Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Are funding flows incentivising African solutions to African problems?

This article recently showed up in my news feed. Its an issue that I instinctively feel should be important. I don't buy the idea that Africa is sitting back and doing nothing while the West/East/anyone else innovates solutions to our problems. The announcement not so long ago of a new water-filtering system from a South African university was just one example of the type of research that is going on. Both the universities I have studied at in South Africa have a strong tradition of research that attempts to solve African problems. Plenty of money is poured into it in SA. It seems unlikely to me that the same is not going on, even if on a smaller scale, in other countries on the continent.

What concerns me about all of this is the problematic incentive system that is established when funding for research into solutions to African problems comes from, in particular, foreign governments. Take the US for example. The US government (or at least those bits of it not inclined to disregard anyone who doesn't look, think and worship as they do) seems to care about Africa and is more than willing to fund innovative, scientific/practical solutions to African problems, so they invest money in research. This all makes complete sense. But the reality is that the US government is also answerable to a voting public that is facing rising unemployment and demands improvements at home. It seems unlikely, therefore, that this government would divert funding away from their own institutions – which, admittedly, probably have some of the best researchers – towards those African institutions which are becoming/have become so specialised as to be focussed almost entirely on practical solutions to African problems. The resulting incentive reality is that top people are drawn away from those institutions focussing on African problems. This goes beyond brain-drain issues, however. Because the top institutions internationally are more general in their focus, they tend to attract funding for different issues. The African institutions meanwhile, which have focussed in on Africa's problems because these are extremely immediate and government funding wants them to do so (quite understandably), do not necessarily have the facilities or opportunities or people to attract the international funding as well. So it seems, funding, for a wide variety of reasons, does not flow to these Africa-focused local institutions even when that funding is intended to solve African problems.

As much as it irked me as an undergrad that I was unlikely to be able to get funding in South Africa to study any further in a field that did not directly and immediately contribute to solving Africa's problems, it makes sense. African governments and institutions, however, have limited disposable income. If African problems and solutions are to be able to attract the kind of available funding to ensure that they reach the level of being useful, something (although I have no idea what) would have to be done to change the way the incentives to focus and prioritize research work.

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