Brain Gain

IDRC has joined forces with academic and research institutes in sub-Saharan Africa to train new scholars and repair a tattered academic infrastructure. These are vital steps in addressing the region's critical social challenges.

By Stephen Dale

IDRC has joined forces with academic and research institutes in sub-Saharan Africa to train new scholars and repair a tattered academic infrastructure. These are vital steps in addressing the region's critical social challenges.

While conducting his doctoral research into the roots of violent conflict in Nigeria’s oil-rich but environmentally despoiled Niger Delta region, Fidelis Allen has faced many obstacles. Working in a conflict zone, his own safety depends on winning the confidence of government and rebel combatants by respecting conditions such as the anonymity of his sources. Such conditions can mean that it takes up to five months to get answers to a simple questionnaire. More mundane restraints like disruptions to the electrical supply also make it difficult to use computers or send email — activities that are essential in academic life.

Yet Allen, a doctoral candidate at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, enjoys some advantages other African scholars do not. As the recipient of a research fellowship funded by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and administered by the Africa Programme of the United Nations' University for Peace in Ethiopia, Allen has the opportunity to stay in Africa and conduct research on a topic of vital regional interest. His circumstances contrast with those of many African academics forced by economic necessity to leave their countries — a situation that has cumulatively led to a brain drain with serious, negative impacts on most African countries’ capacity to grapple with a range of pressing problems.

Research must precede policy

“For every country, for every region of the world, the capacity to improve conditions is linked to the ability to understand, analyze, and undertake research that can clarify development options and strategies,” explains Alex Ezeh, executive director of the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC), another institution that administers an IDRC fellowship program. “One reason why Africa currently lags behind the rest of the world is that we account for about 0.3% of global knowledge production — if you look at patents and scientific research outputs — while we account for 11% of global population.”

Ultimately, then, the Southern Junior Researchers Awards (SJRA) program — the IDRC program that funds the African fellowships — has the dual objective of improving Africa’s academic capacities while taking broader aim at some acute social needs. The pilot program has been operating since 2006, with the work in sub-Saharan Africa serving as a possible model for future programs in other parts of the world. IDRC Senior Program Specialist Rita Bowry explains that it seemed sensible to choose sectors of obvious social importance and to entrust the program’s administration to existing institutions “that could manage these competitions in an efficient and transparent manner.”

Over the past three years, SJRA has granted fellowships to 113 researchers identified by partner institutions. In addition to APHRC and the Africa Programme of the University for Peace, these include the African Economic Research Consortium (AERC), the Collaborative Masters Program in Agricultural and Applied Economics, the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Environment, Agriculture and Development, the University of Nairobi School of Computing and Informatics, the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture, and the Tshwane University of Technology’s Institute for Economic Research on Innovation.

An institutional approach

Achieving broader academic and social transformation requires more than just supporting individual scholars. Jean-Bosco Butera, director of the University for Peace’s Africa Programme, says, for example, that his institution is creating a network of peace and conflict researchers as “a forum that will interact with policymakers on peace and security issues, so that we can have a concrete impact on peace and security on the continent.” Building bridges between academia and policymakers is also a chief concern in the economic sphere, says William Lyakurwa, executive director of AERC, which supports research on such topics as poverty, economic performance, and trade.

Several institutions have also organized workshops where postgraduate students can learn more about research methods and share preliminary research findings with fellow researchers. It is anticipated that these types of scholarly community-building activities will not only assist today’s academics, but help strengthen African universities: the scholars who hone their research skills today will in turn be able to train those who follow.

Fidelis Allen, who participated in such a workshop at the University for Peace in Addis Ababa, is an example of that multiplier effect. “I am now more able to give advice and direct other colleagues who are doing research,” he says.

Signs of success

It also appears that these activities have had some success in halting brain drain.

“A good many of the researchers we support, fortunately, have remained in Africa because of the opportunities to continue doing research, and also to participate in our graduate training programs,” reports AERC’s Lyakurwa. He adds that cultivating a new generation of researchers who are nimble, flexible, and up-to-date remains critical given the complex and rapidly changing problems in Africa.

“There is a need to address policy concerns as they evolve,” he says. “Policy-making is not static — it is a dynamic process — and we need to have the capacities to face new challenges as they emerge.”

Published: 27 Sep 2009

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