Who wants to build research capacity in sub-Saharan Africa?

Developed countries have achieved their level of development through research that led to new technologies and their subsequent application. Developing countries now recognize the importance of research as a major driver of socio-economic advancement.

…in Africa, much of the research carried out is externally driven and therefore has limited relevance and impact in the countries where it takes place. Apart from failure by developing countries to finance their own research and hence determine their own research agenda, there is limited capacity to conduct research that leads to development of appropriate technology and a favourable policy environment.

This passage comes from the website of an EDULINK project called Building Research Capacity in African Countries; the project funded and implemented by the European Union. More on this in a moment.

So, building academic research capacity seems like a worthwhile endeavor, doesn’t it? So who wants it to partake? The EU governments aren’t the only ones. The Americans are in! The Senegalese are engaged! The Kenyans are thrilled! The Tanzanians are enthused!

To shift from my slightly flippant tone to a more serious review, I offer a few examples of initiatives aimed specifically at building research capacity in Africa – most which focus on sub-Saharan countries:

  • The African Research Capacity Initiative is sponsored by the UK Department for International Development and aims to address the “skills gap” at African universities. Their latest effort is to “form research consortia in Africa, arranging research exchange programmes between the UK and Sub-Saharan Africa and improve equipment and training in laboratories.”
  • On the European continent, the EDULINK initiative provides grants and programs – like the one mentioned above – to strengthen existing, or create new, international relations offices and quality assurance departments, with an end goal of building the research capacity of participating African (and other regions’) universities.
  • Across the ocean, a group of 7 American foundations started the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa in 2003. One of the Partnership’s goals was to build regional approaches to institution capacity building and research; another was to promote higher education research. After disseminating grants totaling $439,939,624 (no kidding!), the consortium closed in 2010.
  • On the African continent, the Association for African Universities (AAU) administers a three-year project in 2010 to improve the quality and relevance of university research in west and central Africa. This project is jointly founded by AAU and Canada’s West African Office of the International Development Research Centre.
  • Headquartered in Senegal, the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) was established in 1973 to develop a pan-African network of social science researchers and protect their academic freedom. Currently, CODESRIA works, inter alia, to strengthen institutions’ creation of social science knowledge. A list of 21 funding partners includes many UN groups, European governments, and US-based foundations.
  • On the other side of the continent, the East Africa Research and Innovation Management Association (EARIMA) is a new initiative that plans to “play a significant role in the professional development and capacity building of its members while promoting best practices in research management and administration.” The steering committee is composed of five African researchers, yet the capacity building is offered by the Irish African Partnership for Capacity Building (IAPCB).

I listed the funders for each project to make my point. It is not that I am certain that the funder has a great deal of control over the project’s day to day operations, successes, or future. Yet I do think it’s relevant that most of the initiatives come from outside the continent. And those that might be home-grown are provided for by non-African funds. If anyone knows a grass-roots organization aiming to build academic research capacity in Africa, I’d love to hear about it.

So, who is driving this agenda? If not researchers on the African continent, how invested are they in honing or developing their research skills? (Especially when many have such heavy teaching loads and other commitments.) Will any of these initiatives stick? Like so many things, I haven’t seen adequate reporting on the outcomes of these capacity building grants and projects. Irrespective of these outcomes, the global north governments and foundations continue to champion this cause.

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