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date: 17 November 2019

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Collaborative research has a critical role to play in furthering our understanding of African politics. Many of the most important and interesting questions in the field are difficult, if not impossible, to tackle without some form of collaboration, either between academics within and outside of Africa—often termed North–South research partnerships—or between those researchers and organizations from outside the academic world. In Africa in particular, collaborative research is becoming more frequent and more extensive. This is due not only to the value of the research that it can produce but also to pressures on the funding of African scholars and academics in the Global North, alongside similar pressures on the budgets of non-academic collaborators, including bilateral aid agencies, multilateral organizations, and national and international non-government organizations.

Collaborative projects offer many advantages to these actors beyond access to new funding sources, so they constitute more than mere “marriages of convenience.” These benefits typically include access to methodological expertise and valuable new data sources, as well as opportunities to increase both the academic and “real-world” impact of research findings. Yet collaborative research also raises a number of challenges, many of which relate to equity. They center on issues such as who sets the research agenda, whether particular methodological approaches are privileged over others, how responsibility for different research tasks is allocated, how the benefits of that research are distributed, and the importance of treating colleagues with respect despite the narrative of “capacity-building.” Each challenge manifests in slightly different ways, and to varying extents, depending on the type of collaboration at hand: North–South research partnership or collaboration between academics and policymakers or practitioners. This article discusses both types of collaboration together because of their potential to overlap in ways that affect the severity and complexity of those challenges.

These challenges are not unique to research in Africa, but they tend to manifest in ways that are distinct or particularly acute on the continent because of the context in which collaboration takes place. In short, the legacy of colonialism matters. That history not only shapes who collaborates with whom but also who does so from a position of power and who does not. Thus, the inequitable nature of some research collaborations is not simply the result of oversights or bad habits; it is the product of entrenched structural factors that produce, and reproduce, imbalances of power. This means that researchers seeking to make collaborative projects in Africa more equitable must engage with these issues early, proactively, and continuously throughout the entire life cycle of those research projects. This is true not just for researchers based in the Global North but for scholars from, or working in, Africa as well.

Keywords: collaboration, Africa, North–South research partnerships, equitable research, research impact, research ethics, African politics, qualitative methods, quantitative methods, randomized controlled trials

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