance of Colonial Education in Africa’ Journal of Asian and African Studies 47:2 https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0021909611417240
Unterhalter, E. , Allais, S., Howelll, C, Morley, L, Oanda, I, Oketch, M (2018) Conceptualising Higher Education and the Public Good in Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa Conference paper: Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) Mexico City