Wednesday, 6th December 2023

Funding problem with African studies

By Leo Igwe
11 September 2023   |   1:52 am
In a previous article, I explained what was wrong with African studies programmes, and noted how studies and research on Africa have been stuck in the past, and obsessed with primitive notions of Africa and Africans.

European Conference on African Studies

In a previous article, I explained what was wrong with African studies programmes, and noted how studies and research on Africa have been stuck in the past, and obsessed with primitive notions of Africa and Africans. I opined that the African studies programme had changed its coat, not its character since the first study was conducted. I wondered why contemporary African scholarship was out of step with the African life situation and why the debate had not discarded mistaken assumptions and representations of the continent and its peoples.

A point that I omitted in that piece was funding. African study programmes are funded. Individuals and groups, governmental and non-governmental agencies, with various interests finance these studies and research on Africa. So, funds play a critical and decisive role. Money is a huge factor and wields so much influence on the content and direction of studies.

For instance, some years ago, I met a professor from an African university. He is a part of a collaborative programme with a university in Europe. While discussing how the study program did not align with the realities of Africa, and the interests of Africans, he shook his head and said: “My brother, you know these people (referring to the European university officials) bring the money, so they dictate everything”.

Yes, they, European, and American collaborators in African studies programmes, etc. bring the money and dictate the study focus, themes, and duration of the project with little from their African counterparts. That may not be absolutely the case, but that shows the role of funding and funders in these African studies programmes.

Look, what this professor said did not come to me as a surprise. African studies programs are predicated on funds and funders’ interests. Those who pay the students, scholars, and researchers on African studies dictate the content of the study.

They have an overwhelming influence on what is researched or studied, on what is known or published. People study Africa as determined by funders, not necessarily by scholars.

As a doctoral candidate and a junior research fellow on African studies, I noted this unfortunate situation. Many African students and researchers jostled for funding, fell head over heels to make their proposals to suit the interests and prescriptions of the funders. I noticed that many researchers were reluctant to speak their minds because they would not want to offend their funders and sponsors.

They did not want to do anything that would jeopardise their funding prospects. They preferred to abandon their positions and take up the funders’. They condoned and validated what they would have otherwise challenged or denounced. Many students preferred to say or write what their financiers wanted to hear or read, not necessarily what they thought was valid and persuasive.

Students wrote to please their funders and keep funds coming, not to fill a gap in existing knowledge and debate. And with these prevailing economic circumstances, this funding and study pattern is not likely to change.

The fear of losing research funds has become the beginning of academic wisdom in African studies programs. So, for now no significant shift in the study and research on Africa may happen. Western funders would likely keep dictating the content and direction of African studies for the foreseeable future. Is that not a tragedy?

African students and scholars have their fair share of the blame. We cannot continue to complain and whine about a problem we partly created or have contributed to perpetuating. For fund sake, many scholars are reluctant to demonstrate academic courage. We have to wake up and take steps to effect a paradigm shift in African studies. It is not enough to blame Western funders and collaborators for dictating everything. For our selfish interests, we have largely turned a blind on these issues. We tend to complain on the margins. African students and scholars have refused to take the necessary steps to address this problem.

We have allowed Western funders and sponsors to dictate everything. African scholars cannot continue to be bystanders and passive observers of the study of Africa. African states and scholars can change the way Africa is studied if only we can muster the academic and intellectual will.

Change happens and will happen in this case, not because it is easy but, because it is necessary. Yes, it is imperative to change how the African studies program is financed. There is a need to correct this funding wrong with African studies. 

One way to achieve this goal is to create room for research areas and study interests that depart from these stereotypic notions, Eurocentric assumptions and misrepresentations of Africa, sometimes by African scholars and non-African allies and funders. These research areas will be a welcome development, motivation, and incentive to depart from the usual academic path. It will inspire Africans to exercise their minds freely as they write and research.

Alternative sources of funding need to be in place. That means the Western monopoly of funding should end. I understand that this would be difficult to achieve. But it has become a necessity. We must start from somewhere. African governments and foundations should set up their African studies funding programs and scholarships. They should sponsor studies and research on aspects of Africa often ignored, or too often misrepresented. African governments should establish academic and research mechanisms and ensure that Western governments and universities do not fund and eventually dictate everything in African studies. Igwe holds a doctoral degree in religious studies from the Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies, University of Bayreuth, Germany.

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