Africa shouldn’t try to adopt the scientific system from the global North without criticism.
As a global South researcher, it is not unusual to get your start in a research collaboration with a cold call, says Salome Maswime, head of global surgery at the University of Cape Town(UCT), South Africa.
“I’ve been involved in a number of studies where I’m contacted by an international group and asked to be part of their study, usually as part of a grant needing a low- or middle-income country partner,” she says
To be associated with a good institution
“You go into the partnership without being clear about what you’re doing and you’re not really passionate about it. But you want to be associated with a good institution from a high-income country.”
When you are a young researcher, Maswime says, you go along with this because you want the publications, and you want funding. “The minute you get this email from a highly rated institution, a part of you feels good. Someone has hand-picked you and wants to work with you,” she says.
Unequal power dynamics
While not every collaboration goes this way, Maswime says that she has seen several young researchers trapped in the cycle. “I say this because I’m not at the beginning of my scientific career. I can look back and say there is a pattern here,” she says.
Tokenism is rife. It forms part of the unequal power dynamics of research collaborations funded by the global North, where the research agenda is driven by them rather than the communities doing the studies and being studied.
The problems with this top-down approach characterises these partnerships. A literature keyword search for “North-South collaboration” reveals a raft of challenges, experiences and proposed ways forward for more equitable partnerships in every area of development research.
Among them is the 1990 Commission on Health Research for Development that reveals a “gross mismatch” between priorities in North-South research that may make collaboration counter-productive.
The 10/90 gap
Describing what is now known as the 10/90 gap, it revealed 90 per cent of the world’s investment in health research addresses only ten per cent of global health problems.
More recently, a 2020 paper on Namibian-German climate research projects pronounced an invisible “double role” for local researchers who managed field work, analytical tasks and acted as cultural facilitators.
“Global South researchers carry a hidden burden in international collaborations that has to be adequately acknowledged,” it concluded.
Other work details exploitive employment, where the short-term nature and tight budgets of research projects leaves local staff without benefits such as health insurance or long-term employment prospects. Some show the power struggles between North-South researchers when those who hold the purse strings are asked to play a supportive role to the host country.
“There are loads of publications on these partnerships, yet how far are we from achieving the SGDs?” asks Maswime. “People get Nobel prizes for work that’s done in Africa, but things haven’t changed.”
Benefit from the inequity
Change isn’t going to come easy, says Mia Perry co-director of Sustainable Futures in Africa (SFA). A network launched in 2016 with the Global Challenges Research Fund, SFA is a UK-based network that works with hubs in Botswana, Malawi, Nigeria, Uganda and the United Kingdom to ethically re-design the research agenda.
“International development-related research is led by people and institutions that have and continue to benefit from the inequity,” she says. “To make real change in that system, people like me would have to put themselves in situations that may implicate us. That’s a difficult thing to do.”
Even harder, she argues, because most of the stakeholders involved believe they are making the world a better place. This South as in “deficit” and North as its “saviour” dynamic may be rooted in genuine goodwill, but it is built on a false sense of universalism.
For Perry, universalism is the idea that values, concepts or behaviours are shared across all people in all parts of the world. “Universalism is very convenient if you come from the universities or institutions of the global North. In the communities of our research partners in the South, their universal is nothing like mine.”
Critique of the heritage
With SFA, Perry advocates for a move away from the geographic demarcations of North and South, to frame research as globally inter- and intra-connected.
Ditching traditional Northern-centric models of research is also necessary. Perry calls for a critique of the heritage of research and taking a participatory, culturally responsible and engaged approach.
“Any question we address should be considered from all perspectives along with scientists, community members and policymakers,” she says.
Science and culture
The truth about Africa, and other areas of the global South, is that science is not embedded in its culture. People do not look to science to answer questions in their daily lives in politics or in innovation.
“Africa isn’t the same as the North, where science is part of the fabric of their society,” says Judy Omumbo, senior programme manager at the Kenya-based African Academy of Sciences (AAS).
Challenge the funding partners
She too criticises the assumption that northern models for research and how it is managed will translate effectively in Africa. But she says it is difficult to challenge a system if it is coming from your funding partners.
“The question of equity is something we think about a lot. Because funding tends to come from the North, the priorities of the North are considered first,” she says.
Notion of excellence
Not the least of these priorities is accountability. Funders face scrutiny from their stakeholders to demonstrate outcomes and impact – as defined by the North’s perception of excellence.
“The notion of excellence is problematic in many, if not all, contexts,” say some experts. “It’s linked to highly subjective values of disciplines, methodologies, and is questionably linked to journal impact factors, H-index scores, sources of funding and university rankings.”
Global North researchers are also held to these standards, including the much debated ‘tyranny of the impact factor’. A career-defining magic number gained from publishing in high-impact journals, it is nearly impossible for African researchers to attain.
“African researchers face additional burdens that may be irrelevant or lesser in the global North,” say researchers from the AAS. Among these are prohibitive costs, predatory publishers and lack of familiarity with the peer-review process.
Bias in peer-review
Systemic bias in the peer-review process is also a problem. “African researchers often come from institutions and laboratories unknown to their Western peers,” they say. This is compounded by a lack of African representation among peer reviewers, as well as language and style barriers that result in good research being delayed or going unpublished altogether.
“We need to define our impact based on what our researchers are doing,” says Omumbo. Do we want them to publish in top-notch journals? Or do we want them to make an impact and develop other local researchers?
“We should be able to make a decision on how we’ll measure excellence in our context, and funding should be given based on that.”
To be continued
This article is the second part, out of three, of an article published by SciDev.net that we publish along three weeks.