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Why don’t African scholars contribute to public policy?

By Ken Opalo | Oct 25th 2014 | 4 min read

This week I read in the local dailies a complaint from a writer regarding the dearth of indigenous African (and Kenyan) scholars in the social sciences and humanities. The basic point of the argument was that because we do not have indigenous scholars studying our history, politics, economics, et cetera, our stories never get told to their fullest.

What we get instead are often perceptions of outsiders whose views are tinted by biases inherent in their cultures and traditions. This is all true. However, what the writer failed to also acknowledge is the fact that the current state of affairs is not the result of some conspiracy by foreign scholars or institutions. Instead, it is the result of the deliberate failure to fund local scholarship since the late 1960s.

As Prof Anyang’ Nyong’o’s glowing tribute to the late Prof Ali Mazrui reminds us, there was a time in Africa when intellectuals were valued – both as critics as well as idea generators. But the wave of political closure that swept through much of Africa beginning in the late 1960s designated freethinking as its number one enemy. As a result, nearly all of Africa’s famous intellectuals saw the insides of jail. Many fled abroad, including the late Prof Mazrui.

The farcical thing about the era of vilification of intellectuals and academics is that no sooner had African governments killed research and freethinking at home than they began looking for experts from Europe and elsewhere. Our own Sessional Paper No 10 on African Socialism as Applied to Kenya was written in part with assistant from expat “experts” from the Ford Foundation.

We became a people and a region singularly lacking in original thinking, and opened ourselves up to experimentation by outsiders. This tradition remains alive to this day. Across much of Africa, government ministries have all manner of advisers and consultants who possess little understanding of how our societies and politics operate. They come in as tied aid, or to look at it more cynically, as part of jobs programmes by their governments whenever they lend us money for “capacity building.”

As a result of this sorry tradition, our leaders and policymakers prefer to outsource their thinking to ill-qualified foreigners and all manner of quarks instead of talking to indigenous academics. For instance, our Vision 2030 is the brainchild of a New York based global consulting firm. The IMF takes care of our monetary policy.

The Chinese drive our infrastructure development agenda. And the northern Europeans deal with all manner of institutional reform and capacity building programmes. Kenyans are mere travelers in this jamboree, always trying to skim as much off the top as they can in these many foreign-driven projects. Local ownership is a scarce commodity.

Is there really an honest explanation as to why the Japanese were the ones best qualified to develop the Nairobi County Integrated Urban Development Master Plan? Have we not produced engineers and architects over the last half-century with capacity to do this?

But why are we ever so eager to get foreign advice? The answer to this is twofold. First, it is unfortunate that many of our leaders have the scars of colonialism seared in their minds. They have internalised the idea that foreigners know best, and therefore should be preferred. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it boils down to politics. Our leaders know foreigners are not comfortable talking politics. For diplomatic reasons their missions are often exercises in anti-politics.

They spew out policy recommendations – like cutting of funding for schools, hospitals, and other public programs in the early 1990s – with little consideration for their political implications (they also feign surprise when their recommendations don’t get implemented for political reasons).

The problem with local academics is that they never pretend to dabble in apolitical policy recommendations. But by incorporating politics – and in particular, the need for social justice – in their policy recommendations, they tend to turn off policymakers and politicians.

It is time we realised that reliance on foreign advice comes at a cost. At a basic level, it means that most of our development projects come designed to take care of foreign creditors and shareholders (be they Chinese or Europeans), and not Wanjiku. So before we blame African academics for not thinking critically about the problems plaguing their homeland, we should first consider the incentive structure that they face.

Investing in African scholarship, and valuing the advice of African scholars is what will spur the virtuous cycle of investment in African scholarship. Until we do this we shall continue to conflate expats with experts, at a high cost to our people.

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