Elevating African Researchers and Their Voices in Global Policy Debates: Reflections from the Leaders in African Education Research Workshop


Image of Tassew Woldehanna

Tassew Woldehanna

RISE Ethiopia

Addis Ababa University

As President of Addis Ababa University and an economist undertaking research on education, I had the pleasure of hosting the Leaders in African Education Research Workshop from 16-17 July in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

The event welcomed a number of researchers from universities and research institutions based in sub-Saharan Africa. The participants represented a growing body of education research by scholars based in the region. However, despite this progress, challenges persist. Two challenges were at the forefront of my mind heading into the workshop and were explored in our sessions throughout the two days.

Overlooked and undervalued

The first problem is that, within global education, African research continues to be overlooked and undervalued. Knowledge, expertise, and research leadership from the region are often neglected in favour of research and researchers from Northern institutions and centers. Underlying causes of this challenge could be capacity constraints in the region and governments’ limited availability to fund research initiatives from domestic resources. 

The second problem is that policymakers and practitioners in the region are questioning the relevance of education research conducted in sub-Saharan Africa. There is a global learning crisis, especially in Africa, and all ladders of education are affected from early childhood to higher education. Many countries seem to be close to achieving the Millennium Development Goal in terms of primary school completion on average, yet many children in these same countries are unable to read and write by Grade 4. Poor progress in learning can be partially attributed to insufficient relevant evidence, and that policymakers are not developing their education policy based on evidence that is available. Historically, policymakers in Africa have copied education policy from the West because there has been a lack of sufficient research evidence on the African education sector and the region lacks the human capital to conduct this research.

In order to solve the learning crisis, it is important to build the capacity of African researchers in order to generate research and evidence informed by firsthand experience of social, cultural, and material issues that affect schooling and learning in Africa across all ladders of the education sector.

Addressing these challenges with increased collaboration and mobilisation of domestic resources

In order to achieve the necessary research (and capacity) across the region, South-North research collaborations should be valued and encouraged. The Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE) research programme currently being conducted and financed by the UK’s Department for International Development  (DFID), Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a good example of how Northern and Southern researchers can work jointly on relevant education issues, for the benefit of many. Disappointingly, however, such practice is not widespread; only a few funding agencies operate this type of model. Going forward, we should find a way to ensure that this kind of research modality can be strengthened and applied widely across all funding agencies to elevate the voices of African researchers.

We should also elevate the voices of African researchers by pushing African governments to invest in high-quality education research so that policymakers can base decisions on evidence generated by local researchers and relevant to the local context. Many African governments are resistant to funding research, relying instead on Western donors for research financing. For example, the Ethiopian government spends only 0.27 percent of the GDP on research and development. If only 0.27 percent of GDP is spent on research, how can we generate the evidence needed to inform critical policy questions?

Practical discussions and valued insight

In an effort to elevate the voices of African researchers, the Leaders in African Education Research Workshop brought together 31 lead researchers from 16 countries in sub-Saharan Africa who were largely selected from those identified through the African Education Research Database, developed by the REAL Centre at the University of Cambridge. The goal of the event was to provide a platform for active and engaged early career and established researchers to share their perspectives on the education priorities for Africa, both in the global context of the Sustainable Development Goal for Education, and in the continental context of the African Union’s Continental Education Strategy for Education.

A group picture of the workshop participants

The two-day workshop highlighted the research expertise in sub-Saharan Africa and gave insight into the perspectives of the researchers who are part of this community. It was evident throughout the event that everyone in the room was trying to achieve similar goals by pushing the knowledge frontier and by working on action-oriented education research to provide evidence to policymakers.

The workshop attendees discussed and debated the education research priorities for Africa and how they are set, the best modalities to pursue research priorities in the region, opportunities to improve understanding of and overcome the constraints that sub-Saharan African researchers face, and how they could collectively improve the coverage of African research in global debates. Many researchers also confirmed the desire for greater South-South collaboration across countries within the region, which is currently very rare—it was notable that very few of the lead researchers had met prior to the workshop.

The rich discussions from the workshop will hopefully benefit not only the individuals that attended, but our own institutions and organisations, such as the African Research Universities Alliance. I look forward to future conversations, partnerships, and new research modalities to ensure the growing capacity and expertise of African-based researchers to solve the problems in education of today and tomorrow.

Note: The workshop was hosted by Addis Ababa University and coordinated by the Center for Global Development and REAL Centre, University of Cambridge, with additional funding from DFID. 


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RISE blog posts reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation or our funders.