Advancing Africa’s inequalities agenda

SALDRU’s Prof. Murray Leibbrandt will be leading the African Centre of Excellence for Inequality Research as it seeks to magnify the impact of African research in the inequalities space. Photo: Robyn Walker

UCT has launched the African Centre of Excellence for Inequality Research (ACEIR), under the banner of the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA).

A consolidated African voice

“Our main objective is to improve on the quality and quantity of African research and enhance the voice of Africans in global debates,” explained Professor Ernest Aryeetey, secretary-general of ARUA.

The collective also seeks to expand graduate programmes, and improve research management and the use of research for advocacy. The centres of excellence are to be the main means of achieving these goals.

“Each centre is expected to bring together a critical mass of African experts in the area. So, we expect the centre of excellence here at UCT to manage to mobilise all the top African experts on inequality, and bring them together for research purposes, and also for teaching purposes. If they do their work well, they will also produce enough evidence to be used for advocacy.”

He continued: “The centre of excellence on inequality here is one of the most advanced that we have so far. It’s been lucky to receive support from [the] French Development Agency [Agence Française de Développement], and itʼs building itself up on an existing network of African researchers.

“We do believe that it will provide the direction for other centres of excellence.”

“When the call for ARUA’s centres of excellence was published last year, we at UCT felt that we should use it as an opportunity to respond to our strategic plan and vision of being inclusive, engaged and African,” said Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng in her introduction to the two-day launch workshop.

This, the first such ARUA centre of excellence, seeks to consolidate and magnify the efforts of African universities as they relate to poverty and inequalities research, with a mind to informing policy and advancing civil society action.

ACEIR is one of 13 planned ARUA centres, each addressing a research theme aligned to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Taking control of the African research agenda

Although housed at UCT, under the direction of Professor Murray Leibbrandt, from the outset the Centre will work as a full collaboration with two other local nodes hubs situated at the University of Ghana and the University of Nairobi. Each of these nodes comes into the Centre with extensive regional networks and further nodes will be added over time across the African continent.

This lateral organisation reflects the way the centre plans to work: as partners seeking to advance the African perspective on inequality.

Noted Leibbrandt, “This is really something myself, others at UCT within our Poverty and Inequality Initiative and our close African collaborators have wanted to do for a long time.”

“In other areas, the idea of an Africa-wide research centre, with strong nodes of research across the continentmight be difficult or forced,” said Leibbrandt. But this kind of continental connection is essential in the poverty and inequality space: particularly as it relates to data-informed policy and taking control of the African agenda on inequality.

“Something like ARUA arrived at just the right moment because it’s of huge concern to a number of us African scholars that the SDG reporting is being rolled out, but without imbedding them into national policy discussions and evaluations.

“That’s completely antithetical to the SDGs being useful in shifting local policy agendas. There has to be local buy-in and local capacity.”

Inequality has emerged as perhaps the most important social science issue of this decade, Leibbrandt explained. Within this global inequality context, African inequality dynamics are very important with the southern African region being the most unequal region globally.

“So, it is particularly egregious that all of this discussion of global inequality is happening without [an] explicit African voice coming into the discussion.

Capturing complexity

But the real work is still to be done: in ensuring that local nodes are established and capturing the many variations in local level dynamics, alongside coming together as a whole to reflect on the larger debates of African development and inequality.

“It’s a wonderful agenda that requires that we’re academically excellent, that we’re training a lot of students, that we’re bringing the national discourse alive in each of our contexts,” Leibbrandt said.

“It’s this mix of being good at what we do research-wise, and making data available for each national research community … and that’s a democratisation of this discussion of inequality, in and of itself.”

UCT will draw on the expertise of DataFirst to constitute ACEIR’s data centre.

A dream project

Having just entered into his third and final term holding the National Research Foundation / Department of Science and Technology (NRF/DST) National Research Chair of Poverty and Inequality Research, Leibbrandt is thrilled to be leading ACEIR.

“This is my dream project for my final term,” he said. “We do have very good training programmes to offer our centre. And we are very proud to do that. Our partners also do.

“We’ve also been quite sophisticated in the South African context in engaging between evidence and policy,” he said. This is a dynamic that has been brokered over many years.

“We are so fortunate to have initial launch funding from the French Development Agency in addition to support from UCT and from ARUA. So, we were able to talk very concretely.”

Ensuring that the workshop participants did not lose sight of the broader vision, Phakeng urged them to work with urgency, noting, “It is not enough to theorise, to publish, to do the work … the work has to have impact on the ground.”

This work is adapted from an article originally written by Kate-Lyn Moore for UCT News.