The importance of research in an university

Published on Pambazuka News, by Mahmood Mamdani, April 21, 2011.

‘We have no choice but to train the next generation of African scholars at home. This means tackling the question of institutional reform alongside that of postgraduate education. Postgraduate education, research and institution building will have to be part of a single effort,’ writes Mahmood Mamdani, in a paper reflecting on how a market-driven model has affected the nature of research in African universities … //

… Last year, a team of scientists from Gabon and France found that malaria too has a wild host – monkeys – which means you cannot eradicate it. To learn to live with it calls for an entirely different solution. Eradication calls for a laboratory-based strategy. You look for isolated human communities, like islands with small populations and invest all your resources in it – which is what the Gates Foundation and WHO did. But living with malaria requires you to spend your monies in communities with large, representative populations.  

The Gates Foundation and WHO money was spent mostly on small islands. A WHO expert called it ‘a public health disaster’. The moral of the story is that diagnosis is more important than prescription. Research is diagnosis.


How do we counter the spread of consultancy culture? Through an intellectual environment strong enough to sustain a meaningful intellectual culture. To my knowledge, there is no model for this on the African continent today. It is something we will have to create.

The old model looked for answers outside the problem. It was utopian because it imposed externally formulated answers. A new model must look for answers within the parameters of the problem. This is why the starting point must go beyond an understanding of the problem, to identifying initiatives that seek to cope with the problem. In the rest of this talk, I will seek to give an analysis of the problem and outline one initiative that seeks to come to grips with it. This is the initiative at the Makerere Institute of Social Research.]


Let me return to my own experience, this time at MISR, where I have learnt to identify key manifestations of the consultancy culture.

I took over the directorship of MISR in June of 2010. When I got there, MISR had 7 researchers, including myself. We began by meeting each for an hour: what research do you do? What research have you done since you came here? The answers were a revelation: everyone seemed to do everything, or rather anything, at one time primary education, the next primary health, then roads, then HIV/AIDS, whatever was on demand! This is when I learnt to recognize the first manifestation of consultancy: A consultant has no expertise. His or her claim is only to a way of doing things, of gathering data and writing reports. He or she is a Jack or a Jane of all, a master of none. This is the first manifestation.

Even though consultancy was the main work, there was also some research at MISR. But it was all externally-driven, the result of demands of European donor agencies that European universities doing research on Africa must partner with African universities. The result was not institutional partnerships but the incorporation of individual local researchers into an externally-driven project. It resembled more an outreach from UK or France rather than a partnership between relative equals.

Next I suggested to my colleagues that our first priority should be to build up the library. I noticed that the size of our library had actually been reduced over the past 10 years. I understood the reason for this when I looked at MISR’s 10-year strategic plan. The plan called for purchasing around 100 books for the library over 10 years. In other words, the library was not a priority. The second manifestation of a consultancy culture is that consultant don’t read, not because they cannot read, or are not interested in reading – but because reading becomes a luxury, an after-work activity. Because consultancies do not require you to read anything more than field data and notes.

My colleagues and I discussed the problem of consultancy in meeting after meeting, and came up with a two-fold response. Our short-term response was to begin a program of seminars, two a month, requiring that every person begin with a research proposal, one that surveys the literature in their field, identifies key debates and located their query within those debates; second, also twice a month, we agreed to meet as a study group, prepare a list of key texts in the social sciences and humanities over the past 40 years, and read and discuss them.

Over the long-term, we decided to create a multi-disciplinary, coursework-based, PhD program to train a new generation of researchers. To brain-storming the outlines of this program, we held a two-day workshop in January with scholars from University of Western Cape in South Africa and Addis Ababa University. I would like to share with you some of the deliberations at that workshop.

SCIENCES : … (full long text).

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