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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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