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.

What if we killed all the mosquitoes?

It appears that a malaria vaccine will not be available for some time. According to Reuters,

“The world’s first potential malaria vaccine proved only 30 percent effective in African babies in a crucial trial, calling into question whether it can be a useful weapon in the fight against the deadly disease.”

Reading this reminded me of my own illness with malaria at the end of summer.

Back in September I contracted malaria while on a short trip back home in Kenya. Due to malaria’s incubation period I only started feeling sick after I was back in Palo Alto. My illness set off a total freakout at the Stanford Hospital. No less than four medical students, besides the crowd from the infectious disease unit at the hospital, passed by my hospital bed to ask the EXACT same questions (And of course they wanted to keep me overnight. They had an IV drip already installed in my arm. I tried my best to tell the doctor that I didn’t think I needed to be hospitalized to no avail.) The nurse who took my vitals put a mask on my face the moment I told her that I had malaria (I had to restrain myself from reminding her that malaria is not airborne). A week later the Santa Clara county infectious disease office called me to get my details and ask me if I was feeling better – The government wanted to know where and how I got malaria (The grad student in me was fascinated by this level of state capacity).

A few weeks before my Kenya visit I was in Fort Worth, TX. This was at the height of the West Nile virus outbreak that killed dozens of people. At the time the health authorities in the Dallas-Fort Worth area were in the middle of spraying the area to kill all the vectors (mosquitoes). My girlfriend reminded me of the fact that as recent as when her parents were growing up in Grand Prairie, TX much of the American South still had to be sprayed regularly (with DDT) to get rid of disease-bearing mosquitoes.

The reason I recounted these stories is to illustrate the fact that there is an alternative to pouring tons on money on vaccine research or bed nets. Yes, these may result in cool scientific discoveries or provide excellent opportunities for social scientists to get published on their RCT findings. But the reality is that millions of people are still dying.

Instead of asking those living in high disease burden environments to change their behaviors and sleep under mosquito nets, how about we get rid of the mosquitoes??

If it worked in the American South, and many other places, why can’t it work in Africa?

I would very much love to live in a place free of malaria. Because of my age and health, my malaria infection at the end of summer was a mere nuisance – muscle aches, head aches and fatigue. But for millions of children and post-natal mothers across much of tropical Africa malaria is a fatal disease.

But is DDT the answer? Haven’t we been made to internalize the evils of DDT?

It turns out that what we know about DDT might not be the whole truth. As Gourevitch argues, the environmental impact of DDT might have been overblown by the environmentalists.

Writes Gourevitch:

“Around the same time, the U.S. government launched an ambitious DDT-centered malaria eradication project which by the early ’60s had virtually eliminated malaria from Southern Europe, the Caribbean, and parts of East and South Asia. (In India, for example, annual deaths went from 800,000 to zero.) At the time, DDT was thought to be such an effective and useful substance that in 1948, Muller received a Nobel Prize in medicine. “To only a few chemicals does man owe as great a debt as to DDT,” declared the National Academy of Sciences in a report in 1970. “In little more than two decades, DDT has prevented 500 million human deaths, due to malaria.””

Adding that:

“But over the years, mainstream scientific opinion has absolved DDT of many of its supposed sins. Indeed, the Stockholm Convention partially backfired because it brought to light a slew of studies and literature reviews which contradicted the conventional wisdom on DDT. Like nearly any chemical, DDT is harmful in high enough doses. But when it comes to the kinds of uses once permitted in the United States and abroad, there’s simply no solid scientific evidence that exposure to DDT causes cancer or is otherwise harmful to human beings……

Not a single study linking DDT exposure to human toxicity has ever been replicated.”

But even assuming that the effects were as bad as they were claimed to be, shouldn’t we as humans be able to decide on the relative importance of human lives versus bald eagles?

How many children should be allowed to die so that bird watchers can better enjoy their Sunday afternoons?

Stanford Africa Forum 2012 (Feb 25th)

Here is introducing the annual Stanford Africa Forum:

SAF is organized by a multinational and multidisciplinary group of Stanford University students who share a common passion: a firm belief in the potential and promise of the African continent. Previous editions of the Forum have placed the spotlight on this potential and we plan to continue in this tradition with the 2012 edition.

Here is a link to the 2012 SAF Conference website. If you can make in on Feb 25th 2012 please register and show up.