Alex de Waal on the African Academy

In a recent article Tufts’ Alex de Waal makes an important point on the nature of policy research in Africa:

……. Analysis is shaped to suit the audience, and scholars end up speaking their language. Rather than evidence-based policy, there is policy-based evidence-making [emphasis mine]. The paradigm of this is engaging with western governments, the World Bank or the United Nations. Much of the policy-related discourse on good governance, post-conflict reconstruction and development takes place in a fantasy land that exists only in the minds of international civil servants.

A little bit harsh, but not completely off the mark. As I’ve written before, we need to make a distinction between research that is meant to inform policy in specific contexts, and that which is designed to generate general knowledge (and perhaps most importantly, for reviewers). What is good for reviewers is seldom useful for policymakers.

That said, I don’t think the burden to produce policy-relevant research (for African states) should be on scholars based in the West.

Africa-based scholars are the best placed to produce policy-relevant research in their own countries. They are the ones who are best able to grapple with the policy judgement calls that often require one to take political positions. Foreign researchers have to worry about research permits (for themselves or their sponsor donor agencies) and therefore have strong incentives to recommend “politically neutral” and “technical” (read apolitical) policy solutions. Of course not every researcher conforms to the type suggested here. But there is no denying that foreign scholars face slightly different incentives than their domestic counterparts.

Where there might be some mileage on this front is with the “public sector” research arms of the World Bank and the African Development Bank.

On African academics, de Waal has this to say:

…… the structure of academic rewards and careers systematically disadvantages those who do not have the skills or capacities for this kind of high-end quantitative endeavour or have serious misgivings about it. This causes severe dissonance between actual lived experience and the academic work that is validated by universities.

… Supervisors in foreign universities rarely have the subject matter expertise, so they tend to guide students towards more theoretical approaches. Examiners and peer reviewers likewise reward and reinforce their own disciplinary biases. On the other hand, it is common to see junior Western scholars doing rather uninteresting quantitative studies or superficial case studies. Despite their shortcomings these studies are published. These scholars, then, become the group that undertakes peer review.

The African scholar of political science may be compelled to adopt a schizoid personality. To become an academic in a Western university she or he may be obliged to unlearn important knowledge, and learn frameworks and skills that are actually irrelevant to the situation at hand but are necessary for being considered a professional academic.

Here I think de Waal moves dangerously close to endorsing “African Exceptionalism.” It is almost as if the African grad student shows up in grad school imbued with unique knowledge of the Continent that is inaccessible to their potential advisers and colleagues. Also, I don’t think the study of Africa should be pigeonholed as existing outside basic rules of evidence-based policymaking and properly identified causal stories. Despite the enduring allure of the idea, Africa is not exceptional.

As a social scientist, my knowledge of Kenya is largely informed by my experience as a Nairobian. Over the years I have had to learn a lot about the rest of Kenya, in much the same way an Australian would. In doing so I incurred a lower cost than a hypothetical Australian would, for sure, but the cost was not zero. The point here is that it is not necessarily true that I have an innate ability to *know* Kenyan politics better than an Australian ever would if they invested the time and effort.

And who is to say that I would necessarily be able to articulate a research agenda on whatever subject in Malawi better than a Southern Californian? What proportion of Kenyans can locate Bangui on a map?

In my view, much of the handwringing about the methodologies employed in the study of the Continent misses the point. The problem is not that Western academics are asking the wrong questions, or that certain methodological approaches are privileged over others. The real problem is that there is a limited pool of high quality Africa-based scholars. Increasing the pool of talented Africa-based researchers would boost the variety of perspectives and methodologies employed in the study of the region — to the benefit of all involved. This can be achieved by providing better funding opportunities for African universities and incentivizing high quality research by Africa-based faculty.


3 thoughts on “Alex de Waal on the African Academy

  1. Pingback: article: Does it help to be African to study Africa? –

  2. Pingback: The Ten Most Read Posts of 2016 « An Africanist Perspective

  3. Pingback: Does it help to be African to study Africa? – nublaxity network

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