Why Our Work is Needed

Navigating challenging policy issues

African countries face a range of serious challenges, such as adapting to climate change, promoting democratic stability, and supporting inclusive economic growth. When government officials or industry leaders are making decisions on these topics, it’s often not clear up front what the right policy to solve a specific problem will be. For example, can governments reduce poverty rates most effectively by encouraging citizens to start small businesses, or by providing them with welfare services? How can government and industry work together to rapidly and affordably expand electricity access to regions that don’t yet have power, while minimising environmental impacts and maximising long-term economic benefits? There is often no single correct answer to questions like these. However, leaders can make better decisions if they have access to timely, high quality research on the specific issues that their countries are facing. Similarly, ordinary citizens can do a better job of holding their elected officials to account if they can easily learn about the policy issues affecting their country.

At present, though, the ability of African scholars to produce this type of locally relevant research is limited. The vast majority of academic and policy research on African issues is carried out by scholars at institutions outside the continent. In 2014, sub-Saharan Africa had 15% of the world’s population, but produced less than 1% of published research output in fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Even in the field of African studies, where African researchers should be uniquely well-placed to contribute new knowledge, only 15% of articles in top journals were written by scholars based in Africa. We are missing a whole continent’s worth of research, which places limits on intellectual diversity, the quality of local policy-making, and even long-run economic growth.

In 2014, sub-Saharan Africa had 15% of the world’s population, but produced less than 1% of published research output in fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
— The World Bank, "Improving the Quality and Quantity of Scientific Research in Africa" (2014)

Constraints on research Output and uptake

Lack of domestic research funding is a major constraint on African academic productivity. Unlike researchers in Europe or North America, African researchers generally cannot access funding through their governments or through private foundations in their own countries. According to UNESCO, in 2013 the gross domestic expenditure on R&D (GERD) as a percentage of GDP in sub-Saharan Africa was 0.4%, compared to 1.6% world average and 2.2% for high income countries.  Furthermore, a significant proportion of the R&D in a number of African countries with high research output is foreign funded, with nearly half or more of the GERD funded from abroad.  Thus, African researchers are frequently forced to compete for a limited pool of international research grants, where their lack of strong professional networks outside their own countries can put them at a disadvantage. In addition, reliance on foreign research funding means that the academic independence of African scholars’ work can be limited. International funders often provide grants for the issues that they think are important – but this may not match local ideas about what types of policy questions really need to be studied. In sum, the researchers who are best positioned to carry out independent research that is relevant to their countries’ development goals are frequently unable to do so.

Of course, even for the talented African scholars who are currently doing good research on the continent, there is the universal problem of how to connect that research with decision makers in industry and government. Academics are professionally rewarded for publishing their work in expensive journals which are primarily read by other academics, meaning that relevant studies all too often languish in the ivory tower. It’s actually quite simple to make interesting research results more accessible to government and industry leaders and to the public. For example, elected officials often get a great deal of information from daily newspapers, so publishing op-eds can be an effective way to inform them of relevant research. However, academics are rarely trained to present their work outside of the university, so they miss this easily available opportunity.

Women Need Additional Support

Only 20 - 35% of students at universities in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania are women.
— Jane Onsongo, "Affirmative Action, Gender Equity and University Admissions – Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania" (2014)

Women who would like to pursue research careers in Africa face an even greater range of constraints than their male counterparts. Female enrolment in BA, MA, and PhD programs lags badly behind that of men. A recent study of universities in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania found that only 20 – 35% of students were women.  For women who do go on to post-graduate study, this means that they are generally navigating through old boys’ clubs at their academic institutions. They must deal with pervasive sexism and a lack of institutional support for their careers, as well as facing the same funding constraints and risks of “ivory tower syndrome” as male researchers. This means that the important contributions that they could make to development-oriented research are all too often lost. More broadly, this means that talented women are missing the opportunity to be recognized as thought leaders in industry and government.

Supporting the research careers of African women isn’t just a feel-good issue. A number of studies have shown that organisations which have more women in leadership roles are more productive.  There also is a widespread belief across Africa that women are able to come up with policy ideas that are better for promoting development and ending conflict at the local level.  It’s vitally important to support African women in conducting policy-relevant research and translating their expertise into policy influence.