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A better Africa needs interdisciplinary research

- Wits University

Emerging Mastercard Foundation WESAF Fellows urged to bridge the knowledge deficit in climate change research and move beyond the hard sciences.

2024 WESAF Sustainability and Inequality Symposium

South African Presidential Climate Commissioner and former World Bank Senior Advisor Dhesigen Naidoo has appealed to upcoming Fellows to expand the body of knowledge that is used for decision-making.

“The dominant knowledge that is currently being used in the discussions around decision-making is coming from the physical and natural science. The real movement has to come from the social sciences around building bridges between the bodies of knowledge that are already there into the decision frame in a more vibrant way,” said Naidoo during his keynote address at the 2024 WESAF Sustainability and Inequality Symposium, which was attended by Mastercard Foundation WESAF fellows of the Wits-Edinburgh Sustainable African Futures (WESAF) Doctoral Programme.

Close to 50 Fellows are part of the (WESAF) Doctoral Programme that seeks to strengthen the pool of experts who are responding to pressing and complex challenges related to sustainability and the future of the African continent. The fellows come from 11 African countries and are exploring a range of topics across different disciplines.

Dhesigen Naidoo, Commissioner: South African Presidential Climate Commission at the 2024 WESAF Sustainability and Inequality Symposium

Naidoo stressed that there’s a need for developed nations and global leaders to support a just transition to a fossil-fuel-free economy that does not jeopardise the future of Africa.

In the race to mitigate further increases in global warming, developed nations with established economies are adopting policies that penalise the use of fossil fuels which are key to economic growth. This move, seemingly groundbreaking, fails to take into account the unequal development and structural factors that have hindered economic development in emerging markets and their current needs for accelerated growth.

Naidoo further stressed that: “The continent, overall, generates less than 4% of greenhouse gas emissions in the world. It has substantial fossil fuel assets, verified currently at around $10 trillion [with a] real value about five times that. If Africa chooses – as the North had chosen before – to use this for its growth pathway it would then emit 40% of the greenhouse gases, we would no longer be talking about the 3 °C (the point at which the world needs to keep climate warming). Anything beyond 3 °C would spell serious disaster for the world and this is part of the reason why there needs to be a global investment around Africa’s low-carbon trajectory, because if you do not give Africa another choice, then Africa will have to do what it needs to do.”   

Naidoo said that we have an unjust past. “We cannot organise to move into a low-carbon future in an unjust manner. It is not acceptable to say that a certain number of people are reasonable collateral to get to a better place.”

In his speech, he also covered the need for public discussions on climate change to give equal prominence to climate change resilience and adaptation as these are key to an equitable and prosperous climate resilient society. 

A knowledge secure Africa

Co-hosted by the Pro Vice-Chancellor: Climate, Sustainability and Inequality, and Director of the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies (Wits), Professor Imraan Valodia, the 2024 WESAF Sustainability and Inequality Symposium, through other panel discussions, also provided an opportunity for the Fellows and leaders in higher education to address key issues that affect knowledge production and knowledge sustainability on the continent.

Discussions sought to answer whether north-south partnerships can deliver the knowledge pipeline required for sustainable African futures, and how and in what ways African graduates in North-South programmes are accountable for their countries of origin.

Mastercard Foundation WESAF Fellow from the University of Ghana, Obed Akwaa Harrison, argued that often African scholars have no choice but to leave the continent as research infrastructure in their home countries do not match their research aspirations and desired contribution to the respective fields.

Fellow panellist Dr Emmanuel Ojo, Associate Professor and Chair of Transformation, Internationalisation and Partnerships in the Faculty of Humanities at Wits encouraged Fellows to build networks that would help to address the brain-drain and what he called the ‘wicked problems’ of the continent. These wicked problems are essentially reflected in the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and each researcher needs to be cognisant of how they are responding to the SDGs.

Dr Ojo said Africa and its talent needs to move at a rapid pace to address the skewed figures in knowledge production.

Africa, which has a population of over a billion people, produces the same amount of research papers as the Netherlands, which has close to 18 million people. In relation to Big Data and the more recent AI revolution, Dr Barbara Bompani, Reader in Africa and International Development at the University of Edinburgh, said: “Research is increasingly cross-border and even as collaborations deepen there remain sharp distinctions around research divisions of labour. There is a risk that data collection remains the preserve of global south universities and analysis and publication the preserve of the north (where data infrastructures and journals are based). Ethical research, especially in an era where research transforms rapidly, requires trust and long-term perspectives on collaboration and North-South partnerships will need more and more to recognise and manage this.”

This is not going to change if beneficiaries of North-South partnerships are leaving the continent.

Discussants also acknowledged the positive role of the African diaspora in attracting investment and research partnerships to the continent thus advancing sustainable growth.

Prof. Ruksana Osman, Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Wits and WESAF Chair, reflected that the African knowledge pipeline belongs to no one state, sector or discipline. 

“To maximise it requires leveraging existing partnerships, building epistemic and philanthropic bridges between the north and the south and the south and the south. To achieve a sustainable knowledge pipeline requires a strong commitment to a philanthropy of ideas and pooling of the continent’s human, epistemic and innovation potential,” said Osman.

About the WESAF Doctoral Programme

The WESAF Doctoral Programme is a joint initiative by the University of Edinburgh (UoE) and Wits University in partnership with the Mastercard Foundation. The programme aims to advance research capacity amongst African academics and higher educational institutions whilst grappling with the critical issues of sustainable.

The 2024 WESAF Sustainability School took place over a two week period  from 28 April to 10 May 2024. During this period Fellows received structured academic support, both content and skills development, to support them with their research dissertation. The programme also covered academic career planning incorporating the WESAF Doctoral Programme learnings and philosophy around sustainability and interdisciplinarity.

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2024 Wesaf Sustainability School