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Africa meets Europe

We all have much to learn in order to build a sustainable, peaceful and democratic future. This is especially true for how Europe does and should work with Africa.

"A disproportionately small number of researchers and scientific publications in the world are African"

The Coimbra Group’s annual conference at the University of Cologne from May 31 to June 2 this year demonstrated the organisation’s ethos of global co-operation.

Founded in 1985, the group comprises 41 European, high-ranking, comprehensive, civic universities. It is committed to creating special academic and cultural ties to promote internationalisation, academic collaboration, excellence in learning and research, and service to society. The group also influences European educational policy and develops best practice through mutual exchange of experience.

This year’s conference was fittingly scheduled to run alongside the Africa Futures conference, organised by the University of Cologne, and delegates could attend each other’s public events.

Vice-Rector for Teaching and Studies, Beatrix Busse, highlighted during her inspiring keynote that, amidst pressing global challenges, the need to foster a truly co-operative and co-creative spirit has never been greater.

Similarly, a transdisciplinary approach showing humility and humanity, as well as critical self-reflection will also prove imperative as we strive together to find solutions for wide-ranging issues including climate change, ecology, use of data and new models of telecommunication.

The focus on Africa as determining our “joint future and tomorrow mind” was also emphasised. The appeal for everyone to be “curious misfits”, in the sense of being empathetic and looking at life differently, was especially thought-provoking and surely holds the key to building the strongest, most meaningful bridges with international partners.

I had the pleasure of being part of a very fruitful panel discussion, moderated by Professor Kirk Junker of University of Cologne, together with fellow panellists Henk Kummeling, the Vice-Chancellor of University of Utrecht, Filomain Nguemo of University of Cologne and Hirut Woldemariam of University of Ethiopia, who also gave a wonderful keynote on women in science.

I was delighted to have the opportunity to introduce our commitment and plans to advance academic research collaborations with the Global North and Africa, and to rebalance the global production of knowledge.

Next month on 5 July, as part of a continental conference in Namibia hosted by the Association of African Universities, many hundreds of institutions will be invited to join a special Charter facilitated by the University of Bristol Perivoli Africa Research Centre in partnership with the University of South Africa and University of Cape Town.

The Charter aims to redress deeply entrenched power imbalances which have fuelled a huge gap between privileged universities and scholars in Europe, North America and Australia, and their African counterparts. Such historic disparities generate a division of labour, which systematically denies African scholars leading roles in, and control of funding for, international research endeavours to the detriment of themselves as well as the whole science and research ecosystem.

Despite forming one-tenth of the world adult population, Central, East, Southern and West Africa contribute to a tiny fraction (just 1.6% in 2018) of scientific publications globally. Compounding this underrepresentation, the majority of African research involves collaboration with richer countries and tends to concern Western priorities.

According to UNESCO, between 2017-2019 around 88% of scientific work in East and Central Africa, and 85% in Southern Africa, had international partners with the US, UK, and France being the most common collaborators.

No universities in Africa feature in the top 200 of the latest annual QS World University Rankings – Cape Town is the highest at 237. Only five African institutions, four of which are in South Africa, make the top 500 and none outside of South Africa, Egypt, and Tunisia are in the top 1,000.

Very few highly cited scholars are affiliated with African universities and, as again shown in the UNESCO Science Report 2021, a disproportionately small number of researchers and scientific publications in the world are African.

“The Charter will establish an African-centred framework, providing guiding principles as well as measures of success and accountability”

This systemic exclusion has a massive negative impact on the African economy, perpetuating dependence while also thwarting potential and development especially in science and technology. The Charter will unite networks, such as Coimbra, higher education organisations, funders, governments, policy bodies and publishers to co-create equitable partnerships putting Africa at the forefront.

It will embrace local ways of knowledge, namely African knowledge and concepts, and crucially reverse the one-way gaze which has focused on and favoured the Global North, determining Western predominance for decades. Research resources will be Africa-led, so they can at last set the agenda and also claim rightful credit.

The Charter will establish an African-centred framework, providing guiding principles as well as measures of success and accountability. While the approach may sound radically different at first, this reformed way of working will be championed as standard and best practice.

Besides resetting unjust hierarchies originating from colonial legacies, this collective endeavour will produce more inclusive, impactful scientific knowledge for the betterment of society at large.

Nelson Mandela’s sage assessment that “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” can perhaps be extended to include equitable research partnerships. In today’s world full of conflict, division, and multi-crises, the Charter represents a tangible roadmap to a better, more progressive, diverse, and sustainable shared future.

About the author: Professor Agnes Nairn is Pro Vice Chancellor (Global Engagement) at University of Bristol in the UK.

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