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Does doing “research” aimed at helping Africa hurt it? | 

Laura Freschi at AidWatch has posted a link to an interesting talk given by a Ugandan academic and raised a question with respect to African scientific research in her post “African Universities: Creating True Researchers or ‘Native Informers’ to NGOs?

There’s a lot of discussion out there today about how to create “sustainable” health system improvements in many African nations with regard to preventing disease and providing health care — as opposed to just flying in Western do-gooders to come in with a campaign targeted at combating a single illness or fixing a specific problem.

The same problem exists with respect to efforts aimed at building up Africa’s scientific research base.

Freschi’s post is based on a recent speech given by a Ugandan academic, Mahmood Mamdani, which you should read for a more in-depth and on-the-ground perspective.

Mamdani claims Western NGOs like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (which he singles out for its approach to malaria research) have been pushing African universities to adopt a “consultancy culture” focused on supporting mostly market-driven initiatives rather than creating a truly independent academic culture:

Today, the market-driven model is dominant in African universities. The consultancy culture it has nurtured has had negative consequences for postgraduate education and research. Consultants presume that research is all about finding answers to problems defined by a client. They think of research as finding answers, not as formulating a problem.

I question Mamdani’s singular focus on the Gates Foundation, and am not sure I agree with what he says is wrong with its malaria research strategy, but I think he and Freschi raise some very important issues and concerns here.

On a related note, Seth Berkley (outgoing AIDS vaccine champion CEO at IAVI and incoming CEO for children’s vaccine at GAVI) makes the case in SciDev.net for how boosting African R&D can assist in the fight against poverty.