Peacebuilding and the Academy in Africa
It is becoming increasingly clear that the effectiveness of peacebuilding in Africa is intertwined with the health of African higher education. Long-term peace in Africa will not be possible without greater African involvement, but African contributions will only be successful when they are grounded in strong research.
In May 2017, Carnegie Corporation of New York convened high-level African peacebuilding practitioners and academics. Participants discussed the role that the academy and research institutions play in advancing peacebuilding in Africa. The takeaway of the discussions is that the issues undermining the advancement of African higher education are also affecting Africans in the peacebuilding field.
The failure of international peacebuilding efforts to establish sustainable peace is in part because of an inability to incorporate African expertise into the process. The peacebuilding field has long articulated a need to include local expertise, but has yet to dynamically involve the depth of knowledge, experience, and leadership of the continent.
Currently, African insights are not penetrating the peacebuilding field. One cause can be attributed to the inability of the African higher education system to sustain a pipeline of well-trained researchers and practitioners. By addressing structural barriers in African higher education, more Africans will be better able to compete in the marketplace of peacebuilding ideas.
Tackling these challenges is easier said than done. Higher education in Africa faces a number of structural barriers, one of which is a shortage of qualified professors. This creates a dilemma for African universities. Because of the limited pipeline of highly trained African academics, African universities often turn to faculty members who have not completed a doctorate. This results in fewer students and new teachers emerging with the research and analytical skills required to conduct high-level research and to train others to the doctoral level.
A lack of research funding for Africans limits opportunities to conduct new empirical research as well. The limited number of sizable social science research projects led by Africans restricts new empirical research being done by Africans.
Limited access to materials also weakens research. In many cases, African universities are unable to pay for access to journals and other materials. This is compounded by slower internet speeds that make it difficult to download PDFs and data sets. Non-English-speaking academics are limited in their choice of journals and their ability to influence international conversations on peacebuilding because of the often prohibitive cost of translation.
Research and subsequent analysis create the basis for publication, which in turn is the basis for academic advancement. Access issues are compounded by African academics’ difficulty in publishing their research and analysis. The evidence is visible in the limited number of Africans published in top peacebuilding journals, in spite of their high submission rates. Ryan C. Briggs and Scott Weathers (2016) have identified that Africa-based authors are submitting more articles but are being accepted to academic journals less often, in their article, “Gender and Location in African Politics Scholarship: The Other White Man’s Burden?”
African academics on the forefront of empirical research and publication still run into difficulties. A bias towards Western methods and questions reduces African academics’ ability to participate in the peacebuilding conversation. Briggs and Weathers (2016) also have found that African authors tend to write about specific regions and speak with fewer generalities. One expert at the Carnegie Corporation of New York conference stated that “quantitative methods are promoted over social experiences of Africans.” Western approaches and perspectives create an “editorial gatekeeping” that restricts African voices.
Clearly, the attitudes and assumptions of the Global North continue to dictate policy and research agendas. These issues within African higher education are not new; the African Studies Association (ASA) has been discussing them since 1972. The concept of decolonizing African academia dates back even further to discussions of dependency.
Current initiatives are starting to move the dial. There are several Carnegie Corporation-supported programs centered on addressing these challenges. By addressing the areas blocking African research development, African voices are gaining greater access to broader audiences within the peacebuilding field. This is allowing African academics to be able to contribute to the agenda and rebut narratives lacking nuance and complexity.
A number of organizations aim to create a critical mass of African researchers in the peacebuilding field. The Social Science Research Council’s African Peacebuilding Network (APN) and Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa (NextGen) programs provide grants for doctoral candidates, post-doctoral research, and book projects by Africans working on peacebuilding research on the continent. The African Leadership Centre (ALC) has established both masters and doctoral programs, and utilizes continent-wide networks to produce research consortiums. The Woodrow Wilson Center’s Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding (SVNP) provides opportunities for African research institutions and their staff to contribute to the policy dialogue in Washington, D.C., and across the continent.
African organizations have long been aware of the barriers in higher education, and the opportunities for addressing them are now expanding. The Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) is applying social science research findings to improve university and higher education governance. The Association of African Universities (AAU) convenes the leadership of African universities to discuss learning across the continent and to improve higher education quality and outcomes. The Partnership for African Social and Governance Research (PASGR) is training social scientists in research methods to address quality gaps among early and mid-career academics and policy researchers.
Progress and effort cannot be denied, but there continues to be a steep hill to climb. These initiatives will not address all the structural changes required to advance peacebuilding studies, nor other academic fields. Yet, they have increased the focus on developing peacebuilding expertise within African higher education, which should be seen as critical to improving peacebuilding outcomes. Strengthening the abilities of African researchers will allow them to provide more nuanced analyses and variations in viewpoints. This will bring substantially more African voices into the peacebuilding discourse.