As a part of the UCL’s African Voices series of events (see:http://bit.ly/21eEkyG), Dr Peter Waiswa, a Ugandan medical doctor trained in Public Health, delivered an interesting, important, and thought provoking talk on ’how African scientists struggle to contribute to innovation in the global health arena’. As a student of African Studies with Health, the topic was naturally of great personal interest, but I think everyone attending the talk left with numerous self-reflective questions that were in many ways difficult to answer.
It would not do Peter’s thorough talk justice to try and summarise it all in one blog entry, and hence I will focus on some of the key ideas I took away from the event. To begin with, Peter focused on his own area of expertise and outlined recent research results within maternal, newborn, and child health in Uganda and Africa more generally. Although improvements are definitely present in the figures, the very same numbers also demonstrated some of the health inequalities between the northern hemisphere and large parts of Africa. This was especially evident in the levels of children dying less than a month after birth. Peter pointed out that it will take Africa 110 years to reach the low child mortality levels of rich countries if we do ‘business as usual’. It is difficult to disagree with Peter, when he argues that 110 years to close this health inequality gap is simply not fast enough, and hence there is a massive need for applying health innovations in a way that is not ‘business as usual’. This led very well on to the next – and main – focus of the talk: the empowerment of African scientists.
First of all, a clear need for more African researchers was identified. Just 79 per million people in Africa are scientists, compared to 4,500 in the US. Although research from African researchers has increased by 60% over the period of 2008-2014, only 1.1% of total global research comes from Africa. I believe the consequences from this – both in- and outside of Africa – are not to be ignored or taken lightly, and I feel this was the message Peter communicated as well. It must be in absolutely everyone’s interest that more research comes from Africa itself. Peter’s insights on maternal, newborn, and child health in Uganda reminded me that no one outside of Uganda would be able to research, analyse, and communicate the findings to the same extraordinarily level as Peter. No matter how much of an ‘expert’ an ‘outsider’ might claim to be and although an outsider’s view and contribution surely is part of good research, the level of expertise from ‘insiders’ simply cannot be beaten. And why should it? Surely, it should be encouraged and pushed forward in all global health journals, news, and research designs etc. It seems very questionable as to whether the global (academic) community is doing a good enough job in terms of empowering African academics.
Inevitably, the issue of research funding was brought up. Peter described how no government grants in Uganda were provided, so when grants were given, they were sourced from Europe or the US and thus specified research into European or US set research agendas. Peter likewise described how numerous Africans are surely capable of undertaking the most innovative, original and relevant complex medical research, but simply do no have the institutional capacity or funding to carry it out. This spoke very strongly to the overall question of Peter’s talk: Whose agenda is it?
In my opinion, one of the most important themes of the talk revolved around ethics. Peter argued that many African scientists simply operated as data collectors, often in global partnerships with obvious power imbalances. Naturally, strong global partnerships are very important, but they can act as a barrier for the development of African scientists and scientific capacity. An example of a beneficial partnership was between Peter’s home university, Makerere University in Uganda, and Karolina Institute in Sweden. He is a visiting lecturer there, and I find this a very tangible example of how to empower African scientists by according them high-level joint statuses. The two institutions also seem to have very positive plans to carry out joint research degrees.
An important element that I had not previously considered was mobility of African scientists globally. Peter described how the visa system can be extremely slow, bureaucratic, and inflexible, and also often patronising and degrading. Peter argued this was the case both in and outside of the African continent, particularly for African scholars from countries with controversial governments. This is obviously a political question, but as Peter mentioned in a different context (related to research funding), academia should be separated from government. I think this was a crucial and very strong point, because foreign political action taken against Mugabe’s administration in Uganda impacts the wrong people, when progressive Ugandan scientists like Peter are affected.
Toward the end of the talk Peter mentioned that Africa certainly was not overlooked, both nationally and globally, in regards to funding for sports (especially football), but the funding for science is vastly lacking. As a consequence, significant pressure on the few African scientists there are is created, because, as Peter described, African scientists are expected to be teachers, innovators, community service men/women, leaders, financiers, etc. They simply have too many roles in their communities. This likewise ties into the continuous brain drain from Africa to Europe and the US, because comparatively fewer African scientists are present in African contexts. If the scale of the brain drain can be lowered, perhaps it would be much more likely that African scientists would not be expected to take on as many roles in their communities, simply because there would be many more to take on the expected responsibilities.
I would like to express a big thank you to Dr Peter Waiswa for a fascinating talk, which I hope will be the beginning of a long and mutually beneficial relationship between UCL and Makerere University.
Jakob Glibstrup is a student on the UCL African Studies MSc Programme, taking the Health pathway. Jakob is Danish and did his undergraduate studies in the UK and US within Business Studies. He holds an interest in how business development in Africa can help drive poverty alleviation as well as promotion of human rights, particularly in areas of conflict and extreme poverty.