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Equal partnerships in creating an African-centred WASH Research Agenda

Towards the latter part of 2021, I was approached by the Perivoli Africa Research Centre (PARC), to support the process of ‘developing an African WASH (Water, Sanitation, Hygiene) Research Agenda’.  One could say that I wear a couple of ‘hats’ within the African Higher Education Sector and thematic research networks such as water, sanitation, disaster risk reduction and science, technology and innovation (STI). Primarily, I’m the Director of the Centre for Collaboration in Africa at Stellenbosch University, South Africa where we create an enabling environment for Stellenbosch University to partner and collaborate with other African institutions. 

In addition, I’m the Programme manager of the Southern African Network of the African Union Development Agency (AUDA)-NEPAD Networks of Water Centres of Excellence and the Lead-Expert of another AUDA-NEPAD Centre of Excellence in Science, Technology and Innovation (STI). In addition, I am also the Director of the PERIPERI-U Network – a network of 13 universities across Africa focusing research and capacity development in the field of Disaster Risk Reduction. It might seem diverse, but this portfolio gives me broad insight into the African Higher Education Sector and various related thematic research topics such as water, sanitation, and STI which could contribute towards a process in developing an African WASH Research Agenda.

With his writing I would like to highlight key aspects I believe we have to consider in our approach in developing and Africa WASH Research Agenda.

‘Africa is not one country’

In a post-colonial era, Africa is too often referred to as one country where problems are generalized and where solutions are proposed as a ‘one size fits all’ approach without considering that local contextualization is required. At a national level, most African countries do have their developmental priorities clearly defined, but it would be impractical to attempt the development of any African Research agenda at this level considering each of the 54 African countries. Over the years, I have had the good fortune to travel to 33 other African countries, and have I experienced a level of regional homogeneity in, first, diversity in climate, topography, precipitation and furthermore diversity in languages, cultures, believes in different regions of the African continent. 

To thus attempt a single African WASH Research Agenda would be futile, and could one, as a starting point, consider the delineation of countries within the five regions of the African Union (North, West, Central, East and Southern Africa). This delineation would however be limited, as one should also consider Regional Economic Communities (RECs) and specifically the 13 major trans-boundary River Basins, as many inter-governmental governance arrangements, strategies and implementation plans are coordinated through the RECs and River Basin Organizations (RBOs) across the continent.  One should never forget that for millennia, Africans were connected by waterways and rivers that cut across the continent and transcend national boundaries set during the colonial era. 

Indeed, one could argue that there are deficiencies in the functioning of different RECs and RBOs, and the need continue to strengthen and build the capacity of these institutions across the continent. Here, partnerships with institutions in the Global North have played an important role to support RECs and RBOs along with the African Ministers' Council on Water (AMCOW) – a specialized Committee for Water and Sanitation in the African Union to promote “cooperation, security, social, economic development and poverty eradication among member states through the effective management of the continent’s water resources and provision of water supply services”.

However, it must be said that often inequalities exist in partnerships between African institutions and institutions in the Global North, specifically in relation to research and human capacity development where African institutions often do not reap the full benefits of such partnerships. This debate is nothing new with African institutions often exclaiming how they draw the short straw.

Inequality persists

At a recent webinar hosted by the African Climate Development Initiative (ACDI) at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and the School for Climate Studies (SCS) at Stellenbosch University (SU) the implications for Southern African of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, titled ‘Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability’ were discussed (see https://www.sun.ac.za/english/Lists/news/DispForm.aspx?ID=8959 for detail of the webinar). During the webinar, Dr Chris Trisos, one of the coordinating lead authors on the Africa-chapter, indicated that between 1990 and 2020, “78% of funding for Africa-related climate research flowed to institutions in Europe and the United States – only 14.5% flowed to institutions in Africa”. Moreover, “not only are research agendas shaped by a Global North perspective, but African researchers are positioned primarily as recipients engaged to support these research agendas instead of being equal partners in setting the agenda.” Moreover, an analysis of more than 15 000 climate change publications found that for more that 75% of African countries, 60-100% of the publications did not include a single African author and authorship dominated by researchers from countries beyond Africa.

There are many examples where phrases such as ‘research tourism’ and ‘he who holds the purse is setting the agenda’ are reluctantly whispered in the corridors of African research institutions where partners from the Global North are involved. In addition, local researchers are often left to manage expectations and the associated disappointment of communities in the aftermath of ill-implemented research projects where the promises of a better life did not realize within the communities. Often, research projects land in the lap of many African researchers, knowing that their academic aspiration of promotion and stature lies in the anticipated publications resulting from the research projects, and not necessarily in what benefit the project might have to the societies where they operate in. Moreover, how often do we see how the majority of research funding emanating from institutions in the Global North are allocated to a Principal Investigator at an institution in their backyard, and where the partners in the African countries receive very little of the total funding of projects – often under the guise that the funds will not reach its intended purpose due to corruption and maladministration. Yes, there are improvements where African partners are co-designing research projects and indeed, there are many examples of institutions with challenges, but there are also many African research institutions that have repeatedly shown that they have the capacity to manage large research projects and have the leadership and will to continue improve Research Development Offices and financial controls within their institutions – not to appease partners in the Global North, but out of pure home-grown leadership and good governance.

So, in conclusion, I am of the firm belief that we can create an African WASH Research Agenda, and that we can, through true multi-stakeholder engagements identify, prioritize and create research projects which we can successfully implement that are for the benefit of our societies in which we live. This can only be achieved through true partnerships with the Global North where mutual trust and respect are earned. Personally, I have experienced such partnerships, and do I also realise that we can do so much more. 

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This blog is written by Dr. Nico Elema is the Director of the Centre for Collaboration in Africa at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. Read more about his collaborative sustainable water services project with the University of Bristol.

Dr Nico Elema



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