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date: 04 March 2021

The Challenges of Making Research Collaboration in Africa More Equitablefree

  • Susan DodsworthSusan DodsworthDepartment of International Development, University of Birmingham


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.


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 or between those researchers and organizations from outside the academic world. Where does the “political will” that is so critical to the success of development programs come from? What mechanisms do African citizens use to hold their representatives to account, and are they effective? Which factors determine whether African legislators become defenders of democracy or accomplices to authoritarian executives? How does economic inequality interact with ethnic diversity to shape Africans’ attitudes to each other and toward political institutions? Collaborative research has a vital role to play in answering these questions as well as many others.

Collaborative projects offer many advantages, including access to cutting-edge methodological expertise, valuable new data sources, and opportunities to increase both the academic and “real-world” impact of research findings. Yet while collaboration often looks like a “win–win” proposition on paper, in practice it raises a number of challenges. Some of these relate to effectiveness. For example, the success of collaborative projects is put at risk when partners have divergent objectives, priorities, and time horizons (Roper, 2002). However, many of the most important challenges relate to equity. These challenges are rooted in power imbalances and center on several questions, including who benefits from research, who gets to decide how it should be undertaken, and how researchers from outside of Africa can avoid further marginalizing African voices in the production of knowledge about the continent. Most of these challenges are not unique to 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 (Dodsworth & Cheeseman, 2018b).

This article aims to examine the challenges of conducting collaborative research in Africa in a more equitable manner.1 Though the difficulties discussed here can never be entirely eliminated, this article also makes some concrete suggestions about how these challenges can be managed and mitigated. This is valuable because the question of how to ensure research collaborations in Africa realize their potential, while avoiding possible pitfalls, is one that is often neglected by political scientists. In contrast, colleagues working in areas like medical research (Jentsch & Pilley, 2003; Okwaro & Geissler, 2015; Olivier, Hunt, & Ridde, 2016), environmental science (Blicharska et al., 2017; Habel et al., 2014), and geography (Moseley, 2007) have been more alert to these issues, perhaps because large collaborative projects are more common in those fields.

In considering the challenges of collaboration in the study of African politics, this article is primarily concerned with two types of collaboration. The first of these is often labeled as North–South research partnerships.2 In these types of collaborations, researchers from high-income countries—typically those in Europe, North America, East Asia, and Australasia—partner with academics based in Africa’s less developed states in projects that aim to produce new knowledge and to strengthen the capacity of researchers and research institutions based in Africa. These collaborations are often funded through dedicated mechanisms, such as the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research or the United Kingdom's Newton Fund.

The second form of research collaboration involves partnerships between academics, on the one hand, and non-academics, on the other. In the context of research on the politics of Africa, the most common non-academic partners are development organizations, including bilateral aid agencies, multilateral organizations, and national and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). This second form of collaboration, which has been the focus of discussion elsewhere (Dodsworth & Cheeseman, 2018b), differs from consultancy, where academics are employed in a private capacity to evaluate a program or answer a specific set of questions. Instead, it involves research being integrated into development projects from the outset, with researchers playing an active role in shaping interventions and practitioners influencing (but—in principle—not dictating) the development of research questions. In the United Kingdom, these types of collaborations have become increasingly prominent, in part due to the establishment of the Global Challenges Research Fund. This £1.5 billion fund, announced by the U.K. government in late 2015, is designed to support cutting-edge research that addresses the challenges faced by developing countries, and has a strong emphasis on collaboration.

Though these two types of collaboration raise similar challenges in terms of equity, the precise ways in which those challenges manifest varies between them. This article, however, examines both together because they are not mutually exclusive—a single project might involve both forms of collaboration. Perhaps more importantly, there is potential for the issues raised by these different forms of collaboration to interact in undesirable ways. That is, changing patterns of collaboration, in the form of the increasing frequency and depth of collaborations between academics and policymakers or practitioners, has the potential to exacerbate some of the challenges that arise in the context of North–South research partnerships. This interaction between the different forms of collaboration makes it useful to consider both together.

Some caveats are in order. The first concerns the types of collaborations with which this article is concerned: larger and more formal collaborations, typically involving a team of researchers located at a number of sites both within and outside of Africa. Many researchers engaged in the study of African politics also engage in smaller-scale, more informal “joint ventures” such as research exchanges, visiting fellowships, and collaborative workshops. These forms of collaboration generate important benefits for the researchers engaged in them, including co-authored or co-edited publications. This kind of collaboration is particularly valuable in areas such as political theory, where large collaborations are less appropriate; it is the exchange of ideas, rather than joint efforts to collect and analyze data, that matter. However, these types of collaboration are not the focus of this article, simply because they are not the kinds of collaboration that are increasingly the target of very large volumes of funding from development agencies, including the U.K.’s Department for International Development (DFID) and USAID, and research councils such as the European Research Council and the U.K.’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Although some of the issues this article debates may be relevant to smaller, informal collaborations, many of them will not.

The second—and arguably more important—caveat is that the author of this article currently works in the United Kingdom and, despite having studied and worked at academic institutions in several continents, lacks first-hand experience of working at an African university. Inevitably, this influences some of the discussion that follows. Although the article aims to incorporate the perspectives of Africa-based scholars, it is difficult to do full justice to their experiences of both North–South partnerships and collaborations with non-academic partners. Scholars from, or working in, the continent examine similar issues in several other articles included in this encyclopedia. It is important, however, to stress the agency of African researchers in both forms of collaboration and to avoid assuming that Northern researchers are the only actors with the ability to make research collaborations in Africa more equitable.

A Marriage of Convenience or Something More?

A critical first step is to examine the forces that drive collaboration; these have important implications for issues of equity. The increasing depth and frequency of collaborative research in the study of African politics, has been driven, in large part, by funding pressures. These pressures vary, however, depending on which “side” of the collaboration one sits on. Academics based in wealthier countries find themselves under increasing pressure to create “pathways to impact” in order to secure research funding. This has been particularly pronounced in the United Kingdom, where research councils have made clear and credible plans to ensure research impacts one of the criteria against which applications for funding are assessed (U.K. Research and Innovation, n.d.). In the last few years, similar policies have been adopted elsewhere, including in Ireland (Science Foundation Ireland, n.d.) and Australia (Australian Research Council, 2018). These policies make collaboration with organizations operating beyond the academic world—such as NGOs and development agencies—extremely appealing. Incorporating such organizations as partners in a research project makes proposed pathways to impact far more convincing to funders.

Funding schemes for North–South research partnerships have a much longer history (Bradley, 2007). Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) has supported investments in North–South research partnerships since 1980, and these partnerships became an area of emphasis for the Swedish Agency for Research Cooperation with Developing Countries (SAREC, now incorporated within the Swedish aid agency SIDA) in 1982 (Gaillard, 1994). However, in recent years these kinds of programs have multiplied and expanded. For example, the U.K. government launched the Newton Fund in 2014. By 2021, that fund will have allocated £735 million to collaborative projects designed to build research capacity in developing countries.

In the case of the United Kingdom, the growth in funding for North–South research partnerships has been driven by the combination of two factors: the government’s commitment—enshrined in the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015—to spending 0.7% of gross national income on Official Development Assistance (ODA) each year and the government’s desire to ensure that ODA is spent in a manner that also serves U.K. national interests. Initiatives like the Newton Fund—whose budget forms part of the U.K.’s ODA—therefore represent a chance to “kill two birds with one stone.” They help to get ODA out the door but do so in a way that benefits researchers in the United Kingdom, not just those based in developing countries. In countries where aid budgets are lower, North–South research partnerships also provide a useful mechanism for increasing the benefits of foreign aid at home and thus justifying development spending to the public.

Non-academic research partners, such as NGOs and development agencies, also face funding pressures that have encouraged them to engage more collaboratively with academic research. Those who design and deliver development programs face pressure—both from political leaders and from the media—to demonstrate that their work is based on credible evidence and has measurable impact (Stevens, Hayman, & Mdee, 2013). This is often difficult for them to do without the expertise that academic researchers can provide. In the near term, these pressures are only likely to increase. President Trump (among other current leaders) has demonstrated clear skepticism about the efficacy of development aid and a desire to align it more closely with national interests (Harris, Gramer, & Tamkin, 2017). In response to this kind of pressure, and the fact that it is unlikely to decline, many development organizations have invested in strengthening their internal monitoring and evaluation systems. Others, such as the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (the U.K.’s primary democracy support agency, funded by both the DFID and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office) have gone further, launching new research partnerships that aim to make collaboration with academic research a more systematic and long-term part of their work.3

Researchers based in Africa face funding pressures of their own—in many cases, quite acute ones. In many African countries, such as Ghana, the core funding available to research institutions, including universities, is limited. The vast majority of their core funding is consumed by salaries and operational costs, with very little left over for research (Owusu-Nimo & Boshoff, 2017). Thus, for many academics based in Africa, collaborative projects with researchers in wealthier countries and with non-academic organizations represent a valuable opportunity to access research funding. Although official policy may be less explicit, it is highly likely that African governments find it easier to justify spending scarce national resources on research when it is closely aligned with national development plans. This gives Africa-based scholars good reasons to invest in building collaborations with aid agencies and NGOs that work to support those plans. These collaborations are particularly valuable to researchers working in more authoritarian contexts, where governments are typically disinclined to fund political science more broadly, lest academic institutions become a breeding ground for criticism of the ruling party.

Given the role that funding pressures undeniably play, it would be easy to dismiss research collaborations—both North–South and academic–practitioner—as marriages of convenience rather than truly valuable partnerships. No doubt collaboration is sometimes a box-ticking exercise, undertaken to establish eligibility for a particular funding scheme rather than because the partners genuinely want to work together. However, collaboration in its various forms does offer real benefits. Indeed, evidence suggests that even for Africa-based researchers, who work in funding environments that are far more constrained than those of their collaborative partners, access to funding is not necessarily the only or most important reason to engage in collaboration. Like their counterparts outside of Africa, they are also motivated by the other benefits collaboration offers. These include the ability to partner with individuals who have particular methodological expertise or who are able to secure access to critical data or research facilities, as well as the opportunity to raise the profile of their research and reach a broader audience. When asked about why they collaborate with academics outside of Africa, 80% of Ghanaian-affiliated researchers cited the need to access expertise, and 51% cited a desire to enhance their productivity by publishing more articles (Owusu-Nimo & Boshoff, 2017). Only 46% reported that their collaboration had been driven by the need to improve access to research funds.

Research collaborations are ultimately far more than simply marriages of convenience. They open up avenues of inquiry that would otherwise be “off the table.” Collaborations between academics and practitioners are, for example, essential if research is to shed light on the question of how democracy support programs can be made more effective (Dodsworth & Cheeseman, 2018a). That said, the financial considerations that help to motivate collaboration are important given the broader contextual backdrop against which research in (and about) Africa takes place.

The Context in Which Collaboration Takes Place

Context shapes research collaborations in Africa in a number of ways. One of the most important of these—and certainly the most obvious—is the legacy of colonialism. As Helen Tilley (2011) observes, Western scholars have a long history of using Africa as a “living laboratory.” They have often used that laboratory to conduct research that is about Africans, but not necessarily undertaken by them or for their benefit. Indeed, Tilley argues that academic research played a role in both justifying and sustaining colonialism, a harsh reality that cannot be forgotten, even if academic research also played a role in discrediting colonialism and ultimately bringing it to an end.

When it comes to collaborative research, the legacies of colonialism manifest in a variety of ways. Some of them are relatively simple practical issues. Colonialism, for example, has shaped who collaborates with whom. In North–South research partnerships, this is evident in patterns of co-authorship.4 African researchers tend to collaborate with external partners from a small number of countries, most notably the United Kingdom, France, and the United States. Moreover, as illustrated in Figure 1, countries with British colonial legacies (including South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Ghana) tend to collaborate with the United Kingdom and the United States (and to a lesser extent Canada and Australia), whereas academics based in former French colonies tend to partner with researchers based in France. As is the case with many other relationships shaped by colonialism (such as patterns of trade and investment), African researchers operate within collaborative networks that continue to be oriented toward the West rather than within Africa.

This is not to say that Africa-based scholars do not collaborate with each other. Indeed, as discussed next, in surveys Ghanaian researchers reported that they chose to collaborate with colleagues across Africa for many of the same reasons they entered into collaborations with researchers outside of Africa (Owusu-Nimo & Boshoff, 2017). Yet, as Figure 1 shows, many African scholars find themselves working with scholars based in the Global North more frequently than those in their neighboring countries.

Figure 1. Collaboration networks of the 13 African countries with the most scientific publications from 2007 to 2011.

Source: Reproduced with permission from Confraria and Godinho (2015), who use data from the Thomson Reuters Web of Science. Mali and Burkina Faso appear in the figure because they are among the top 10 collaborators of Senegal.

The more complex and problematic effects of colonialism manifest in terms of power—specifically, the fact that many research collaborations in Africa are marked by substantial and deeply entrenched imbalances of power. These imbalances exist primarily between “Northern” researchers and their African partners, but they can also exist between African collaborators based in countries at differing levels of economic development. One suspects that many of the issues that arise in North–South partnerships also arise when South African researchers work with academics based in other parts of the continent, especially at the best-funded South African institutions. These imbalances of power are real and enduring. Most commonly, they manifest as unequal access to resources, including unequal access to research funding (a point discussed in more depth in “Who Pays the Piper Calls the Tune”). In the context of North–South research partnerships, these inequalities are so marked they have led some to question whether true collaboration is even possible (Gaillard, 1994).

It is important to acknowledge these imbalances of power because they have real implications for how research on the politics of Africa is—and should be—undertaken. In their analysis of North–South research partnerships, Milton Odhiambo Obamba and Jane Kimbwarata Mwema observe:

The rhetoric and discourses of research partnership seem to conceal the underlying dynamics of power and resource inequalities among partners; creating the misleading impression that partnerships are necessarily neutral and mutually beneficial phenomena. International research collaborations are highly complex, dynamic and fiercely contested organizational arrangements. (Obamba & Mwema, 2009, p. 356)

Although imbalances of power may be less pronounced in collaborations between academics and policymakers or practitioners, it is certainly true that those collaborations are also complex, dynamic, and contested. For example, practitioners may occupy a “gatekeeper” role, controlling access to the people or materials that make a particular research project possible. This puts them in a powerful position relative to researchers. Yet practitioners sometimes find that their knowledge—often the product of many years of experience—is devalued compared to academic knowledge, giving researchers greater power in some respects.

Old Challenges and New Ones

Asymmetries of power—between researchers within and outside of Africa, and between researchers and non-academic collaborators—lie at the heart of many of the challenges that arise when collaborative research is conducted in Africa. Some of these challenges are old. Some are newer—or have taken on new forms as collaborations have become both more frequent and more extensive. Five of the most important challenges relate to the issues of 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 how to ensure collaborative partners are treated with respect.

Who Pays the Piper Calls the Tune

In research collaborations of any type, one of the biggest challenges that arises is setting the agenda through the development of research questions. In most North–South research partnerships, the principal investigator, or “PI,” is not based in Africa. In fact, “one of the distinctive things about the study of African politics is how ‘un-African’ it often is at the highest levels” (Cheeseman, 2016, p. 10).

Since it is ultimately the PI of any project who is responsible for how the project budget is spent, PIs have a much greater voice in setting the research agenda and defining research questions. This has a big impact on the agenda of both types of collaboration, and North–South research partnerships in particular (Bradley, 2008). Even in the context of funding schemes expressly designed to build the capacity of African research institutions, and where the majority of money is being spent in Africa, it is not unusual for African institutions to have limited or no autonomy with regard to how funds are spent (Dean, Njelesani, Smith, & Bates, 2015).

In North–South research partnerships, this can lead to projects in which the research questions do not reflect the interests and priorities of African partners. When it comes to collaborations with development organizations, particularly development agencies that control large volumes of funding, academics sometimes can find that the boot is on the other foot. These organizations may have certain “priority” countries and issues, and they may not be interested in funding research beyond that remit, even where it would be preferable from a methodological or theoretical point of view.

One “fix” to this problem would involve changing funding structures so that Africa-based researchers can be given more direct control over and responsibility for research funds. As others have pointed out, however, this is not as simple as merely changing funding rules. Because funders need to have faith in the financial and auditing systems of the institutions they support, investment in the administrative systems of African partners would be required (Dean et al., 2015). This kind of investment, however, is something that many research councils, including the U.K.’s ESRC, typically see as beyond their remit. The ESRC’s policy on international co-investigators states that it will not cover the costs of estates, overheads, and other indirect costs incurred by universities overseas as “it is not deemed to be appropriate for the ESRC to provide funds which could be used to develop the research infrastructures of other countries at this time” (ESRC, n.d., p. 3).

Ultimately, a more achievable way of mitigating this challenge may be to ensure that collaborative projects are collaborative from the very beginning. Evidence from a study of North–South partnerships in HIV research suggests that these projects are more prone to inequality and exploitation when Northern academics develop their research agenda first, then seek out African partners so as to meet the eligibility requirements of a particular funding scheme. One Africa-based researcher reported:

Here, when you disagree in the process, someone says, “You know I only co‑opted you to fulfil the requirements from my donors that I have to collaborate with a scientist and institution from the south.”

(Quoted in Okwaro & Geissler, 2015, p. 502)

Another researcher contrasted this with projects where African researchers took the lead in initiating collaborations: “We enter into the research as equals and solicit for funding from one donor. This way no one feels like he is superior to the other” (quoted in Okwaro & Geissler, 2015, p. 502).

In practice, this means developing research ideas with African counterparts, policymakers, and practitioners before research questions are set should be a top priority for Northern researchers. Others have suggested that all researchers—regardless of where they are based—should do some background research on prospective partners (Bleck, Dendere, & Sangaré, 2018). For Africa-based scholars, this should include asking some pointed questions about the extent to which they will be able to actively shape the research project. The deadlines imposed by research funders can make this difficult to do in practice, as calls for proposals typically trigger a rush to get the details of a project locked down so an application can be submitted on time. Fortunately, some universities are beginning to implement proactive responses to this problem, making money available to bring potential collaborators together well before a specific funding opportunity appears on the horizon. This kind of forward planning is essential if the agenda of collaborative research projects is to be set in an equitable manner.

The Risk of Methodological “Monocropping.”

Collaborations with non-academic organizations, such as development agencies and NGOs, together with North–South partnerships, have the potential to open up new ways of doing research, putting Africa at the forefront of methodological innovation in political science. This would be a welcome development given the historical marginality of African studies in the discipline (Sklar, 1993), providing the risk of methodological “monocropping” can be avoided. It is not coincidental that the rise of collaborations between academics and development organizations has coincided with the rise of particular methodological approaches in the study of Africa, most notably the randomized controlled trial (RCT). Between 1995 and 2013, four African countries (Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, and Ghana) accounted for about a quarter of all RCTs conducted in non-OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries and published in leading journals in the social sciences (Dodsworth & Cheeseman, 2018b). Similarly, in a review conducted in 2010, Devra Moehler found that African cases constituted the majority of field experiments linked to democracy and governance programs (Moehler, 2010). These increases have been driven in part by a view among many in the development community—including the World Bank—that experimental approaches represent a “new gold standard” for research on development (Webber & Prouse, 2018, p. 167). The popularity of these methodological approaches with development organizations, many of which are also research funders, inevitably affects the kinds of methods employed by research collaborations in which they are involved or fund.

RCTs and field experiments are undoubtedly extremely valuable methodological tools. Yet they do have limitations (Barrett & Carter, 2010). There is, therefore, a risk that letting development organizations influence the choice of research methods might lead to an undesirable degree of methodological “monocropping.” This has implications both for the rigor of academic research and for equity. Qualitative methods are particularly popular among Africa-based scholars, and qualitative work is the most common form of research undertaken in African universities (Cheeseman, 2016). This is not just because qualitative research tends to be less costly but also because African scholars often have deeper, more nuanced understandings of local contexts, giving them a valuable comparative advantage in qualitative research. The explosive popularity of RCTs and other quasi-experimental methods has the potential to marginalize these researchers by devaluing the critical work they undertake.

Moreover, there are certain types of questions that quantitative methods simply cannot answer. Rigorous and nuanced qualitative research has played a critical role in improving our understanding of some of the most important political issues in Africa. This research includes prize-winning work from young African scholars who have generated valuable new knowledge on topics ranging from soldiers’ resistance to the politicization of the military in Zimbabwe (Maringira, 2017), to the influence of the women’s movement on the enforcement of rape laws in Liberia (Medie, 2013). The kinds of research methods these scholars employ may be harder to incorporate into collaborative projects, yet doing so can prove illuminating. For example, one North–South collaboration completed a comparative ethnographic study into the usage, perceptions of, and attitudes toward “mobile money” in Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Senegal, and Zambia (de Bruijn, Butter, & Fall, 2017). The authors' ethnographic approach yielded important insights into the culturally specific nature of trust in digital financial systems and their potential to change patterns of power, social relations, and economics in the communities that use them. These are the kinds of insights we risk losing if the popularity of RCTs and field experiments is accepted uncritically.

Against this, researchers must balance the need to listen to what practitioners and policymakers tell them about the kinds of research that are and are not useful. Some ways of doing research produce knowledge that is valuable but difficult to translate into concrete guidance for policy and practice. For example, cross-national quantitative studies of the impact of aggregate aid levels on democratization might help aid donors to identify the African countries in which foreign aid is most (and least) likely to have beneficial effects on political institutions. However, such studies are of little utility to a practitioner who must decide whether to support a parliamentary strengthening program in a particular country, and if so, how to design it. Ultimately, the challenge for researchers is to find new ways of combining different research methods to produce knowledge that is both reliable and useful beyond the academic world.

One way (but by no means the only one) in which this can be done is by using statistical techniques to identify “positive deviance” and then employing qualitative methods to explain that deviance. This kind of approach has been used with great success to improve our understanding of how development actors can promote reforms in environments where government is poor. For example, the positive deviance approach has been used in research that explains why certain services or institutions have managed, against the odds, to become “islands of integrity” in contexts of systemic corruption (Peiffer & Armytage, 2018). In that case, statistical analysis of data on perceptions of corruption identified a “long list” of positive outliers (i.e., cases in which corruption had declined unexpectedly) that might be suitable for in-depth qualitative case studies. The final selection of case studies was made, in part, on the basis of consultations with the U.K.’s DFID, which indicated whether case studies focusing on certain countries or institutions would be of particular utility in its work. This example shows that researchers seeking to collaborate in more equitable and effective ways may need to think more creatively about how different methodological approaches can be combined.

The Division of Labor

Closely related to the challenge of setting the agenda, ensuring an equitable division of labor is one of the biggest challenges in collaborative research. In the context of North–South research partnerships, this is a particularly complex problem. As others have observed, “the distribution of tasks and responsibilities between northern and African partners clearly manifest the hidden reproduction of colonial domination, structural power symmetries and material inequalities” (Obamba & Mwema, 2009, p. 362).

In addition to setting the agenda, and deciding on research design, researchers based in the Global North are typically responsible for planning research activities, managing research funding, interpreting data, and disseminating results through publications and conference presentations (Carbonnier & Kontinen, 2014). Their Africa-based counterparts are typically in charge of gathering data. A study of collaborations in Central Africa, for example, found that when researchers from Cameroon worked with foreign researchers, their most frequent role was conducting fieldwork, a result interpreted by the author of that study as a sign of neocolonial science (Boshoff, 2009). Collecting data—whether quantitative or qualitative—is a critical task and one that is often the most enjoyable part of research. As such, it may sometimes be a task that African researchers actively choose to undertake. However, it is also a task that tends to generate fewer professional rewards.

Although this division of labor is most obvious in experimental or survey-based research, it would be naïve to assume that qualitative research is somehow immune to these practices. For example, researchers based in the Global North sometimes rely on African collaborators to conduct interviews in areas where security is poor, creating risks (both to researchers and research participants) that locally based researchers may be better placed to manage thanks to their more nuanced understanding of local context. More cynically, and as others have put it, “Southern partners’ value-added is often the fact that they can penetrate ‘red-zones,'" those areas deemed too dangerous (often by university administrators, insurers, or some combination of two) for their Northern counterparts (Bleck et al., 2018, p. 557). This raises serious questions about just how unbalanced the distribution of risk must become to be unacceptable.

Problems with the division of labor also arise in collaborations between academics and development organizations. Those with experience working for development NGOs sometimes recount stories of academics seeking to engage in “collaboration” but ultimately treating NGOs as no more than a convenient source of data, logistical support, and transport while in the field (Moseley, 2007). Others complain that academics seeking to collaborate often approach them with “preset” research questions, fail to incorporate practitioners’ insights into analyses, and rarely follow through on promises to communicate final research findings in a form that is useful to practitioners. Indeed, practitioners sometimes describe their experience of research collaborations as primarily “extractive,” according them no role in the design of research projects, which, as a result, produce knowledge that has limited utility to their organizations.

Some division of labor is inescapable and arguably desirable. Collaborative projects employing qualitative methods often rely on local researchers because their familiarity with local context and ability to travel to research sites repeatedly means they are better placed to build relationships of trust with research participants. When it comes to experimental approaches, there is evidence that the presence of foreigners influences the behavior or research participants in lab-in-the-field experiments. In a study conducted in Sierra Leone, researchers found that the presence of a white foreigner increased average player contributions in a dictator game as participants sought to make a favorable impression on the foreigner by demonstrating generosity (Cilliers, Dube, & Siddiqi, 2015). This makes it important, from a methodological point of view, that local researchers form the “front line” of research projects that employ certain experimental approaches. In survey-based research, language skills and an awareness of local sensitivities are critical if surveys are to elicit honest responses on potentially sensitive topics. However, it is also plausible that foreigners may sometimes be more likely to obtain honest answers, for example, because their assurances of independence from the government will be more credible to research participants. Research from Afrobarometer, the leading source of data on African public opinion, shows that in environments of political repression, individuals’ responses to politically sensitive survey items are influenced by whether they believe the research has been commissioned by the government rather than an independent research institute (Tannenberg, 2017).

Thus, although researchers can—and should—attempt to distribute research tasks in a more equitable way, some degree of imbalance is both inevitable and necessary. This makes it important to ensure that those tasks that tend to be done more often by African researchers than by others—such as data collection—are recognized more prominently and given more credit. Ideally, this should extend to authorship of peer-reviewed publications, an issue that is closely tied to the question of who benefits from collaborative research.

The Distribution of Benefits

For academic researchers, wherever they are located, one key benefit of collaborative research is publication. Collaborative research creates more opportunities for publication and tends to produce publications that are more highly cited (Confraria & Godinho, 2015; Confraria, Godinho, & Wang, 2017). These opportunities are extremely valuable to academics, whose career progression is closely tied to their publication records.

Although Africa-based researchers are well represented in peer-reviewed journals published in the continent, they are clearly under-represented in leading peer-reviewed journals, most of which are published in the Global North, including those with a manifestly African focus (Briggs & Weathers, 2016). The first authors of academic articles about African countries are more likely to be affiliated to an institution in the Global North than to an institution in that country (Blicharska et al., 2017, Figure 1). Moreover, evidence suggests that the proportion of journal articles about Africa that are written by those living there is falling rather than rising (Briggs & Weathers, 2016). To some extent, this may be linked to the rise of collaboration. As noted earlier, North–South research partnerships tend to allocate Africa-based scholars responsibility for tasks—such as data collection—that in some fields, including political science, are not usually recognized through authorship.5

There is a real danger that the growth of collaborations between academics and policymakers and practitioners will further marginalize African researchers in the production of knowledge about the continent. For policymakers and practitioners working for aid agencies or other development organizations based in the Global North, it is often easier to work with academics from home, particularly when they are based at prestigious institutions whose reputations make it easier to justify collaborations to those higher up. The limited resources available to African universities can discourage development organizations from working with Africa-based scholars, as can (often unfounded) concerns about the “usability” of the research that they produce (Prinsen, Hartog, & Vink, 2017). When development organizations do collaborate with African academics, those researchers often find themselves blocked from publishing research by nondisclosure agreements or confidentiality clauses that effectively give development organizations a veto over which research findings can, and cannot, be published. Academics from outside of Africa are not immune from such constraints, but their ability to access other sources of research funding puts them in a better position to push back against them.

Here, perhaps, the social sciences may have something to learn from the natural sciences, where it is far more common to recognize individuals who made a substantial contribution to the generation of data on which a paper is based, but who did not necessarily write the text. In fields involving large experimental collaborations, such as physics, it is by no means unusual for articles to have several hundred authors (for an example, see Aartsen et al., 2016). Although it is probably unnecessary to go quite so far, there is a good argument to be made that when research partnerships are undertaken in Africa (as well as other parts of the Global South) social scientists should stop and think about where they have set the bar for authorship and whether it is appropriate. There may also be a role for academics in the Global North to play in shifting the attitudes of development agencies toward research findings that might be perceived as critical, thus moving the “default” position from request for confidentiality to acceptance of disclosure.

It is important to pay attention to the distribution of benefits not simply because equity matters in an ideological sense but also because it has very concrete and potentially very costly ramifications. Here the natural sciences provide another example, but one which those researching the politics of Africa would do well to avoid. In 2014, six Kenyan researchers won a landmark legal case, and 30 million Kenyan shillings (US$341,000), on the basis that their careers had been undermined by “institutional racism” within a prominent U.K.–Kenyan medical research partnership (Nordling, 2014). The plaintiffs successfully argued that they were passed over for promotion, did not receive adequate credit for their work, and were retained on a series of short-term contracts, whereas European colleagues wrote publications, were given promotions, and were offered longer-term positions. Cases like this make it clear that researchers in the Global North are deluding themselves if they think that their African colleagues will tolerate inequitable collaborations indefinitely.

It is not only African scholars who are pushing back against inequitable research practices; so too are the communities from which research participants are drawn. The San people of Southern Africa are one of the most studied communities in the world. Researchers have examined their genetics, language, artwork, lifestyles, and traditional medicine, among other things. Frustrated by the meager benefits that many research projects generated for their community and concerned that some researchers treated them in a disrespectful manner, the San community launched their own code of ethics for researchers in 2017. Discussing their motivation, Leana Snyders, head of the South African San Council, explained, “When a researcher comes they enrich themselves of our culture and our knowledge. But our communities remain in poverty; their daily life does not change. We want to change that” (quoted in Nordling, 2017). The code makes it clear that what is expected in terms of benefits is not unreasonable, explaining that benefits “might be largely non-monetary” (South African San Institute, 2017, p. 3).

Respect and the Narrative of “Capacity-Building.”

Another important challenge in research collaborations is that of ensuring that all partners are treated with respect. This challenge arises in both types of collaborations but is likely to be most common in North–South collaborations because so many of them have an explicit “capacity-building” mandate. In principle, of course, capacity-building can go both ways. There are very important lessons that Africa-based researchers can teach Northern partners. In practice, however, it can be easy for Northern academics, practitioners, and policymakers to forget this. Other researchers have noted a discrepancy in how Northern researchers explain the shortcomings of their colleagues. Richard Axelby and Emma Crewe (2018) observe (anecdotally) that when researchers are based in the Global North, their colleagues typically blame failures to meet deadlines or slow responses to requests for input on “lack of time.” In contrast, when scholars from the Global South behave the same way, Northern colleagues blame “lack of capacity.”

This can have a corrosive effect on collaborative projects as the “capacity-building” narrative can be interpreted as (or in fact be evidence of) a lack of respect for African scholars. In the African context, this problem may be exacerbated when North–South research partnerships are part of larger collaborations between academics and non-academics—the latter are likely to include development organizations that are used to viewing the world through a “capacity-building” lens. Unfortunately, there may be no easy fixes here. Unconscious bias is notoriously difficult to change; making people more aware of stereotypes can backfire, encouraging some people to express bias more openly (Duguid & Thomas-Hunt, 2015). Northern researchers would do well, however, to reflect on whether they are genuinely according their African partners the same degree of respect they accord to colleagues at home.

Good Intentions Are Not Enough

To ensure that research collaborations in Africa are equitable, academics need more than just good intentions. The challenges discussed previously are not simply the result of oversights or bad habits; they are the product of entrenched structural factors that produce, and reproduce, imbalances of power. Researchers—both from within and outside of Africa—and partners from beyond the academic world can set out to build equitable collaborative projects but find themselves pushed toward replicating the inequitable models of collaboration they are trying to avoid. It is not uncommon to hear of projects that sought to put African investigators on equal footing with their non-African counterparts by giving them control of a commensurate portion of project funding, only for these good intentions to fall foul of rules imposed by funding bodies that make if disadvantageous, if not impossible, to put these ideals into practice. Even if external, structural constraints were removed, challenges would remain; established practice, expectations, and stereotypes internalized by even the best-intentioned researchers mean research collaborations would still be prone to perpetuating certain inequalities.

It is difficult, but not impossible, to design and implement collaborative research projects in an equitable way. To make collaborations in Africa more equitable, academic researchers—both those based in the North and those based in Africa—as well as their collaborators from within policy and practice-oriented communities, must pay attention to these issues very early in the life cycle of collaborative projects and on a continuous basis throughout those projects. Once the agenda has been set and research questions locked in, even the best-intentioned collaboration may have built in inequality.

Further Reading



  • 1. Collaborative research in Africa also raises ethical and practical issues, including challenges in protecting the quality of consent (for a discussion of these issues, see Dodsworth & Cheeseman, 2018b).

  • 2. The terms “North” and “South” are imperfect labels. However, this article uses them as a convenient shorthand for distinguishing high-income countries in North America, Europe, East Asia, and Australasia from less wealthy countries located in other regions of the world, including Africa.

  • 3. For details, see the Political Economy of Democracy Promotion (n.d.), Westminster Foundation for Democracy, UK.

  • 4. Although research collaborations involve more than just co-publication, co-publication serves as a useful indicator for examining patterns of collaboration.

  • 5. This should not, however, be seen as a complete explanation given evidence that the acceptance rate for articles authored by African scholars is lower than that of other scholars (Briggs & Weathers, 2016).