The marginalisation of social sciences and humanities in African universities has radically stifled scholarship, according to CODESRIA – the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa. At a workshop in Nairobi, scholars from the diaspora and from Sub-Saharan Africa heard that this had narrowed the region’s view on development.
“Attempts to improve Africa’s development prospects by focusing on scientific advances and the benefits accruing from them have masked the critical role of social sciences and humanities as torchbearers of African values, systems of power, production and distribution,” said CODESRIA coordinator Professor Ibrahim Oanda Ogachi.
The workshop was held in Nairobi from 13-17 October and was supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. CODESRIA has embarked on an ambitious project of mobilising African academics in the diaspora to work jointly with colleagues in African universities to re-establish intellectual traditions embedded in a scholarship and research culture.
Ogachi said the primary objective of the project dubbed African Diaspora Support to African Universities – which was launched at the workshop – was to strengthen PhD programmes and curricula in the social sciences and humanities.
Scholars in the diaspora will mentor and conduct PhD supervision in order to alleviate shortages of academics in the social sciences and humanities in African universities, and to bolster institutions with valuable international experience and insights.
“Currently there is under-enrolment in certain disciplines, as well as a prevailing perception that social sciences and humanities disciplines do not matter, especially in the debate on Africa’s development agenda,” Ogachi told University World News in Nairobi.
Deficits despite STEM focus
In a keynote at the workshop, Emmanuel Akyeampong, professor of African history at Harvard University in the United States, noted that despite Africa’s fixation on the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics – STEM – the continent still had serious infrastructural and technological deficits.
In the last 35 years, Africa’s share of global trade had also declined from 3.3% to 2%.
“For Africa to develop, what is required is not merely teaching STEM fields but acquiring competencies in knowledge, skills and attitudes, and understanding how to deal with migration, the environment, citizenship, employment, inequality, family and technology,” said Akyeampong.
While university education in Africa had expanded exponentially in the last two decades, expansion had not been followed by a proportional increase in staffing and academic supervision capacity, especially in the social sciences and humanities.
Consequently, CODESRIA’s current project to build capacity in African universities had been conceived with an understanding that most tertiary institutions are operating on threadbare physical infrastructure and human resources.
Overcoming the brain drain
Presenting a project document on how to overcome brain drain from African higher education through partnerships with diaspora scholars, Professor Patricio Langa of the University of the Western Cape and Dr Samuel Fongwa of University of the Free State in South Africa showed the current low percentages of academics with PhDs in selected African universities.
For instance, only 17% of academics at Eduardo Mondlane University in Mozambique have PhDs or other doctoral degrees, 42% at the University of Mauritius, 43% at Makerere University in Uganda, and 45% each at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and Kenya’s University of Nairobi.
Universities cited with improved PhD faculty proportions included the University of Ghana, Legon at 50%, the University of Cape Town at 63% and the University of Botswana at 65%.
In order to increase the numbers of scholars with PhDs in African universities, Langa stressed that deliberate efforts should be made to provide flexible conditions for teaching, research supervision and thesis examination.
He also called for strengthening the academic culture in universities through joint research initiatives with scholars in the diaspora, as well as regional partnerships.
Some Africa-diaspora initiatives
Ethiopia’s Dr Amare Desta, a senior lecturer at London South Bank University, and Edwards Alademerin, an associate professor at Tai Solarin University of Education in Nigeria, revealed a plan to open an African doctoral and masters academy with a view to developing capacity in African universities in information technology.
“To date many universities in Nigeria and Ethiopia and elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa are in a state of advanced decay, with most of the teaching staff leaving the country in droves in search of greener pastures abroad,” said Desta.
The aim of the proposed academy will be to connect academics and researchers in the diaspora to those resident in African universities, and to work together to improve the quality of higher education on the continent.
African universities are rapidly absorbing digital technologies and yet their impact on and value for educational outcomes is under-researched, said Dr Raymond Asare Tutu, a Ghanaian associate professor at Delaware State University in the United States, and Dr John Kwame Boateng, a lecturer in continuing and distance education at the University of Ghana.
They are investigating the impact of various student-instructor interaction formats in blended-learning in Ghana. “The primary goal of the project is to find out whether digital technologies increase learning outcomes and grades among Ghanaian university students,” said Tutu.
Highlighting the premise that no sound society can be built on natural sciences and technology alone were Dr Winfred Avogo, associate professor of sociology at Illinois State University in the US, and Clifford Odimegwu, professor of population studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa.
Outlining a proposed project on labour migration, social networks and HIV-Aids risk in South Africa, the researchers pointed out the importance of highly trained demographers if policy-makers are to understand the real causes of African migrations to Europe, environmental challenges imposed by climate change and causes of population increases.
Social science must tackle social problems
According to CODESRIA, current single-dimensional approaches to social change and development in Africa have aggravated social inequalities that continue to widen, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa where countries have in recent years been recording positive economic growth.
“It is commonplace to find literature suggesting that African countries are now more unequal, and ethnically, religiously and economically more divided than they were in the context of colonialism,” noted a CODESRIA concept paper that formed the basis of the Nairobi forum.
The crux of the matter is that social problems like insecurity, intolerance, environmental pollution and food insecurity are becoming more and more widespread, even as societies in Africa invest more in science and technology to try and alleviate these problems.
The concept paper highlighted the fact that while African governments were putting trust in natural sciences and technology to curb labour migration and brain drain, as well as improve social cohesion, trade and gender relations, other countries – such as Brazil, China and India – had seen the importance of increasing the number of social scientists to address such issues.
“Within the European Union, the role of the social sciences and humanities has been recognised as crucial to attaining Europe’s Vision 2020 through investment in cutting-edge socio-economic sciences and the humanities,” Ogachi told University World News.
CODESRIA has raised the red flag of neglect and discrimination against social sciences and humanities within Africa’s development agenda. There is sufficient testimony to suggest that the skewed emphasis on natural sciences and technology needs to be balanced by inputs from other areas of human interest.