The Africa Charter for Transformative Research Collaborations (ACTRC) recorded a remarkable 84 signatories at its recent launch event. This significant endorsement dwarfed the approximate 40 signatories the organisers had hoped to achieve in support of this progressive charter, which is set to uphold the continent’s contribution to global scholarship.
The charter was launched on 5 July at, and under the auspices of, the Association of African Universities’ biennial conference of Rectors and Vice-Chancellors (COREViP) in Windhoek, Namibia. It will pioneer a radical transformation in the approach to global research collaborations with Africa and introduce an African-centred framework that will be developed into standard best practice with guiding principles, measures of success and accountability.
Supporters of the ACTRC ranged from key African and global universities, university networks such as the African Research Universities Alliance and the COIMBRA group of universities (an association of long-established, comprehensive, and multidisciplinary European universities), bodies such as the African Academy of Science and the Institute for Security Studies. This turnout was further complemented by expressions of support from eminent individuals, including world-renowned civil rights activist lawyer, politician and diplomat, Right Honourable Lord Boateng.
Towards an equitable research agenda
Data shows that most African research involves collaborations with wealthy countries, yet underlying inequality in the global knowledge production system is rife, with Africa contributing a disproportionately small fraction of scientific publications globally (less than 2% in 2018), according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). This differential is not only starkly inequitable, but also leads to poorer science.
Speaking at the launch of the charter, University of Cape Town (UCT) Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Internationalisation Professor Sue Harrison said, “Equitable partnerships are becoming increasingly important, because if we [the higher education sector] want to deal with the critical problems of [the] world, we must set the research agenda together and work in a truly equitable way.”
“We need to build voice and agency for all, and the charter is building towards this.”
Professor Harrison added that there cannot be equitable partnerships without all parties involved across the partnership cycle. “We need to build voice and agency for all, and the charter is building towards this.”
According to the vice-chancellor of the University of South Africa (UNISA), Professor Puleng LenkaBula, the charter “will serve as a guide that will assist us to rethink the practices that maintain the power imbalances and sometimes create further inequalities”.
The ambitious charter was co-created by what Professor LenkaBula referred to as a ‘brains trust’ of academics from three research powerhouses – the Albert Luthuli Research Chair at UNISA, Professor Puleng Segalo; the director of the Institute for Humanities in Africa (HUMA) at UCT, Associate Professor Divine Fuh; and the Chair in Africa Research and Partnerships for the Perivoli Africa Research Centre (PARC) at the University of Bristol (UoB), Professor Isabel Aboderin.
Many stakeholders were brought in along the way: the process of the making of the charter was intentionally a firmly collaborative endeavour, and a practical example of what it aims to achieve through the mode of transformative research collaborations it will champion. The vice-chancellor and president of UoB, Professor Evelyn Welch, praised it for being “truly co-created”, adding that the founders engaged with not just universities across the globe but also with international networks, funders and – very importantly – those creating research policies in different countries.
“We need to not just hold this charter either on our websites or in our hearts, but actually [put it] into genuinely transformative practice.”
She continued, “We need to not just hold this charter either on our websites or in our hearts, but actually [put it] into genuinely transformative practice.”
At the core of this initiative is the drive to change how Africa is always perceived as “perpetually developing and as a site of deficits that needs to catchup with modern Western advancements”, said Professor Segalo.
She emphasised that this newly envisioned mode of research collaboration needs to question why African ways of being and other knowledge systems are often relegated to the periphery and Euro-western ways of knowing centralised as the norm.
What lies ahead for the charter
The careful framing of the charter has been critical, and the huge response from the signatories at the launch was encouraging, said Associate Professor Fuh; however, he stressed that the most important work on the charter lies ahead.
The three core members – UoB, UCT and UNISA – have agreed to form a secretariat and will commit resources to enable taking the charter forward. The members are also setting up a steering committee to bring other key stakeholders in to take the work forward and implement the charter. All those who have signed up to the charter will form a coalition of partners around a set of core values, each of whom plays a part in ‘owning’ the initiative, ensuring their institution invests in it and introducing its principles to internal and external stakeholders.
“The launch is but a first in what will be and has to be a wider initiative that is part of a long journey we hope many more institutions will join,” said Professor Aboderin.
Aboderin added, “[The charter is] standing on the shoulders of giants. It draws on and is inspired by the long history of African emancipatory intellectual thought and efforts, and it builds on – but goes beyond – more recent equitable partnership initiatives.”
Thus, the intention and potential of the charter is to be truly transformative, seizing a moment in which joint knowledge and approaches are increasingly valued. “The world increasingly understands the urgent need for a richer, more powerful science – one that enables us to properly sustain human dignity and tackle the multiple, existential crises we collectively face.”
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