Tokenism, top-down management and inequality still plague African research collaborations with the developed world.
In spite of years of talk about collaborative partnerships, African researchers say that they are all too often consigned to the role of field worker or information gatherer despite being leaders in their science.
Inequality at many levels
Inequality exists at many levels, with tensions typically similar to those embedded in donor-recipient relations in international development cooperation.
“I am not a field worker,” says Richard Mukabana, an entomologist at the University of Nairobi, who is known locally as ‘mosquito man’.
“I have a PhD and can be in any forum dealing with the science of malaria. That is my competitive advantage.”
A porter carrying luggage
He travels from Uganda to Kenya, meeting with laboratory technicians, speaking to community health workers and running samples to laboratories at the Uganda Virus Research Institute.
Some of his samples were collected from the swampy, stagnant water of the Lukaya rice fields on the shores of Lake Victoria, Uganda. The channels, just ten centimetre deep, are the ideal breeding ground for mosquitos. Using a makeshift ladle, fashioned on the end of a long wooden stick, he scoops up water hoping to capture the insects.
Yet he still has to collect data and give it someone in the global North to make sense out of it. That way you are just a porter carrying luggage, according to a documentary film, The Fever, which follows Mukabana in its story about malaria’s colonial legacy in Africa.
Money from the global North
Global resources for malaria control and elimination totalled US$3 billion in 2019, according to the WHO. It specifically praises contributions to this work from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and the US President’s Malaria Initiative.
Housed in the global North, among the world’s richest and most industrialised countries, these institutions provide significant funding toward the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the international development research agenda.
Difficult to be competitive
“I’m an African,” Mukabana tells SciDev.Net. “I live in Africa, I work in Africa, I know about the people in my household and myself becoming sick with malaria in Africa. But I also remember we have a lot of African problems to running the business of science.”
For instance, his university faces frequent amenities challenges such as lack of consistent running piped water and frequent power outages. “Even if we have the technology or the expertise, it’s difficult to be competitive with your partner,” he says.
African scientists addressing malaria
One thing he knows the partner does not have, however, is a patient. “My collaboration partner doesn’t work with malaria patients, doesn’t know how the village person feels about a method or control, doesn’t have a mosquito breeding habitat,” he says.
Mukabana is just one researcher on a growing list of African scientists addressing the problem of malaria on the continent. A roll call of prestige, it includes scientists at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI), who work on the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Information for Malaria Project (INFORM).
Launched in 2013, KEMRI-Wellcome’s INFORM drives the use of epidemiological data to define malaria control and elimination in Africa with a visibly diverse African team.
A case of scientific colonialism
Shock, anger and calls of scientific colonialism flooded the KEMRI-Wellcome INFORM community in January 2021, when global non-profit PATH announced it was chosen to lead the US President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI) for a five-year US$30 million project.
Called the PMI Insights for Malaria (INFORM) project, its critics were quick to draw attention to the initiative’s similarities to KEMRI-Wellcome’s INFORM – not the least of which was its name.
Only global North partners
According to the PATH announcement, PMI INFORM is expected to “generate evidence and data to inform national malaria programs and the global malaria community of best practices, while strengthening research capacity in PMI-supported countries.”
The prime partner for PMI INFORM, PATH also revealed its consortium of seven global North partners: Abt Associates; the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health; the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College London; the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine the Malaria Atlas Project of Telethon Kids Institute at Curtin University; the Center for Applied Malaria Research and Evaluation at Tulane University; and the University of California, San Francisco Malaria Elimination Initiative.
“It’s a depressing state of affairs with seven US, UK and Australian partners receiving US$30 million to ‘help’ African national malaria control programmes,” says Bob Snow, senior scientific advisor for KEMRI-Wellcome’s INFORM project.
“Outrage needs to come from those who are most affected in the future by this behaviour of international donors.”
Facilitate access to expertise
In a statement, PATH did not explain the coincidental project name, but said its PMI INFORM activities would complement KEMRI-Wellcome’s INFORM project. It also addressed the make-up of its consortium by saying it was designed to facilitate access to technical expertise and to supplement local capacity.
“Working with malaria programme leaders and researchers from malaria-endemic country institutions is core to the project’s planned approach for prioritising, designing, implementing, and disseminating malaria evaluation and operational research,” PATH told SciDev.Net.
African institutions overlooked
While it’s shocking to see African institutions overlooked as partners by PATH, Ngozi Erondu, senior research fellow at the UK-based Chatham House Centre for Global Health Security, says it happens all the time.
“The bigger issue here is decolonising global health,” she says. Acknowledging the contributions global North institutions have made for the scientific knowledge base, she says it is not a question of all or nothing, but how to work together.
“Collaboration doesn’t mean you win all the money and employ the global South [partner]. That’s scientific colonialism,” she says.
Scientists now express their concern
Fredros Okumu, director of science at the Ifakara Health Institute in Tanzania tells SciDev.Net: “Researchers working in this space have good reason to be concerned about this trend.”
Okumu joined Erondu in taking criticism of PATH to Twitter, joining like-minded researchers and advocates. Hundreds of likes, retweets and comments followed with PATH accounts roped in.
The social media outcry does not just signal awareness of the broken state of international development research collaboration. It also shows that researchers are now able to stand up and say something.
“Ten years ago, this wouldn’t happen, we’d be worried about our careers,” Okumu says. “The world is willing to listen to these conversations now.”
This article is the first part, out of three, of an article published by SciDev.net that we will publish along three weeks.