The Kampala Declaration shows why support for African research is so important

The Kampala Declaration on Academic Freedom was created 25 years ago and was of great importance for the opportunities to conduct critical research in Africa. Sweden supported the initiative, despite risks and the sensitive subject. Now the threats to academic freedom in Africa are increasing again, at the same time as Sweden is reducing the resources for research aid. That must change, writes Lennart Wohlgemuth.

25 years ago, CODESRIA (African Organization for Social Research) organized a conference in Kampala, Uganda, on academic freedom - that is, the right of researchers and academics to express themselves freely in their research and teaching without risk to life and limb. The situation was serious with the persecution of researchers, teachers and students who expressed themselves critically and universities that were closed. CODESRIA saw this as the greatest threat to African research at the time. Therefore, CODESRIA decided to convene researchers from all over Africa to discuss what could be done to improve the situation.

The topic was so sensitive that few countries in Africa were willing to host the conference, and few donors were willing to fund it. However, SAREC (the Swedish Agency for Research Aid to Low-Income Countries) showed enough courage to do so and the conference was organized, despite the fact that some researchers were banned from participating and others were punished afterwards. It was thus an important, but not uncontroversial, initiative. Above all, it was an initiative that came from the African research community itself and not from outside - something that is absolutely crucial for the issue to continue to be pursued even after outside support has ceased.

The conference was successful and a joint statement was agreed, the so-called Kampala Declaration on Academic Freedom and Rights. The declaration came about when the third wave of democracy in Africa took off in the early 1990s and has since been enshrined in the constitutions of many countries. Academic freedom became a concept that many countries in Africa adopted, and in this way universities and other research bodies have been given a safer and more stable basis on which to operate.

Alarming development

One country that, after major problems a few years ago, incorporated academic freedom into its constitution is Malawi. This week, a seminar was organized to discuss the situation for academic freedom 25 years after the Kampala Declaration. The discussions showed that the situation regarding the development of democracy has once again worsened in many countries around Africa. The development seems to be moving rather towards the situation that prevailed before the Kampala Declaration. After many years of a positive development of democracy in Africa, this is both alarming and tragic.

The majority of participants felt that democratic development had generally declined in large parts of Africa. In addition, new problems have arisen that have exacerbated or aggravated the situation. The lack of resources combined with a sharp increase in demand for higher education is an example. The positive thing is that more and more people want to get an education, the negative thing is that resources do not increase at the same rate and that the quality of teaching thereby deteriorates.

New threats to academic freedom

The commercialization of higher education has created new and complex problems that threaten academic freedom in a new and difficult-to-understand way. The university teachers themselves contribute to the problem, for example, by hiring themselves as consultants and by conducting business alongside their university work - not least when the business consists of starting up new, private universities around Africa.

The presence of more female researchers at the meeting in Malawi led to questions about the situation of female students, teachers and researchers coming into focus more than they did before. For women, the biggest threat to academic freedom is sexual harassment - something that has increased sharply as more and more women choose to study further, while resources are reduced. With all these challenges mentioned, the opportunities to conduct critical and impartial research and teaching are reduced, which is required as a basis for being able to develop a country in the long term.

Researchers with a strong will to change

During the conference, new demands were also made to include students in the concept of academic freedom. Several representatives from student organizations participated in the meeting and made clear proposals on how this could be done. The development that is currently taking place in South Africa with student activists who make far-reaching demands for change was given a large place in the discussions.

The debate was lively, with many and comprehensive proposals for improvements and strengthening of institutions - all with the aim of improving the system of higher education and research around Africa. Despite the often pessimistic picture of the situation in, for example, North Africa, Nigeria and South Africa, I got the impression of a research community that really wants to work for the development of higher education and research in Africa, and ensure that the Kampala Declaration permeates the entire continent. The participation of many new and young researchers from countries around Africa was also positive. However, it was agreed that a review of the declaration is needed to adapt it to the changes that have taken place since 1990.

Sweden should continue to support sensitive efforts

SAREC's decision in 1990 to fund the Kampala Summit was thus of great importance for the opportunities to conduct critical research and teaching at a higher level in Africa, and strengthened the African research community's opportunities to work for long-term improvements. These results show the importance of continued research support with the aim of strengthening the internal work in Africa, in order to build up and develop research in the long term.

The question is whether Sweden is also today prepared to set aside the necessary resources to provide that type of support. With shrinking resources for research assistance, the scope for support for innovative and sensitive initiatives is becoming smaller, despite the fact that the challenges are increasing and the risks are increasing. It is therefore my strong opinion that Sweden should once again invest in comprehensive and innovative research assistance.

Lennart Wohlgemuth

This is a debate article. The author is responsible for analysis and opinions in the text.

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