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March 1st, 2012

Africa and the poverty in knowledge production

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Blog Editor

March 1st, 2012

Africa and the poverty in knowledge production

2 comments | 3 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Christoper Zambakari of Northeastern University argues that intellectual poverty across Africa is the key to violence, poverty and other issues facing the continent today. This article originally appeared on the Pambazuka News.

The 20th century was one of the bloodiest periods in recent history. As the world moved on into the 21st century, violence continues to preoccupy the best of minds alongside its twin, an increasing poverty on a global scale. Violence and poverty have come to define how the world relates to Africa. There is a reason for the focus on violence when one takes into consideration the reality on the continent. Africa has experienced 80 successful coups d’états, 108 failed coup attempts, and 139 reported coup plots between 1956 and 2001 as noted by McGowan.[1]

According to the 2011 Global Peace Index (GPI), published by The Institute for Economics and Peace, sub-Saharan Africa remains the region least at peace and 40 per cent of the world’s least peaceful countries are in Africa.[2] In 2011 the world witnessed a contested election that ended in a military intervention to oust President Laurent Gbagbo in Côte d’Ivoire. North Africa went through what was called ‘The Arab Spring’ that toppled dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and lastly US/NATO intervention to overthrow Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. In July of this same year, Africa’s largest country split into two (Republic of Sudan and Republic of South Sudan), effectively ending Africa’s longest civil war. This essay sets to argue that despite the urgency to end violence and reduce poverty; a different kind of poverty holds the key to both the problem of violence, poverty, and the many other problems that the continent is facing today. The common denominator for Africa’s failing in the global system is its intellectual poverty. I will illustrate this by looking at a study published by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA).

A look at Table 1 shows Africa’s net intellectual output as measured by its world share in publication and its expenditures in research and development (R&D). Africa ranks last among the world’s continents. Its world share of publications stood at 1.4 per cent in 1990 and 1.4 per cent in 2000 while its world share in R&D expenditure went from 1.3 per cent in 1990 to 0.8 per cent in 2000. Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia had a steady increase in the same period while Europe and North America experienced a decrease in R&D expenditures but Europe increased its output in publication between 1990 and 2000 while North America experienced a decline in world output in publications. Oceania posted increases in both categories by moving from 2.8 per cent to 3.3 per cent in publication share and increased its R&D expenditures from 1 per cent in 1990 to 1.1 per cent in 2000. To understand Africa’s failing that manifests in such a low output, one has to turn to the role of higher education in Africa.

Africa was the last continent to be colonialised by European powers. Britain, the most successful of the powers, learned a lesson in the aftermath of the Sepoy Mutiny in India in 1857 that it incorporated into its colonial projects in Africa. British colonial administrators attributed the uprising in India to an educated class of Indian nationalists. “Lord Lugard, Britain’s leading colonial administrator in Africa, used to say that Britain must avoid the Indian disease in Africa. The Indian Disease referred to the development of an educated middle class, a group most likely to carry the virus of nationalism.”[4] The development of higher education was a post-colonial project in Africa. At independence in the 1960’s, “there were nine Congolese educated to university level in the Belgian Congo. After 30 years of Mobutu’s regime – one of the vilest regimes ever – this figure grew to hundreds of thousands. In other words, the worst African regime was 3,000, 5,000 times better that the wonderful Belgian colonisation.”[5] Another example comes from Nigeria’s higher education that illustrates the dilemma of Africa’s higher education. At independence Nigeria had one university with 1,000 students. In 1991, it had 41 universities with 131,000 students.[6]

As Africa began to gain a foothold and stand on its own at the end of the 1970s, Structural Adjustment was imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The logic of Structural Adjustment focused on elementary education while adopting a hostile attitude toward the development of higher education. The market-oriented system which came to dominate the decades from 1980 through 2000 dismantled the little educational infrastructure that was the outcome of nationalist projects and subordinated universities to market forces. The market-orientation focused on finding answers to problems rather than understanding and formulating original problems. From this perspective, research was all about finding answers and not formulating problems.[7] It was thus two models immerged in Africa’s higher education: one that was state driven and the second market driven.

State driven models tended to create historically-informed, interdisciplinary curriculum while market-driven models tended to introduce market-driven curriculum.[8] If the former tended to undermine academic freedom by turning universities into parastatals, then the latter with its emphasis on privatisation bred a culture of consultancy.[9] Both models failed collectively to develop a sustainable graduate program across Africa.[10] Without a solid graduate program that could produce quality knowledge to meet the continent’s many needs and lead Africa’s Renaissance, Africa took one step forward and 10 steps backward while its dependency on external forces deepened its internal crises. Without a vanguard of its own, Africa remains the weakest part of the global system.

Today Africa has the fastest growing population in the world. From 2007-2009 the population on the continent went from 987 million to 1 billion. Youth aged 30 and under constitute over 70 per cent of the continent’s total population.[11] Africa also has the fastest growing labour force in the world. Sahara Africa is the only region that has experienced a continuous increase in the number of working-poor youth and the only region where the percentage of youth who are unemployed continuously increases year after year.[12] These demographic trends will only increase in the decades ahead and if nothing is done to address the root causes of Africa’s failing; one can expect dark days ahead for Africa and its people.


As Africa looks ahead it must not only learn from the past but it must also make sure that it is learning the right lessons of history. A good starting position in any situation is to first devote resources to understanding the problem. Failure to understand the problem renders any prescription useless given that the problem has not been properly diagnosed. Mamdani summarised this problem in his analysis of how commercialisation was destroying Makerere University in Uganda by noting that ‘90 per cent of the solution lies in the problem. You cannot import a solution.’[13] For a solution to be durable it must be home grown. From this vantage point, Africa must prioritise the process over the outcome, diagnosis over prescription. In the field of education a new emphasis on research must be born if the continent is going to pull itself out of the current quagmire.

As Mamdani has pointed out in his speech on the importance of research in a university, this new model must look for answers within the parameters of the problem.[14] One can rightly ask the question that eludes most: How can one aspire to craft knowledge for a given social context when one remains a prisoner, trapped by paradigms constructed in a different historical period as a result to a different social reality?

Historically, discourse on or about Africa has not been one where Africans have been part of the formulation of the problem. Here Africa performs the function of raw material provider, very similar to the function it plays in the global economic system. Except in the process of knowledge production, raw material is called data. Paradigms, theories and problems are formulated outside of Africa and exported back to the continent. Africans might chase answers developed by others but if the problem is formulated outside of Africa the answers will continue to be illusive and the results will persistently disappoint because the understanding of the problem is not rooted at home but imported from outside.

According to the leading Beninese philosopher, Hountondji, Africa can learn a great deal from the experience of Germany. In virtually all fields of inquiry, discourse in Germany was designed for a German audience and employed a language that was accessible to all, German. The debate in Germany historically was horizontal, in that it was a discussion among German-speaking people and addressed problems relevant for the German society at large. The process in Germany was first and foremost:

‘An internal debate within Germany and German-speaking countries, including Austria and part of Switzerland, where scholars question one another, respond to and discuss with one another. The debated issues are significant for, and largely shared by, the German-speaking academic community – which allows the development of a horizontal and self-sustained debate.’[15]

The challenge for Africa is that it must first take hold of the intellectual battle before it can wage a physical battle against violence and poverty and all other problems that it is currently facing. The battle against violence, underdevelopment, poverty, does not begin by looking to the outside, it begins with a sustained debate on the inside. Without winning the intellectual battle, Africa cannot pull itself out of its current morass. Africa’s success hinges precisely on its ability to take hold of the field of inquiries by formulating original “problematics,” that respond to issues that are first and foremost important to Africans and rooted in their own experience. Exporting these important questions abroad and expecting good answers and solutions to resolve Africa’s problems has not only proved disastrous but will only deepen Africa’s misery in the decades ahead less Africa take hold of the process and start producing quality knowledge of its own.




[1] Patrick J. McGowan, “African Military Coups D’état,1956-2001: Frequency, Trends and Distribution,” The Journal of Modern African Studies 41, no. 03 (2003): 339.
[2] The Institute for Economics and Peace, “2011 Methodology, Results & Findings,” (Sydney, Australia: Institute for Economics and Peace, 2011), 14.
[3] Asia, Europe and North America represent 95 per cent of world researchers whereas the other 5 per cent is represented by Latin America and Caribbean, Oceania and Africa.
[4] Mahmood Mamdani, “The Importance of Research in a University: Keynote Address” (paper presented at the Makerere University Research and Innovations Dissemination Conference, Kampala, Uganda, April 11th – 12th, 2011 2011), 2-4.
[5] Samir Amin, “Africa’s Failings and the Global System,” Pambazuka, no. 509 (2010).
[6] Mamdani, “The Importance of Research in a University: Keynote Address”, 3.
[7] Ibid., 4.
[8] Ibid., 3.
[9] Ibid., 3.
[10] Ibid., 4.
[11] UNECA, ” Economic Report on Africa 2010,” (Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: UN Economic Commission for Africa, 2010), 65.
[12] United Nations, “Young People’s Transition to Adulthood: Progress and Challenges,” in World Youth Report 2007 (New York, NY: United Nations, 2007), 9-10.
[13] Mahmood Mamdani, “Commercialisation Is Killing Makerere University,” Pambazuka News, no. 495 (2011).
[14] Ibid. Mamdani notes: “Last year, a team of scientists from Gabon and France found that malaria too has a wild host – monkeys – which means you cannot eradicate it. To learn to live with it calls for an entirely different solution. Eradication calls for a laboratory-based strategy. You look for isolated human communities, like islands with small populations and invest all your resources in it – which is what the Gates Foundation and WHO did.”
[15] Paulin Hountondji, “Knowledge of Africa, Knowledge by Africans: Two Perspectives on African Studies,” RCCS Annual Review 1, no. September 2009: African Centre for Advanced Studies, Porto-Novo (2009): 7-9.


Amin, Samir. “Africa’s Failings and the Global System.” Pambazuka, no. 509 (2010).

Hountondji, Paulin. “Knowledge of Africa, Knowledge by Africans: Two Perspectives on African Studies.” RCCS Annual Review 1, no. September 2009: African Centre for Advanced Studies, Porto-Novo (2009).

Mamdani, Mahmood. “Commercialisation Is Killing Makerere University.” Pambazuka News, no. 495 (2011).

Mamdani, Mahmood. “The Importance of Research in a University: Keynote Address.” Paper presented at the Makerere University Research and Innovations Dissemination Conference, Kampala, Uganda, April 11th – 12th, 2011 2011.

McGowan, Patrick J. “African Military Coups D’état,1956-2001: Frequency, Trends and Distribution.” The Journal of Modern African Studies 41, no. 03 (2003): 339-70.

The Institute for Economics and Peace. “2011 Methodology, Results & Findings.” Sydney, Australia: Institute for Economics and Peace, 2011.

UNECA. ” Economic Report on Africa 2010.” 192. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: UN Economic Commission for Africa, 2010.

———. “Investing in the Future: R & D Expenditure in Africa.” In Science with Africa Conference. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, 2008.

United Nations. “Young People’s Transition to Adulthood: Progress and Challenges.” In World Youth Report 2007. New York, NY: United Nations, 2007.

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