Supporting African Scholars in the Social Sciences

This post is co-written by Constantine Manda and Rachel Strohm. Manda is a PhD candidate in political science at Yale University and an EASST fellow (Fall 2012). He’s also a co-founder of the Network of Impact Evaluation Researchers in Africa (NIERA) and the Impact Evaluation Lab at Tanzania’s Economic and Social Research Foundation (ESRF), both of which work to expand impact evaluation research in the continent. Strohm is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of California, Berkeley and a co-founder of the Mawazo Institute, a Nairobi-based research institute which helps East African women launch careers as academics.

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From left to right, University of Ghana and University of Makerere University Tower (Credit: Rachel Strohm and OER Africa)

African scholars are well-positioned to contribute to the study of the continent’s complex and rapidly evolving politics. However, their work is generally underrepresented in research on Africa. Only 1% of the world’s total output of scientific research comes from African universities, and the same figure likely holds for the social sciences. Even in the field of African Studies, only 15% of published articles are written by African scholars. What explains this low research output? And what can be done to better support African knowledge production?

We recently discussed these issues on a panel at the American Political Science Association’s annual meeting, along with Leonard Wantchekon (Princeton University and the African School of Economics). We agreed that African scholars face many challenges, primarily caused by a lack of domestic research funding, and highlighted several existing opportunities that can foster a more vibrant African research ecosystem. This post shares some of the highlights from our conversation.

One key challenge is the quality of PhD training. Enrollment in African universities has boomed since the 1990s, including at the PhD level. However, PhD students don’t always get the support they need from their professors. This happens because professors are often paid poorly and infrequently, and spend much of their time on outside consulting projects in order to earn an income. Further, many universities don’t require publications for students to earn PhDs, or for professors to gain tenure, which offers few incentives to conduct research. There are a variety of initiatives which provide social science training courses to African researchers, such as the African Economic Research Consortium, the Partnership for African Social and Governance Research, the Mawazo Institute’s PhD Scholars program, and CEGA’s own East Africa Social Science Translation Collaborative (EASST), but they are complementary to effective university training, not substitutes for them.

Another challenge is the high cost of doing research. African governments are beginning to offer more funding to academics, like the Kenyan National Research Fund does, but the amounts are still low. This means that African scholars often use less expensive methods, such as qualitative research, or off-the-shelf quantitative data, rather than organizing expensive, large-scale surveys. While these methods can be used to answer many important questions, they’re less likely to get published in top social science journals, which restricts the reach of African scholars’ work.

Many North American and European universities have stepped up to support African PhD students and fill the funding gap. In a surprising twist, there are more scholarships available for African students to study abroad than within their own countries. However, this isn’t a panacea. Many scholarships have restrictions on eligibility (just a few countries, or requiring students to return to their own countries after their studies). Female PhD students in particular may find it difficult to take advantage of foreign study offers, since they are often expected to serve as primary caregivers for their children, and student visas don’t typically allow one to bring their family along.

International research collaborations between Northern and African scholars can also provide a good platform for African research. A prominent example is Afrobarometer, which works with academics in 31 African countries to conduct public opinion polls and make the data freely available online. However, these collaborations can also limit African scholars’ intellectual freedom, as they must respond to foreign calls for funding rather than independently selecting their own projects. Their benefits also tend to be unevenly distributed. Many African scholars don’t collaborate with any international partners, while a smaller number — predominantly those who have degrees from Northern universities — say that they receive far more requests for collaboration than they can meet and that their research is often lauded for its contextual information and not necessarily its intellectual contribution.

Despite these ever present challenges in the African research environment, deep investments in African scholars is one way to help bridge the gap towards larger, structural changes in the continent. In one of our experiences (Manda), training in Northern institutions such as the University of California, Berkeley through CEGA’s EASST Fellowship, for instance, not only strengthened the skills necessary to be an independent researcher but also provided links with top scholars based in such institutions, generating positive impacts on African scholars and their respective countries. This impact multiplies when scholars return to their countries and train others. Since the fellowship, I (Manda) have trained over 250 students, faculty, and government officials across the continent and am now assuming the role of Director of the Impact Evaluation Lab at ESRF.

Programs like EASST are one step towards a dynamic African research ecosystem, but larger entities must follow their example. African governments and aid donors must commit to allocating more funding to universities and academic research. They can be held accountable in this by stronger academic professional associations within African countries, such as the African Studies Association of Africa. Deeper investments in African scholars will pay off in the form of high quality, intellectually diverse research on the issues affecting the continent today.


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