Building a robust evidence-based research community: Strengthening pathways for African researchers

Image: Moses Londo on Pexels.

Between 2005 and 2015, only 25 percent of articles on Africa published in the top five economics journals had at least one Africa-based author or co-author. While this is only one dimension of measuring diversity, it is exemplary of a broader, critical trend: the field of economics has a diversity problem.

Researchers from many groups, including women, people of colour, and people from low- and middle-income countries, are underrepresented in the field of economics and face numerous barriers to growth in the field, including limited access to research funding, professional networks, and training.

Beyond the ethical imperative to increase the diversity of researcher backgrounds, perspectives, and opinions in economics, bringing more voices into the field will also lead to a richer body of evidence. Individuals who have an intricate knowledge of a country and connection to local authorities are better placed to identify policy-relevant research questions and ensure that research findings are used effectively.

At J-PAL Africa, we are continuously reflecting on what more we, as a research network, funder, trainer, and policy advisor, can be doing to support and amplify the voices of researchers based in the countries in which we work. How can J-PAL strengthen our support pathways for local research? What more can we do to encourage the next generation of African scholars who can lead the research agenda on the continent?


Accessing funding: J-PAL initiative funding for African scholars

Access to research funding is critical for many researchers, particularly for large research projects such as randomised evaluations, which can be more costly to carry out than projects that use alternative research methods.

In 2019, J-PAL Africa’s Digital Identification and Finance Initiative (DigiFI) launched the African Scholars Programme. The Programme extends research funding eligibility to resident African scholars—individuals who have completed their PhD in economics or a related field and are based at a university in Africa—and non-resident African scholars—individuals who completed high school in Africa, have completed their PhD in economics or a related field, and are based at a university outside of Africa. Project teams awarded funding are paired with a J-PAL affiliate or invited researcher who acts as a mentor on the project, providing strategic guidance and connecting scholars to additional resources.

Encouraging and supporting other J-PAL funding initiatives to run their own African Scholar Programmes has been a priority for J-PAL Africa. In 2021, J-PAL’s Jobs and Opportunities Initiative (JOI) incorporated the Programme into their funding activities, and the new Digital Agricultural Innovations and Services Initiative (DAISI) will launch their Programme in mid-2022. Since the program’s inception, DigiFI and JOI have made over $350,000 in funding available for four pilots and twelve proposal development grants across ten countries on the continent.


Access to networks within J-PAL and the broader economics profession: Mentorship, visibility, and the PhD pipeline

Who you know and what others think of your work in academia can have a transformative effect on a researcher’s academic career. However, building professional networks is challenging when your university is located far away from international academic hubs and finding a pathway into these networks can be difficult. In addition to providing content feedback, the mentorship component of the African Scholars Programme also provides networking benefits and allows for professional relationships to form. Relationships with mentors can then serve as organic access points to other academics and resources in their networks.

Lack of research visibility is also a challenge for Africa-based researchers. It is difficult to be connected to a community if others don’t know about your research. We are developing plans to support researchers to present and disseminate their findings once they have results to share. This includes our African Scholar spotlight series, with each blog showcasing the research interests, ongoing evaluations, and high priority topics of one of our funded African Scholars.

Earlier along the researcher pipeline, African students face barriers when applying to graduate programmes such as difficulty finding the right information and feeling overwhelmed by the process. We run an annual information event, bringing together admission officers from a range of US and Canadian PhD programmes to present their universities and provide advice on what makes a compelling application. These typically attract over 50 participants and we will be expanding our activities to include an event focused on UK and European universities as well as one for individuals seeking additional work experience or studies before applying for a PhD.


Access to training opportunities: Building skills to expand the use of randomised evaluation methods

J-PAL Africa is particularly well-placed to assist with training support in experimental research design. We are currently piloting a number of different options specifically targeted towards scholars in Africa and will continue to grow and refine our training portfolio. In 2021, we piloted a new training, Conducting Experimental Research, for African scholars. The course built on J-PAL’s Evaluating Social Programmes course material to provide research advice, tools, and technical resources for researchers new to randomised evaluations. Running for a second time in July 2022 under the name Summer School: Development Methodologies, the course will be delivered in-person in Côte d’Ivoire in collaboration with J-PAL Europe, AFD, FID and ENSEA.

This year we will also be exploring the possibility of running a flipped classroom model, taking a cohort of African researchers who are interested in solidifying their understanding of randomised evaluation through an eight week programme based on our online course, Designing and Running Randomized Evaluations.


Learning and evolving: Where do we go from here?

The activities and resources laid out above are just the first of many steps that J-PAL Africa is taking to further increase the representation of African scholars in our research network and in the field of economics as a whole. We do not assume to have all the answers or a perfect roadmap for what comes next, but we are committed to exploring new ways of doing things that shake up the status quo.

Many other organisations have pledged strong commitments to providing mechanisms and support for locally-based scholars to drive the research agenda on the African continent, including our partner Innovations for Poverty Action. Acknowledging the complexity and scale of this challenge, we are keen to connect and learn from each other. In collaboration with organisations such as NIERA, ESRF, CSEA, APHRC, CEGA, GAIN and IPA, among others, we have formed the Inclusive Development Research Working Group to bring together organisations working at different stages of the experimental research pipeline in Africa. Through this group and other conversations, we continue to think about where J-PAL Africa can most add value.