LAUNCH: The ethics of studying Africa

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COVID-19 has changed the world as we know it, emphasising and exacerbating stark inequalities both within and between countries in the process. Additionally, the increasing attention given to the calls from the Black Lives Matter and #blackintheivory movements for dismantling racist and discriminatory institutions and structures has acted as an important catalyst for an urgent re-examination of global knowledge inequalities.

This new series of essays on the ethics of studying Africa is intended to take stock of how far efforts to build a better and more equal global research environment have come, and how much is left to be done. As the title of this collection suggests, we take intellectual inspiration from Amina Mama’s influential lecture “Is it ethical to study Africa?“, and the questions that she raises about the ethical responsibility that falls on those who research the continent.

It is clear from first set of essays to be published that we have a worryingly long way to go. In academia, there is a growing focus on rules and processes that reinforce existing privileges for institutions and researchers at wealthier institutions, and concern that these have been exacerbated by the pandemic. An excellent example is the recent controversy over a scheme by Taylor & Francis – one of the main publishers of academic journals – which allows authors to purchase an “accelerated publication”  process by paying $7,000. The fact that this sum of money is likely to be beyond most researchers working outside of Western institutions, appears to create a new structural advantage for researchers that are already privileged through greater access to funding and research support.

When it comes to international development more broadly, COVID-19 has re-exposed what is wrong with existing power relations and decision-making, in line with long-standing calls for de-centring the ‘white gaze’,  decolonising development and replacing the modes of thought associated with the term ‘development’ itself. COVID-19 has also  demonstrated the urgent need to tackle racism within research, with the head of the WHO condemning the racist remarks of scientists who suggested potential coronavirus vaccines should be tested on populations in Africa. This signifies a pressing need to develop more equitable research in international development, which “prevents people’s lives being seen as laboratories to use at will.

But as well as highlighting the extent of existing challenges, the essays in this series see COVID-19 as a new opportunity. The disruption of research projects generates the opportunity to build back better. As argued recently, there is a need to change the power dynamics in international research collaborations. To highlight how this can be done, many of the essays also focus on the need to shift the direction of knowledge transfer and dismantle existing hierarchies in decision-making, providing practical recommendations and suggestions.

The series represents a collaboration between Democracy in Africa, the Centre for Democracy and Development-West Africa, the Georg August University of Göttingen, the Institut Superieur Pedagogique de Bukavu, the Centre for Human Rights and Policy Studies (Kenya), the German Development Institute, and the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies at Fourah Bay College at the University of Sierra Leone. We are also keen to receive submissions from anyone conducting research in this area, especially those working in Africa. Our aim is to be as inclusive of different viewpoints and authors as possible. If you would like to contribute, please email us here.

What is in a name?

One thing that readers may notice is that some of the terminology used in the essays is different to what they are used to. A classic example is that we do not refer to “fieldwork” but rather to “in-country research”. This is a conscious decision to move away from a term that many worry exoticises Africa (and Asia, and …) in favour of less loaded words. As an aid worker recently put it, “fieldwork” evokes the idea of a fundamentally different environment that one travels to in order to conduct research that could not be done “at home”.

In other words, the assumptions that the term “the field” brings with it may contain a neo-colonial mentality in which the “field is akin to a laboratory, where one can carelessly experiment without consequence”. We must therefore think critically about how “the field” has come to be understood, and the damage that this can do.

For a similar reason, we try and avoid using catch-all terms such as “Global North” and “Global South”, which homogenise experience and often trigger assumptions and generalisations that are not valid. It is important, for example, to also recognise the great disparities that exist within individual countries and between them, such as the stronger financial position of some South African universities and think tanks.

Creating a more respectful environment therefore means re-examining our vocabulary for the often hidden clues it can reveal about existing power relations. 

Shifting the direction of knowledge transfer

The differences in responses and outcomes as a result of COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of learning from Africa. As Afua Hirsch has argued, examples of innovation do not get the same fanfare if they emerge from Africa as they would if they emerged from Europe or North America. She highlights Senegal’s quick response planning to COVID-19, and their inclusive process of offering a bed for every single coronavirus patient in either a hospital or a community health facility. 

Unfortunately, many aspects of the pandemic have exacerbated this tendency. As Jana Kuhnt & Lennart Kaplan’s essay in this series points out, “Many in-country research staff lost their main source of income when research activities were cut down or entirely stopped. This increased their vulnerability and the risk of falling into poverty” … “It is likely that the pandemic will further worsen the position of in-country research staff before it is over. In turn, this risks undermining their bargaining power when COVID-19 recedes.”

Reforming this system will not be quick or easy. According to the essay by Dieunedort Wanji et al, “More often than not” the relationships between African and European or North American universities “are not a true partnerships of equals.” It is therefore critical to dismantle the current unequal system of knowledge transfer that that both reinforces global knowledge inequalities and stymies learning from Africa.

Within academic and policy research, there has long been a tendency for projects to be conceptualised and funded in Europe and North America and then implemented in the Africa. Within this arrangement, African partners are effectively asked to collect data, with little influence over the research questions or methods used, nor involved in the analysis, where their expertise is essential.

In response, critics have called for research collaborations to be formed well in advance of the submission of funding proposals so that preparation can bring on board all institution’s knowledge. There is also the need to re-centre “in country” expertise with equal representation in project leadership roles, in responsibility for designing data collection and in publications and research dissemination. Independent advisory boards with strong representation of the countries where the research is situated should also be incorporated.

Making research approval and approaches more inclusive and effective

As the essay by Charlotte Griese points out, it is important that this reconfiguration of power relations does not only focus on the questions that are asked, but also on the methods used, research ethics and access to ‘knowledge’. Many research projects that are implemented in African countries receive their ethical approval from Institutional Review Boards (IRB) outside of the continent.

This may have led to some projects gaining approval that later turned out to be highly controversial and damaging. 

To rectify this, Griese recommends the creation of a “worldwide organisation to promote and oversee ethical research principles in the social sciences” and that “it should be necessary to secure IRB approval in the country the research is being conducted as well as in the country in which the research has been funded”.

Decolonising research methods will also require us to go further of course, and to upend assumptions about what methods are associated with ‘research excellence’, recognising the significant contributions of what are sometimes called “indigenous” methods. Recently, the important insights that can be gained by these methods, such as talanoa and tok stori, have been highlighted, in part because they have been shown to providing fresh perspectives into design and impact of COVID-19 responses.

Adopting greater methodological flexibility and accepting the validity and value of approaches not previously prioritised by Western institutions and journals will be essential to build a more equitable research landscape.

Sharing knowledge in ways that do no harm

The current unequal system of knowledge transfer is also perpetuated by hierarchies in knowledge dissemination, with high costs to accessing research outputs such as journals and books. The push for “open access” publication in many Western countries and universities had a noble aim – to open up access to knowledge for all for free. Given that much academic endeavour is paid for or subsidised by taxpayers, this has a strong moral foundation.

It has also created major problems where equality is concerned, however. Publishing “open access” is often not free for authors, because the most read journals and book publishers charge a fee, which may range from £250-£12,000, to process an article or manuscript. Because this fee is generally more affordable for wealthy institutions in Western countries, it is easier for researchers in these places to take advantage of the “open access” publication route, and hence to gain more readers. And because more readers usually translates into more citations, open access exacerbates the existing advantages accruing to those working in wealthier organisations.

These problems will only deepen if “pay to publish quickly” schemes, such as the one currently run by Taylor & Francis, expand. At present, Taylor & Francis say that this process is only tended for researchers who work in areas where rapid publication is particularly important, such as drug trials. In response to concerns that those who pay for an expedited process may be more likely to have their work accepted, they also say that publication rates are similar for authors who do and do not take up the “accelerated publication” option.

But this still leaves open the possibility that some authors will beat others to the publication of an important research discovery – and hence a Nobel Prize – on the basis that they were able to pay to get their ideas into print quicker. And this is surely goes against the grain of everything that an inclusive an egalitarian academia must stand for.

It is therefore critical that researchers around the world – especially those involved in editing journals – push back against the introduction of fee-based expedited processes, and highlight the importance of making open access publishing available to all authors, no matter their institutional home. 

When it comes to Democracy in Africa and this series, all of our pieces are published on the basis of a Creative Commons license, which means that anyone can republish our essays and blogs for free without asking permission – to do so, please follow the guidelines set out by our friends at The Conversation here.

Dismantling existing hierarchies in decision-making

Introducing these changes will only have a limited effect, however, if the power to determine research agendas remains with funding bodies located outside of Africa. As Wanji et al demonstrate, all too often funders control the decision-making processes around research agendas and there have been longstanding critiques of the “reproduction of colonial power structures and Eurocentric logics … whereby the realities of the global majority are determined by a few powerful institutions and a global elite.”

A good example of this is the response of some funders to the pandemic itself, which saw a number of sudden shifts in policy direction, attention and funding by donor organisations in international development, with far greater resources being directed towards the health sector. While this makes intuitive sense, many have argued that it is both dangerous and disruptive to completely shift focus to COVID-19 without engaging with the priorities of researchers with the most contextual knowledge.

The fact that funding decisions and research agendas in development also often operate on an invite-only basis perpetuates historical power dynamics and raises questions about who is making the decisions about what gets researched. In particular, researchers have pointed to the ethical issues around the control of the narrative in development research, where Western researchers often end up speaking for researchers from the Global South, which hasreproduced colonial practices that silence our research partners and ultimately our participants.” This affects both the research focus, but also timeframes and outputs.

Decision-making around how research outputs are produced means that they are often geared towards the priorities of researchers working outside of the continent, rather than made based on respectful communication and interest alignment with all those involved in the research.

Challenging and questioning these norms also means probing the role of websites such as Democracy in Africa itself. While DiA seeks to run collaborative series such as this one, and has undertaken a number of initiatives intended to promote the decolonisation of the academy and of media commentary on Africa, it is itself a Western institution in that it was founded by a researcher working at a UK university. We therefore welcome submissions that address and critique the role of websites in knowledge production and dissemination.

The problem with “capacity building”

It has become common for large research grants to have a “capacity building” component, through which skills, experience are resources are supposed to be exported from Western institutions to African ones. This is well meaning, but can also be problematic. To start with, it is founded on the problematic assumption that skills and experience reside in the West. Given the need to rebalance perceptions as well as practices, it makes more sense to talk of “capacity sharing”, and to start from the basis that this must always be a two-way process. 

At the same time, it is important that what is shared actually enables African institutions to strengthen and become more sustainable. What “capacity building” often means in practice is the provision of workshops or training sessions, with a focus on individual researchers. What is actually needed is a much longer-term approach that focusses on strengthening the institutional contexts within which researchers operate in order to address existing inequalities.

This is rarely done effectively, however, because the overheads accruing to research grants are usually retained by the Western institutions that take up a leading role in applying for them. In turn, this makes it harder for African universities and think tanks to develop the necessary finances and administrative strength to be able to set and fund their own research activities.

One consequence of this can be that African researchers feel compelled to participate in research projects that they would not themselves have chosen, and which have limited value to their own career progression. Worse still, unequal access to decision-making around funding also leads to the erroneous belief that data collection is cheap, meaning researchers “in country” are not fairly or equitably remunerated for their work. 

Wanji et al are therefore surely right that for COVID-19 to be a catalyst for decolonising development research, funders and grant making bodies must become more responsive to the expertise and research priorities of researchers in Africa. This means holding inclusive consultative processes about future research agendas prior to calls for funding being developed, and designing calls accordingly.

COVID19 as a threat and an opportunity

Many are now working to implement these principles, but the pace of change has been slow, despite sustained critique and action. If we do not act effectively, there is a serious risk that COVID-19 will exacerbate all of the challenges identified above.

By confining European and North American researchers to their homes and Zoom conversations, the pandemic will increase the risk that African researchers and institutions will be asked to undertake data collection because of travel restrictions, effectively becoming research assistants on existing projects whose framing and methods have already been established.  

To avoid this, we must follow the advice of Kuhnt and Kaplan and work to realise the opportunities presented by COVID-19. Disruption to existing research processes has led many programmes to be paused or cancelled, and the way in which research operates will practically need to shift. Against this backdrop, the prominence of the Black Lives Matter and #blackintheivory movements, along with the painful evidence of the unequal impact of the pandemic itself, there is greater pressure than ever before for meaningful change.

As the essays in this series argue, researchers and research institutions can make good on this opportunity by: first, starting a conversation with research partners around the world and being open to, and acting on, their criticisms; second, adopting new codes of conduct that prioritise directly funding research conceptualised and led by institutions in Africa and sharing leadership and control in collaborative research projects; third, calling on funding bodies to prioritise more inclusive agenda-setting and decision-making; and fourth, forcing journals to prioritise more “decolonised” approaches.

This will be both a personal and political process which many will find uncomfortable as it involves giving up power and control that they have taken for granted for many years. We must push beyond this discomfort to realise transformative change, going beyond technocratic fixes such as “localisation” which can be used to avoid, rather than centre racism and inequality, in order to make sure that we really do “build back better” after COVID-19.

Idayat Hassan is Director of the Centre for Democracy and Development-West Africa.

Nic Cheeseman is the Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham and the founder of 

The authors would like to record their thanks to Dr Rebecca Gordon (UWS), who contributed ideas around equity within research partnerships as part of ongoing conversations.

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