UK aid cuts an opportunity to ‘galvanise’ African research funds

Going Global session also told that funders should pool resources to ensure longer-term stability  

June 17, 2021
Africa from space
Source: iStock

Cuts to overseas research projects as a result of the UK slashing its foreign aid budget could be an opportunity to “galvanise” governments in the developing world to boost their investment in research, the head of a group of African universities has said.

Ernest Aryeetey, secretary general of the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA), told the British Council’s Going Global conference that UK Research and Innovation’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), which is facing cuts of 70 per cent due to the UK government curtailing its official development assistance (ODA) budget, had been an “excellent exposition” of how to create equitable partnerships with developing nations on research.

This was because project funding had been set up in way that ensured “the African voice is a part of the conceptualisation” of the research problem.

“For us equity means being a part of the discussion right from the beginning, not at the tail end. We want to be part of addressing the issues, we don’t want to wait and simply be invited to the table after a grant has been made,” he added.

But Professor Aryeetey, a former vice-chancellor of the University of Ghana, said in light of the cuts, the research community should now “use this as a moment where we draw in the African governments” and philanthropists to boost funding.

“One of the things we have done since the big cuts from the UK is basically use that as an opportunity to educate African governments on exactly what is going to happen, that many research activities will have to cease simply because of no funding, and if that happens [that] the biggest losers will be African communities,” he said.

“For largely political reasons these governments have failed to put in place proper funding for research. We see this as an opportunity to galvanise more support for greater investment in research through public universities in Africa.”

Nona McDuff, pro vice-chancellor for students and teaching at the UK’s Solent University, also said that it was “really important for African governments to recognise that they have a role”.

“I think otherwise what will happen is they will always be on the receiving side of initiatives or strategies that they don’t have power or control over,” she told the session.

Andrew Thompson, UKRI’s former international champion for the GCRF and professor of global and imperial history at the University of Oxford, told the session that funding for research in the developing world had to be made on a long-term basis.

“You have to be in this for a decade in order to make an impression, and research funding agencies and governments have to recognise that and provide the sort of funding that will transcend spending reviews,” he said.

The risk otherwise was that it created a “grand old duke of York strategy” where “we march our [global] southern partners up the hill but end up marching them rapidly down again”.

Professor Thompson also suggested that funders in richer countries needed to think seriously about building “alliances between different funds” to create a stable longer-term platform for boosting research capacity in developing nations.

“I’ve not yet seen a move that would lead to them pooling significant amounts of their resources into a single fund where southern partners could have as big a voice as northern partners and which would give you that stability of funding and continuity of commitment."

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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