International partnerships have played an important role in academic research about the African continent. While funding sources have diversified, a significant share of these partnerships are resourced through European and North American international aid and its renewed interest in ‘knowledge production’. Aid is currently very present in major academic research funds, such as the (recently slashed) UK Global Challenges Research Fund.
This mechanism for financing joint projects between African and European or North American universities poses a range of challenges. More often than not, these relationships are not a true partnerships of equals. Instead, they build on and sustain material inequalities in terms of resource allocation, employment stability and research benefits, as well as inequalities around authorship and voice. They are often predicated upon enduring (albeit subtle) colonial rationalities and can perpetuate longstanding knowledge hierarchies. Their disproportionate influence in international and policy circles as compared to other forms of research also raises questions about the role of these partnerships in perpetuating what Himani Bhakuni and Seye Abimbola have called epistemic injustice.
The size of the problem
One of the main challenges with these kinds of partnerships is that they often “import” concepts and frameworks that are crafted by academics, activists, or practitioners in the Global North and anchored in the concerns and priorities of the Global North. Decisions about the core themes and conceptual scope of projects are regularly made mainly if not solely by “experts” in institutions in the “North”, and often by the donors themselves, although researchers usually maintain a degree of independence.
This poses fundamental questions about the role of African researchers in shaping the scope and objectives of the research produced through these partnerships. It is not uncommon to see African and European researchers alike (including the authors of this post) jump on a research project or grant opportunity not because the themes are directly in tune with their area of interest, but simply because it is the only opportunity to get funding. This issue is arguably more severe when few funding options or opportunities for collaborations are available, as is the case in many African research institutions. As researchers are constrained to leave aside their own priorities, this can lead to the crowding out of research agendas, and eventually to “undone science“. Ultimately, the real risk is that researchers are called upon to participate in research without being convinced of its relevance or priority.
International research partnerships are also poorly protected against the risk of being framed with concepts that misrepresent or grossly simplify the contexts they are supposed to engage with, and therefore of questionable validity and usefulness. This resonates with longstanding debates on colonial epistemologies. Valentin-Yves Mudimbe, Henry Odera Oruka, Paulin Hountondji, Kwasi Wiredu among others have long written about the need to recast the conceptual frameworks deployed to study “Africa”, not only because they were Euro-centric and often carried reductionist or racist assumptions, but also because they misrepresented the realities they were supposed to analyse and were therefore not fit for purpose.
The risk for international partnerships is therefore that they reproduce this process and import problematic and ill-fitting conceptual frameworks. In principle, most international partnerships are committed to principles of participation, engagement, and fairness. In practice, our own experience has taught us that the way such projects are structured means that these are usually top-down goals that are not fully realised in reality.
In particular, the early framing of funding calls delimits the scope of projects and the often rushed funding process constrains the time and space for genuine engagement. Even with the best of intentions, we have seen how time constraints and deadlines inherent to such research projects – which are rarely advertised sufficiently in advance to facilitate genuine conversations – foster disinterest and disengagement and reduce the scope for the critical discussions that are necessary to ensure conceptual verification and translation.
Despite these limitations, once funding is secured international partnerships also provide spaces in which these forms of epistemic inequalities can be partially addressed – if sufficient will is present. Arguing against the supposed radical incommensurability of language and concepts, Souleymane Bachir Diagne has shown that dialogue and translation are key to achieving conceptual validity, common understanding, and epistemic coherence. This provides an entry point for recasting international partnerships for the better.
An important first step is to ensure true plurilingualism within projects, in terms of both languages and epistemic traditions. Plurilingualism is a reality in many of the socio-cultural contexts that are the focus of research partnerships, yet one that is rarely reflected within partnerships where explicit or implicit linguistic and epistemic hierarchies prevail. Committing to external and internal plurilingualism means ensuring that African scholars can express their research and work in the language and epistemic tradition that suits them best. It also means ensuring space for linguistic and conceptual translation within research projects, as well as critical reflection on the wider politics of language in which projects are embedded.
This allows African researchers not only to produce and disseminate their research results on a wider scale, but also to reduce barriers, for example by enhancing access to research data and findings for African partners and their academic ecosystems, as well as the research subjects themselves. Through internal debate and dialogue between epistemic traditions, we can also better address the issue of conceptual validity discussed above. It is essential to the effectiveness of this process that conceptual frameworks and ideas from non-dominant epistemic traditions can emerge as the main lenses of analysis in projects.
This does not mean that imported concepts are useless, but that they need to be approached from a position of modesty. Concepts that do travel – i.e. keep some explanatory value – rarely do so unscathed. The sociology of translation has long documented how vernacularisations and hybridizations occur. Taking such mutations seriously and practicing what Himani Bhakuni and Seye Abimbola call interpretive justice implies a deep, meaningful and permanent dialogue throughout a partnership. It also requires a change of “gaze“, on the part of European and North American scholars, a true recognition of the validity of concepts and ideas that may sometimes not have (yet) achieved recognition in the outlets of the dominant players (e.g. in high impact factor journals).
The importance of time
Creating the conditions for meaningful dialogues across different languages and intellectual traditions requires time. Moving away from a culture of fast results and outputs which often erode the quality of research can restore the necessary time for these essential debates to happen. Ensuring an equal standing of all participants in the dialogue is also a central requirement. This entails addressing inequalities in terms of employment conditions and benefits, professional hierarchies, and exposure to risk.
A first step is to align research agendas with the priorities of researchers from the countries and contexts that are being studied. This allows African researchers to stay true to their priorities and first choices, and recalibrates the core audience and resulting chain of intellectual accountability of research partnerships. Even when funding is constrained by aid priorities, this can be done by moving away from top-down agenda-setting, and by channelling funding toward existing research centres in African countries.
Here again, funding bodies can make a difference in these achievable goals, but the responsibility also lies within the partnerships through the agency of every researcher: it is about fair partnership contracts, a notion that has been making its way in new partnership guidelines, but on which we can make further improvements.
All must take part in the transformation of international research partnerships.
Dieunedort Wandji (D.Wandji@ids.ac.uk) is a Research Officer working at IDS in the UK on resilience in protracted crises.
Cyril Brandt (email@example.com) is a researcher at the Institute of Development Studies and works on education in areas affected by armed conflict.
Jean-Benoît Falisse (JB.Falisse@ed.ac.uk) is a lecturer at the Centre of African Studies and a fellow of the Edinburgh Futures Institute, both at the University of Edinburgh.
Janvier Koko Kirusha (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a researcher at the Centre de Recherche en Sciences Humaines (C.RE.S.H) RDC, and works on geopolitical and geostrategic issues in the Great Lakes Region.
Gauthier Marchais (email@example.com) is a research fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, where he currently leads a project on education in conflict affected contexts.
Samuel Matabishi Namashunju (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a permanent professor at the Institut Supérieur Pédagogique de Bukavu (ISP Bukavu), in the Department of French-African Languages. He is the director of the research unit “Observatoire Congolais du Plurilinguisme pour l’Education et le Développement” (OCPED).