Can African Cities help to decolonise knowledge?

Sep 29, 2022

Since the start of the African Cities Research Consortium (ACRC), we’ve been interested in trying to create more equitable partnerships and processes through the process. The rupture of the Covid-19 pandemic (which saw us establish ACRC almost entirely online) provided us with some opportunities, plus added impetus following reflections within the sector catalysed by the Black Lives Matter movement.

From the outset, we’ve been exploring ways in which we could decolonise the ACRC approach by helping to shift the culture and practice of knowledge creation, which is currently built upon hugely unequal power systems. Of course, we are not starting from scratch but building on traditions of knowledge co-production between diverse groups involved in urban research.

We’re fully aware of the inherent tensions and potential contradictions of trying to do this via a programme initiated and funded by the UK government with strict accountability requirements by the lead agency responsible for the contract. But as FCDO’s recent development strategy makes clear, the ultimate aim of programmes like ACRC is “unleashing the power of people and countries to take control of their own future”. It’s a goal we’re fully committed to, so we’re looking at how ACRC can be best organised to help deliver it.

As such, we’re focusing on three main areas:

Structural issues

The current phase of research is largely characterised by UK-based researchers leading or directing the work in a way that is consistent with the framework of the African Cities programme, with Africa-based researchers implementing within these boundaries. Within these constraints, we have sought to develop the space for community-based researchers, in addition to a range of contributions from African professionals and academics. For the next phase of work, as we move into nurturing urban reform, we need to ensure that ACRC’s agenda and work are owned by those in the cities in which we are active. This requires us to explore a more decentralised structure for decisionmaking and resource allocation. 

Communication practices

Language is a powerful tool for communicating research, that can determine who benefits in multi-stakeholder partnerships such as ACRC. All forms of ACRC communications, including images, will be regularly reviewed to address potential unconscious bias issues. We also need to ensure that the dominance of the English language does not skew the understanding of specific experiences of inequalities and marginalisation within ACRC cities.

Methodological practices

In order to ensure co-production of research, local knowledge and experiences should drive the implementation of ACRC research, including spaces for methodologies that challenge Eurocentric approaches. African researchers must have their “voice” and agendas expressed in the agreed research processes and must lead the communication and use of results. ACRC approaches need to be intentionally empowering to all stakeholders involved in the research. This includes community-based researchers whose voice is often excluded in traditional academic practices.

None of this is easy. We’ve not got everything right so far, and many of the issues don’t lend themselves to immediate solutions. Balancing our accountability to both our funder (and ultimately UK tax-payers) and to the reformers we’re partnering with in African cities is a constant challenge.  That said, we’re committed to continuing this dialogue throughout the programme and actively looking for practical ways to push things in the right direction.

To explore some of these issues, our uptake director Martin Atela and strategic alignment group member Professor Ola Uduku sat down with our communications manager Chris Jordan, to give their perspectives on decolonisation.


The full podcast transcript is available below.

Read now

Chris Jordan Welcome to the African Cities podcast. My name is Chris Jordan. I’m the communications manager with African Cities and I’m joined today in Nairobi by Ola Uduku, who’s from Liverpool University, and Martin Atela, who’s ACRC is uptake director but his day job is at the Partnership for African Social and Governance Research in Nairobi, PASGR. So thank you very much, both of you, for joining me.

Chris Jordan Really interested to get your thoughts and hear your experiences around issues of decolonisation. It’s an issue that has grown in prominence over the last few years, but I’m sure you both have kind of a long history and experience of dealing with these issues day to day, and it’s something that we’re trying to grapple with within the African Cities Research Consortium. So, Ola, if I could turn to you first. You’ve been working in development-related work for a long time. How do you come to the issue of decolonisation and particularly as it’s currently being conceived? 

Ola Uduku Well, it’s a hard question, but I guess the whole decolonisation discussion is a long discussion, but it’s also part of a longer process. And I think probably in my academic life there have been times when issues around decolonisation have come up further and certainly since the Black Lives Matter movement, certainly in the UK, I think academically there’s been a significant push towards looking at how we decolonise the way we teach, the way we research and indeed the ways in which we see ourselves. So yeah, I’ve been engaged with it throughout and I think this is certainly a high point again where we’re being asked to really think carefully and it’s from everything from indeed how we teach undergraduates right through to postgraduate research and also the ways in which we frame our research questions. So yeah, it’s a continuing journey, I would say, and most of us are engaged with it in some in some fashion or the other, and I certainly support the process. 

Chris Jordan And Martin, you’re based in Nairobi. You’re an African researcher. How do you come at these issues? 

Martin Atela Yes. I think through working in the development field, PASGR is my third job, postgraduate, so to say. The issues of decolonisation, you sort of deal and reckon with almost in everyday relations, because most of the work involves working very closely with partners in the global South as well as partners in the global North. And most of our partnerships tend to be around issues around knowledge generation, issues around knowledge creation and the use of evidence for policy and practice. And decolonisation, as Ola rightly put, it’s not a new thing. It’s found a new growth, so to say, because of the Black Lives Matter movement. But even going back and looking at development discourse all through, it’s been at the centre of the conversation around, for instance, aid and how we do aid and development, how we do development assistance, how we do bilateral relationships. And it’s now more highlighted in research because I think academics and funders who fund academics and research are coming to terms with the reality of the fact that those relationships are never equal. And it is time if research processes have to produce the outcomes that they are intended for so that we make relationships a lot more equal and equitable. 

Chris Jordan And I guess for all African researchers and academics, it’s a very personal issue, right? This is not just a theoretical, abstract sort of interesting thing. This is day to day reality. 

Ola Uduku Yeah. I guess as African researchers, or at least as an African researcher or academic placed in a Northern university, it is our day to day. I mean, when the idea about positionality comes very much into the discussion, I mean, one is effectively employed by a Western body. One is interested in doing research in the South. And where does that place one in terms of both research, research subjects and also, if you like, for those whom the research is being done. And I think that’s probably a good way to bring in the work that the ACRC is doing, which is really, I think, beginning to work much more collaboratively and beginning to look at co-creation of research objectives. Certainly at the beginning of my time as a young academic, it was very much you went and did research there in the South, and it was development research, and there might be a small research fund to do it, but it was very clearly the there and the here, and the fact that this was being done as an aid project to a large extent. So I think that has changed over time, which is good, but there’s still that need to critically think about, you know, the I would call it the “symmetry”. Is it a really symmetrical relationship is there asymmetry, which is often the case. 

Martin Atela Yeah. I suppose for, you know, an African academic or researcher based in Africa,  you grapple with a number of things. The imbalance in the sense of research funding. So most of our research still is funded from organisations or institutions from the global North, as we would refer to them. And most of what is currently seen as top-tier journals where you publish that research are also based in the global North. So in a way, you’re doomed on both sides because funding is tied to specific ideas. If you look at most calls for proposals, the ideas have already been, you know, outlined for you. You’re responding to other people’s ideas. As you do the research there are conditionalities that are attached to it, so if you want to publish and compete with the global world, you have to publish in journals that have been given premium by, you know, sort of Western academics. So it’s a real challenge, but perhaps even more real in the sense that when we’re talking about decolonising knowledge and knowledge processes or even partnerships, we are starting from the point of view that there is a history and that history has shaped the way things have been done to the point where we are. And that realisation means that beginning to challenge power structures is often not a welcome move, and it means that it begins with you as an individual to self introspect and position yourself, rightly put by Ola, in all this conversation before even engaging with others in it. So it’s a very personal thing because some African academics lived through the process. Some of us have experiences through sort of bequeathed to us. 

Chris Jordan So let’s turn to the African Cities Research Consortium, because some of the issues that you highlight, they’re present in this research effort. You know, we at The University of Manchester originally responded to a call from what was then DFID, you know, that kind of marked out the territory. And ultimately we are funded as a consortium by them. So I know you two have both been looking at some of the issues that we need to grapple with, if we’re going to do better as a consortium and if we’re going to move research practices forward. Could you just outline some of the terrain or some of the issues that a research consortium like ACRC needs to be grappling with?

Ola Uduku I guess in some ways, starting from the consortium itself, who are the partners? If we look at the banding of the consortium, correct me if I’m wrong, but I think most of our partners are from the global North. But then I guess it’s that as we put together the bid, I think there was a lot of consultation, but possibly again consultation from partners in all forms, from all those involved in what has now become the partnership. I think some partners were possibly consulted at a later point than others. Obviously, it’s very difficult to put in a large bid. But it’s interesting that as we’ve got to this stage, there are partners who are just beginning to understand the extent of the consortium. So I think at the get go, as the Americans would say, I think there’s an issue about making sure that all those involved have, I guess, at least equal knowledge and ideally equal participation in the task of creating the bid. That would be a start in terms of beginning to dissect things. 

Martin Atela Yeah. I suppose ACRC like most research partnerships that bring together these different parts of the world would be grappling with not only the way it is structured, but the way it was created. And for me, I think that’s where the biggest challenge begins, that, Chris, you rightly put it, this was a call by FCDO that defined clearly what is needed. So what is the space for ACRC to deviate from any of that original thinking? So that has to be an ongoing conversation. And it means FCDO, if I could just use the blunt terms, the coloniser, has to be willing to engage with that conversation. And then, Ola’s referred to, you know, how did the partnership come together? We have to recognise that ACRC is made up of partners who enjoy very different capacities and powers. So Manchester for instance, is a highly resourced, globally known university, has been at the forefront of the development of some of the theories we are testing under ACRC; ESID, for instance, a ten-year plus project looked at political settlements and doing politics smartly. And then you bring in SDI, for instance, which is a community-based organisation with deep knowledge and expertise in engaging community at the local level. Those are very different dynamics. So it’s the consortium to find a way of sort of bringing everybody to the table and creating an atmosphere where each partner feels respected, trust can be built and recognise that indeed, we are dealing with an animal here, which is about unearning ways of doing things which we see were unequal. We recognise they are unequal. 

Chris Jordan And I guess the other thing, just in practical terms to reflect on, is the experience we’ve had, we’ve all had over the last couple of years of the global pandemic. You know, as if issues of decolonisation and partnership and developing relationships of trust weren’t difficult enough already, we’ve all been stuck in our homes and, you know, two years in, just about this is the first time that we’ve all been able to get together and talk about this face to face rather than through Zoom. Just do you think for you, is there something about that? Have you noticed the difference in conversations when you’re face to face rather than mediated through a screen? 

Ola Uduku Oh, definitely. I mean, I think that yeah, I mean, the world basically stopped or paused for at least the first nine months. But then again, in some ways, it again highlights the asymmetries in terms of as the world has got back to business, it is still much more difficult for the South to travel to the North versus the North travelling to the South. So that highlighting about yeah, the differences and divisions in the world in terms of how a global disease affects different places differently must come through the process of being part of ACRC. But I mean, the positives are that, as I have said anecdotally, the first place I heard about Zoom was back in Lagos in November 2019, well before the pandemic. So in some ways, some parts of Africa have been resourced enough in terms of the both the infrastructure and the technology to go onto Zoom. So that has been a positive in some ways. But now that we’re coming out of it, I can see the challenges, still for travel across for particularly our African partners. But it’s been positive definitely to be able to get back together, and it’s been really nice to be in a space together and out of the box, or the computer screen.

Martin Atela Yeah, I agree. Totally. It was amazing, to say the least, that groups such as ACRC could leverage on technology, could leverage technology to connect such a large group of people. Obviously, it comes with its own challenges. One that I would highlight, for instance, is the time difference. So the planning around most of ACRC’s workshops were done in consideration of the UK timings, the British standard time, and for a lot of researchers in Africa and other parts of the continent, they had to stay quite late in the evening to keep up with it. But for me, the opportunity to engage and not allow the pandemic to stop engagement I think overrides these challenges. The issue that Ola raised about I’ll just call it blatantly open discrimination around global travel, still does highlight the inequality that we face in the world. We saw it with HIV and now it’s even more highlighted with Covid and what we call, you know, the discrimination in terms of access to vaccines. Yeah. 

Chris Jordan Yeah. And even before Covid, you know, it was difficult enough to get visas for African researchers who wanted to come and visit the UK or participate in workshops or conferences. So yeah, it’s a whole other podcast probably. I just want to turn finally to the agenda going forward. So lots of issues, lots of contradictions, lots of stuff that we’re just going to have to keep on addressing and talking about trying to find a way through. But what do you see as the sort of the positive agenda? What can we be doing as a research consortium to make sure that we really do try and do this research in a different sort of way? 

Ola Uduku I think it’s building on what’s gone on so far. I think being able to have sessions like these, apart from the niceness of being face to face, really beginning to address difficult questions about power. Power and indeed, if you like, post-colony as opposed to colonisation. But I would always say in terms of research that I do, particularly in Africa, what is the legacy? So it’s that fundamental question about what’s really good is we’re talking about uptake and so on. So we’re saying the right words. But in reality, as the person I was sitting next to who’s part of the SLD group here, when a project ends, a good project means that the researcher really becomes part of that community, so it’s almost anthropological. And often the researcher has his or her own task and is seen as a very important elder or whatever in that community setting. But when the elder moves, who takes that role on? So if it’s a successful one, it’s back to the whole development discussion. A good development project means that it sustains itself when the developer or the person bringing the aid leaves. So it’s that embeddedness in the existing communities in which we are working with and how the ACRC consortium has its own future, which is not mediated by the North, it’s probably mediated by the cities that we’ve been involved in in the South and grows further. 

Martin Atela A good point to start, actually. I remember. I think it’s one of the SDI members who put for us that challenge. What does ACRC want to be remembered for after the five or six years? And perhaps to respond to your question, Chris, what is it that we need to do to ensure that we do the research on the problem differently and better? But I think we have to, as a consortium, decide to go to Beth’s words, what is it that we can achieve? Right. So with very clear indicators around at the end of this five years, we committed to decolonise our processes and do our research better. Who will own the knowledge, you know, who will own the data? Yeah. What’s the balance or share of all of what do we call it, the intellectual property rights, to the publications that are coming out of this, not just to African scholars, but the community as well. Do they feel they own the data? Do they feel they own the solutions that are coming out of this? And for me, it would be a marker of success, of having done things differently, if in our 13 or the five or seven or eight last cities we can leave pointers of real changes that ACRC brought, you know, communities that our evidence transformed, examples of policies that benefitted from our evidence. The number of research projects that were genuinely led and co-designed by policymakers and community members and African researchers. That to me would be a true example of a well done global South/global North research project. 

Chris Jordan Thank you. So it’s clear that we’re at the start of this conversation and hopefully something that we’ll  come back to over the life of ACRC and beyond. Martin and Ola, thank you very much for joining me today. 

Ola Uduku It’s been a pleasure.

Sign up to ACRC’s e-newsletter for future updates:

Header photo credit: Hannah van Rooyen. Martin Atela talks about decolonisation in a session at ACRC’s consortium-wide meeting in Nairobi (May 2022).

Note: This article presents the views of the author featured and does not necessarily represent the views of the African Cities Research Consortium as a whole.

The African Cities blog is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0), which means you are welcome to repost this content as long as you provide full credit and a link to this original post.

Creative Commons License