Africa-UK research partnerships must aspire to more than “equity”

A new Africa charter for transformative research collaboration challenges global North universities to look at their preconceptions about international research engagement. Isabella Aboderin explains

Isabella Aboderin is Chair in Africa Research and Partnerships and Director of the Perivoli Africa Research Institute at the University of Bristol

Many UK universities consider efforts to consolidate or expand international research links with the global South, including Africa, to be of significant strategic importance. Such ties promise an increased global reach and impact of research, with attendant yields expected in rankings, REF scores and funding.

Amid the progressing expansion of UK-Africa higher education links – or, more unflatteringly, a contemporary “scramble” for connections in the continent – we see ubiquitous references to the need for “equitable partnerships” and a proliferation of practice-focused frameworks or tools for introducing greater fairness in partnerships arrangements. These tools aim to ensure proper mutuality in the division of labour, decisions about study foci and objectives, budgets, the use of data and samples, as well as in access to rewards, capacity building and the inclusion of non-academic stakeholders. In tandem, funding calls for Africa-focused “development” research increasingly require evidence of such equitable partnerships arrangements.

You might assume the stage is set for an equitable “win-win” expansion of UK-Africa university and research bonds: the continent’s development and research capacities are advanced, while the positioning and exposure of UK institutions in the global HE space is buttressed.

The new Africa Charter for transformative research collaborations, launched last month in conjunction with the biennial conference of rectors, vice-chancellors and principles of African Universities in Windhoek, now demands that we think otherwise. Co-created by the continent’s key higher education and science constituencies, the charter asserts a need to build on and go beyond present “equitable partnerships” thinking to advance a fundamental realignment of North (UK)-Africa research relations.

Starting from a new baseline

The charter’s points of departure are three-fold. The first is to acknowledge Africa’s deeply unfavourable positioning in the present global science and research ecosystem – as evidenced by all available metrics, ranging from the volume of researchers and scientific outputs produced to rankings at institutional and individual scholar levels.

The second is to recognise this positioning as neither accidental nor harmless. The latter, because it undermines the continent’s wider economic and political prospects and aspirations. The former, because it reflects multiple layers of power imbalances (or an uneven playing field) in scientific knowledge production that, as legacies of colonialism, continue to disadvantage the continent as well as constrain scholarship, globally.

The charter’s third starting point is a realisation of the sheer dominance of global North collaborations (especially with the US, UK, France and Australia) in Africa’s present scientific effort. In other words, such collaborations underpin the continent’s engagement with and location in the global science and research ecosystem.

Against this backdrop, the charter makes two main assertions. One is the urgent need for a fundamental rebalancing of the global science and research ecosystem overall: the goal must be for scholars, institutions and knowledges from the continent to take their rightful place in the global scientific effort – across the formal, natural and social sciences, arts and humanities. The charter sees such rebalancing as imperative – not only as a matter of undoing unjust hierarchies arising from colonial histories, but of fostering the richer, pluriversal scholarship the world needs to properly sustain human dignity and the planet.

The charter also insists that we must recognise Africa-North collaborations – precisely because they are so predominant as a critically important entry or leverage point for advancing a broader shift in the global science and research ecosystem. Such collaborations have the potential to be transformative. To this end, they must be configured not only to ensure fairness in partnership arrangements, but to actively redress each of the multi-layered power imbalances in scientific knowledge production.

This means at the level of the epistemologies, languages, theories and concepts used, at the level of the development frame that undergirds, indeed motivates most research collaborations, and which not only imposes a unidirectional gaze from North to Africa, but also delimits the fields deemed relevant for inquiry in/from the continent; and at the level of institutional capabilities and resourcing, including in data and physical infrastructures.

The pursuit of profound transformation

The challenge – besides working out how exactly to do this in practice; is to foster the necessary change – in individual mindsets and capabilities, in shared norms, in resource streams and, above all, in institutional and sector-wide policy and regulatory frameworks (the “rules of the game”) – to ensure a transformative collaboration mode is established as best and standard practice.

The charter articulates a set of broad aspirations for such policy change among universities themselves, research assessment bodies, funders, publishers and governments – within and outside of the continent. To say that the scale of the change envisaged and demanded by the charter is seismic isn’t fanciful.

Advocating for profound structural change is one thing, of course. There are likely many noble frameworks national, regional or international in scope that have sought (or seek) systemic shifts within the HE sector – but have, ultimately, come to little. What speaks for the charter escaping a similar fate? The confluence of several factors constitutes a theory of change whose end offers hope for a fruitful outcome.

The charter is framed explicitly as the start of what will become a much wider initiative and dedicated programme of work to advance the implementation of its principles and aspirations. The programme will comprise policy review and engagement across geographies; piloting and honing transformative research practice, further intellectual inquiry, and capacity strengthening for relevant stakeholder groups. The three facilitating institutions – UNISA, UCT and the University of Bristol – have allocated concrete resources for a secretariat to support and coordinate the evolving charter effort.

The charter’s principles and aspirations have been endorsed by an extraordinary open “coalition” of major, forward-thinking actors who have resolved to support and engage in the wider initiative and programme of work to implement them. This coalition is as large as it is broad: comprising more than 90 bodies, ranging from major African and global university networks and foremost public and private higher education institutions within the continent, to key universities from Europe, North America and Latin America. Additional, express support for the pursuit of the Charter has come from international bodies such as the International Science Council – while several funding agencies have signalled their willingness to engage seriously with the initiative.

But a final and possibly decisive factor is the present global “moment.” The crises and upheavals confronting us collectively are fostering an ever-wider acceptance of the need for radical change, for a disruption of the status quo – including for scholarship that provides alternatives to the monochrome logic and dominance of Western thought and models that, in so many ways, has driven the emergencies we face today.

This constellation together with the momentum its launch has generated, suggests that the charter will help drive a true transformation whose time has come.

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