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Africa, NGOs, Uganda, University

African Universities: Creating True Researchers or “Native Informers” to NGOs?

The following article (found on tackles a widespread problem researchers face, in Africa and elsewhere. More and more research is done on demand, and even when researchers take the initiative to write up their own project proposals, they have to consider similar criteria as in research on demand: What are the interests of the prospective sponsors, which kind of questions fit into their programme schemes, with which other institutions should they collaborate for a common project to be approved?
Larger funding institutions tend to fund large projects and ignore smaller scale initiatives, they want to put big sums into international research groups that have been built along their guidelines. They can even draft a comprehensive scheme for all their funding activities where all the relevant structures and methods are laid down in a one-fits-all approach, leaving no space for individual adjustments however justified they were.

Therefore, paradoxically, the larger your funding budget is, the more problems seem to arise, because the structures that are set up on a large budget are likely to collapse as soon as the project ends, leaving the participant researchers and research institutes with no possibilities to continue from there for lack of alternative funding of comparable size. In the end, this leads to a permanent dependency with little perspective for autonomous research both in terms of organization and funding, but in particular with regards to the methods and the targets of the research itself.

In addition to the problems faced by researchers, there can be serious implications for the quality of higher education as well, and this is what the article particularly wants to highlight. That, too, doesn’t seem to be a uniquely African issue, but of course, the direr the financial situation of a university, the more acutely these effects are felt.

By Laura Freschi | Published May 5, 2011

In a recent speech addressing the Makerere Institute of Social Research in Uganda, Mahmood Mamdani described the state of academic research and higher education in Africa as dominated by a “corrosive culture of consultancy.”

Today, intellectual life in universities has been reduced to bare-bones classroom activity. Extra-curricular seminars and workshops have migrated to hotels. Workshop attendance goes with transport allowances and per diem. All this is part of a larger process, the NGO-ization of the university. Academic papers have turned into corporate-style power point presentations. Academics read less and less. A chorus of buzz words have taken the place of lively debates…

What’s the difference between academic research and consultancy-driven research? Mamdani, who spent decades teaching at universities in South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda before moving to Columbia University, defines research for a consultant as seeking answers to problems posed and defined by a client. But university research, properly understood, requires formulating the problem itself.

His example of how this works in practice is an interesting one. In 2007, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation shifted global health spending priorities towards their research question: How to eradicate malaria? But if malaria can’t be eradicated, as a team of scientists from France and Gabon now believe, then researchers have spent four years and hundreds of millions of dollars answering the wrong question.

The cumulative effect of this model is to “devalue original research or intellectual production in Africa.”

The global market tends to relegate Africa to providing raw material (“data”) to outside academics who process it and then re-export their theories back to Africa. Research proposals are increasingly descriptive accounts of data collection and the methods used to collate data, collaboration is reduced to assistance, and there is a general impoverishment of theory and debate.

In my view, the proliferation of “short courses” on methodology that aim to teach students and academic staff quantitative methods necessary to gathering and processing empirical data are ushering a new generation of native informers.

Mamdani, who is now director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research in addition to his professorship at Columbia, seeks to counter the spread of consultancy culture “through an intellectual environment strong enough to sustain a meaningful intellectual culture.”

“To my knowledge,” he said, “there is no model for this on the African continent today. It is something we will have to create.”

HT Africa is a Country.



About safisy

Researcher with a background in social anthropology, philosophy and linguistics. Main interests: topics related to Africa, the history of ideas and traditions, multiculturalism, social and political topics, civil and cultural rights, ecology, historical linguistics.


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