Covid-19: An opportunity for African knowledge production
- Bob Wekesa
Lockdown has become a metaphor for all forms of state-sanctioned and self-imposed restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
While lockdowns have been highly disruptive, the internet has also served as an opening for an alternative sphere where semblances of human activity can happen. Information and knowledge production is perhaps one of the major activities that have shifted online in a big way.
The question that arises is: Is there a danger of Africa being marginalised in terms of knowledge production and dissemination because, among other factors, the continent’s presence on the internet is below other regions of the world?
To have a transient picture, let us first look at web-based evidence given that online modalities have assumed a large-sized and heightened role in knowledge production.
My search of the term ‘Covid-19’ on Google on 7 July brought up six billion results. The phrase “virtual conference” brought up over one billion results. But, if general terms are bound to include both academic and non-academic internet items, then searches using terms that are more academic, intellectual and scholarly also show high numbers as follows: “Covid-19 call for papers” – over six million, “Covid-19 call for proposals” – close to six billion, “Covid-19 journal articles” – over one billion and “Covid-19 books” – nearly 3 billion.
These large figures conceal many specifics, meaning that African research entities would have to undertake closer analysis in order to gain a more nuanced picture of Africa’s performance in global knowledge production. For instance, how does Africa feature in the billions of information and knowledge items being churned out? Even without the benefit of an empirical study, it is safe to cautiously claim that Africa-specific knowledge production and dissemination over the internet is far less than from Asia, Europe and the Americas.
Africa’s under-performance in global knowledge dissemination is not an entirely new development. Organisations such as UNESCO have long concluded that global knowledge flows are greatly imbalanced to the detriment of global South nations. These inequalities are being reproduced and further institutionalised in the Covid-19 circumstances. As a result, what passes for legitimate knowledge on Covid-19 or any other topic is the knowledge disseminated on the internet thus suggesting that knowledge is less African and more Western. If we often talk of an African digital divide problem, we also understand that this is also is a knowledge divide.
The point of departure is that Covid-19-related African knowledge production and dissemination can help redress the imbalances. While the underperformance problem existed before Covid-19, the pandemic presents an opportunity for addressing it. To this end, African knowledge professionals ranging from researchers in think tanks to university professors need strategy and tack.
Packaging and dissemination
One of the foremost strategies would be the packaging of African knowledge products in such a way that they are available and accessible on the internet. There is no doubt that Africans are producing lots of knowledge in their informal conversation as in the formal engagements of varying types. This knowledge is being produced daily in villages and urban spaces, by African government officials and businesses, by students and researchers. Traditional healers are also applying indigenous knowledge to offer cures for Covid-19. Thus, the problem from an African perspective is less that of knowledge production and more one of the gathering, packaging and dissemination of the knowledge.
Scholars and academics producing knowledge on Covid-19 topics ought to be sensitised on the place of digital platforms, all the way from online journals, digital libraries and academic search engines to public intellect platforms, social media and popular press. All these are important dissemination platforms but they cannot be leveraged if strategies for leveraging them are not in place.
Universities and research entities need to put in place communication infrastructure and resources to ensure that the work undertaken by faculty and students ranging from assignments to theses does not end up gathering dust on shelves but gets traction on the internet. Instead, this knowledge should be packaged into internet-friendly formats thereby ultimately contributing to the continental knowledge capital.
African intellectuals in universities and think tanks should also lead the way by lobbying and petitioning governments, multilateral agencies, internet service providers, philanthropies, and endowments to allocate resources towards Covid-19 specific knowledge production and dissemination projects. Researchers would have to present compelling cases for knowledge production and there is no better way than proposals that demonstrate the power of research products that explicitly respond to Covid-19 mitigation pathways.
Vertical strategies: Deepening knowledge
The second strategy revolves around the need for African intellectuals to appreciate, respect and valorise African knowledge. This strategy may be imagined as a vertical approach in which the depth of understanding of domestic situations and dynamics is not in doubt. For instance, what is uniquely African in the current pandemic? Garnering profound knowledge on the fundamental aspects of the pandemic in Africa would help address the significant conceptual, theoretical and even philosophical problems evident in the marginalization of African knowledge. As it has often been pointed out, African intellectuals advertently and inadvertently value knowledge from other parts of the world over their own knowledge. Local or domestic knowledge is often knowingly or unknowingly dismissed as inferior. This problem can be addressed through academic and research programmes that fore-ground African epistemologies rather than forcing African developments to fit into Western analytical frameworks.
Horizontal strategies: Trans-regionalism
The third strategy might seem to contradict all that I have lobbied above – incorporating African knowledge into global knowledge systems. This is what may be referred to as the horizontal strategy. While it is true that African knowledge is unique to African milieus, there is a sense in which knowledge produced anywhere in the world is knowledge for the rest of the world. In other words, what counts as universal or global knowledge is the intersection of multiple knowledge nodes from all regions of the world. This is indeed the essence of knowledge production projects that seek to comprehend the world as one place. Thus, African knowledge ought to intersect and interact with other bodies of knowledge from Asia, Europe, the Americas and Oceania.
An interesting scholarly anchor for this horizontal strategy is the concept of trans-regionalism, which starts from the standpoint that while there are African peculiarities in knowledge, there also are innumerable global connections between African, Asian, American and European nodes of knowledge.
How would the insights of trans-regionalism serve a strategic function in African knowledge production and dissemination? African intellectuals must begin by acknowledging that the continent is in a weak link in the global knowledge network. A means of redressing this is to piggy back on established networks and scholarly communities often domiciled in the West and increasingly in parts of Asia. Networks such as the African Studies Association (US and UK chapters) or the China Africa Think Tank Forum are not only well established but also well placed as platforms for the advancement of African knowledge as part of the whole.
Trans-regionalism portends great prospects to the extent that it addresses the shortfalls of blanket globalisation of knowledge which often privileges endowed parts of the world. Moreover, thinking in trans-regional terms helps us side step the limitations inherent in an “area studies” mentality which privileges the study of African societies as bound geographies.
Trans-regionalism would help us to understand the apparent conundrum of Covid-19 being experienced in the same way across the world, while at the same time being experienced differently in different parts of the world. Moreover, tapping trans-regionalism for the study, research and teaching on Africa during the pandemic would in fact be a form of African agency – the idea that Africa is an actor in the global sphere rather than merely being acted on.
In a nutshell, at the vertical level African intellectuals need to find means of availing thoroughly studied knowledge to greater audiences, while at the same time ensuring its cross-pollination with counterpart bodies of knowledge from around the world.
Dr Bob Wekesa is partnerships, research and communications coordinator at The African Centre for the Study of the United States, Wits University.
This article is part of the African Digital Diplomacy series, published in partnership with the African Centre for the Study of the United States (ACSUS) at Wits University and featured on Africa Portal - a research repository and an expert analysis hub on African affairs.