Expert Imbalance: The Blind Spot in the Localisation of Research Agenda

Why are there so many Northern experts on African affairs, and so few African experts on European and American affairs? Especially when seen from an African perspective, the imbalance looks vast and out of proportions. Academic publishing on global affairs, the Americas, or the European Union is dominated by Northern researchers. However, the same is true for academic research on African affairs. Even postcolonial studies suffer from a lack of African voices, especially from those not based in higher education institutions in the United States or the UK.

Exceptions to this trend do exist, but they are rare. Mahmood Mamdani, for instance, even though born in India, made his way to leading US Universities after a long career in Tanzania and Uganda, and finally became accepted as a thought-provoking voice on a broad range of global affairs. Academics who do not make it out of African institutions or decide to remain there face an uphill battle when it comes to international recognition. While there is a number of excellent research institutions in Africa and well-cited research outputs in countries such as South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, or Ethiopia, in social and political sciences, most of these contributions focus on African issues.

In countries such as South Sudan, the vast majority of academic – and non-academic – research outputs by South Sudanese scholars focus on South Sudan. While it is without doubt indispensable to have South Sudanese voices as the lead contributors to the academic discussion on the country and the region it is embedded in, the situation still is structurally difficult. Without the ability to undertake comparative research and to gain research insights from other contexts, the quality of research outputs may be challenged – and the career perspectives for South Sudanese scholars beyond South Sudan remain shallow.

What are the reasons behind this imbalance? First, the African University sector is chronically underfunded, which results in challenging institutional conditions. Salaries are low, if paid regularly at all. Library access is limited, hence, staying on top of international debates, which happens in books and journals that are often locked behind a paywall, remains elusive. Even if there is library access – some editors provide special conditions for institutions in the Global South – connectivity and the lack of means to travel to international conferences and gatherings are factors difficult to overcome. In his inaugural professorial speech at the University of Juba, South Sudanese scholar Leben Moro made the telling remark that his return from Europe to the University of Juba is likely going to end his international academic writing career. The conditions are just too challenging to pursue that.

Second, closely related to the bleak financial situation of African Universities, comes the overall funding situation for research in most African countries. In order to sustain their livelihood, many academics have to generate the majority of their income either through consultancies or by accepting jobs in International Organisations or the international NGO sector. In such roles, they are confined to the role of country or regional specialists and have hardly any chance to develop their own academic profile along their research interests.

Third, it is remarkable that the international support structure meant to empower Southern-based research that reproduces or entrenches research imbalances. A fundamental misunderstanding of academic work, combined with self-interest and showcasing of fashionable agendas such as ‘localisation’ result in an institutionalised disadvantaging of Southern academics. A key element of institutionalised disadvantage is the figure of the ‘local researcher’, a concept that has no background in academia, but has been created by the development world. Even though meant to empower national research capabilities in Africa, the idea of ‘local researchers’ continuously reproduces colonial hierarchies of knowledge. The development rationale, of course, dictates that African voices need to be heard – but mainly on local and national issues. Funding the University sector for its own sake, especially in social and political sciences, to support research agendas and careers beyond narrow conceptions of engaging with the immediate social and political context is not understood as a development challenge and habitually left aside.

Consequently, African academics, internationally rendered as ‘local researchers’, are forced to focus their research agenda on their own context. Such colonial patterns stretch to the European and American University sector. Hiring practices at African Studies departments often proactively look for African scholars. This is obvious, logical, and progressive – however, one important question remains: why are such practices confined to African studies? Why not hire African scholars for European studies, comparative politics, or general International Relations roles too, even if their academic CV cannot fully compete with colleagues having had the privilege of Northern university education?

There are pathways out of this structural imbalance. Instead of focusing on empowering ‘local researchers’ through international development funding, there is the obvious need to foster institutional partnerships with the African University sector. African scholars need to be able to set their research agenda by themselves, and not driven by externally decided development policy objectives. Such structural cooperation needs to be accompanied by measures to support equal access to global opportunities, where the ability to better research outcome delivery is not measured by colour, religion, or gender. More scholarships that especially enable scholarly work going beyond an in-country focus, perhaps by offering a career trajectory that internationalises a hitherto narrow research pathway. Substantive funding for African scholars to attend international conferences are another element, for which over-restrictive visa policies also need to be reconsidered.

Finally, the practice of hiring and supporting ‘local researchers’ needs to be substituted by structural support for African research institutions. Way too often, international research projects circumvent the academic sector in so-called ‘target countries’ because it is seen as too complicated, ineffective, or corrupt. Often, delivery timelines, work commitments, and work modalities work against a collaboration at eye-level. Challenges for effective collaboration also include ever stricter duty of care procedures and ‘responsible’ travel policies, which is de facto undermining the indispensable personal exchange at a regular basis. While many of these processes hampering effective collaboration may make sense in internal logics of funding institutions and Northern Universities and research hubs, they need to be reviewed with the perspective to overcome the structural research imbalance.


About the Authors

Nyachangkuoth Rambang Tai is a feminist, a peace activist, human rights defender and co-founder of The Mother Care Organization. She is Big Ocean Women South Sudan Cottage President, a Young African Leaders Initiative alumna, and United States Institute of Peace ‘Women Making Peace’ Award Finalist for the year 2021. In September 2020, Tai briefed the United Nations Security Council on South Sudan on behalf of South Sudanese civil society organizations.

Dr Jan Pospisil is Research Director at the Austrian Study Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution (ASPR) and an Associated Professor in Political Science at the University of Vienna. His work focuses on peace processes and political settlements, donor politics in peacebuilding, resilience, and South Sudanese and Sudanese politics. Jan is co-investigator in the PeaceRep programme.