UN sanctions should not block payments for thesis examining

An Australian university’s attitude towards Rwanda illustrates the West’s failure to treat African academics as equal partners, says Timothy Carey

November 28, 2020
An African academic reads a thesis
Source: iStock

Moving to Rwanda may seem like an unusual career move for an Australian academic – even one whose clinical and research posts had already taken him to Alice Springs, Scotland and New Hampshire. And I confess that I knew almost nothing about the east African state or my new university when I accepted my position last year. But I did know that the chance to join the University of Global Health Equity was too good to refuse.

The institution was founded in 2014 with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Cummings Foundation with the aim of tackling social injustice and reimagining health professions’ education and research. These priorities chimed closely with my own guiding principles as a scholar and health practitioner.

I have been continually impressed by Rwanda since moving here in February. For instance, despite the country having one of the highest population densities in the world, there is remarkably little litter, partly because people often seem happily engaged in community activities to beautify roads and other public places. This communal spirit is illustrated most clearly by the incredible national event that is Umuganda: a few hours on the last Saturday of every month, when the entire nation engages in community work for a few hours. Sadly, it was suspended due to Covid-19 shortly after we arrived, but we did have the opportunity to participate in it in February; we helped the community around the university’s campus in Butaro to build mudbrick houses for vulnerable people such as the elderly and single mothers.

Rwanda has made remarkable progress in many areas and its academic system is certainly one of them. Challenges remain, however, not the least of which is to ensure its researchers gain an equitable stake in global research projects. Too often researchers in Africa are regarded as junior partners and treated differently from peers from Western countries.

It did not take long for me to experience this treatment firsthand – ironically from a university in my own academic backyard. It concerned a request from a prestigious Australian university for me to examine a postgraduate research thesis examining mental health in an African country. I was keen to get involved but was told that I would not be paid the honorarium routinely paid to thesis examiners because Rwanda was designated a United Nations-sanctioned country.

No one examines theses for the money and I had agreed to a similar request from another Australian university without even enquiring about payment at the time. The fact that Rwanda has not faced UN sanctions since 2008 (an error now acknowledged by the university) was also beside the point. What amazed and riled me was the social injustice this rule represented.

Was an Australian university really prepared to allow an academic from an apparently UN-sanctioned country to examine a postgraduate thesis, but then not pay them for doing that – even though they would have completed exactly the same work as an academic from any other country who was similarly recruited to examine the thesis (and been paid for it)?

Do other universities in Australia and elsewhere in the developed world recruit academics from UN-sanctioned countries for research, education or other activities but withhold pay from them? If so, how does this square with Western countries’ stated aims of supporting research expertise and genuinely equitable research links with the low- and middle-income countries?

The global calamity that Covid-19 has caused has led to new opportunities to increase the participation of researchers from the Global South, with the advent of online vivas, for instance. Many African countries also have surprised the rest of the world with their effective leadership during the pandemic, which could pave the way for an even wider reimagining of research collaborations.

That said, these seemingly small infractions of equity matter, and academics in Western universities must speak up when they see them. Grand statements about equitable research partnerships and multimillion-dollar funding pledges may create the framework for lasting change, but smaller acts to support these goals are equally important.

Timothy Carey is director of the Institute of Global Health Equity Research and Andrew Weiss Chair of Research in Global Health at the University of Global Health Equity in Rwanda.

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