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Social science research and the demand factor in a low-income country – The case of Niger

By 13 April 2016

Research in the social sciences and humanities has experienced a roller coaster ride in Niger over the last fifty years. Buoyed by nationalist politicians after the country’s independence from France in 1960, it prospered in state-funded institutes and monograph series and led to careers in state organisations until the mid-1980s. Then, stripped of public munificence in the wake of the sharp austerity cuts of the 1990s, it declined precipitously throughout that decade. In this new context, a market for consultancy emerged as bilateral and multilateral development organisations funded for their own ends the production of technical and “actionable” knowledge on Niger’s society. Nigerien researchers lined at the doors of these new players but were often outcompeted by international experts and consultants. In recent years, things have started to move in new directions after the country signed up to a sub-regional reform process of higher education and research in 2009 and opened three new public universities the following year. In particular, the reform has led the state to devote significantly more funding to research production, primarily through universities for now. After nearly two decades in a deep dip, the roller coaster is on an incline once again, and the natural questions that come to mind are: is this sustainable? How is it affecting the research environment? And what would make it carry on?

In 2015 a team of two researchers from the think tank Economie Politique et Gouvernance Autonome (EPGA) conducted an in-depth study which aimed to provide answers to these questions. The findings from this research are outlined below.

Is it sustainable?

The economic crisis in the 1990s had mixed impacts on social science research in Niger. On the negative side, the end of public funding impeded recruitment and the development of research infrastructure (libraries and research facilities, dissemination and publication venues). Research was downgraded into consultancy, and as the student population continued to grow, an imbalance in the ratio of professors to students led to negative attitudes toward training and supervising. Mentorship, which had been possible when numbers of students were small and the teaching load manageable, went out of the window. As the working paper from the 2015 study shows (p. 17), things have not improved today. The study revealed that the main factor leading students to follow a career pathway in research was their relations with supervisors and senior scholars. This does not bode well for the development of research in terms of human resources in the country, especially since, following the dominant model, most students want to become consultants, not researchers. However, on the positive side, the diversification of demand has led to the diversification of research interests and some of the responses to the crisis – such as networking with universities and research institutions both in Africa and in the North – have opened up opportunities for research and training.

So despite the hangover from the crisis, Niger’s research environment does hold potential for sustained growth, and the current increase in funding and development promises to stimulate further growth in key areas.

How does it affect the research environment?

The return of public funding is removing some of the roadblocks to reform, especially in infrastructure and in funding for research activities. Libraries are being resupplied, Internet connection has expanded, and the new universities are founding research journals. Also university budgets now earmark monies for a variety of research activities – fieldwork, research or conference trips, financial rewards for publication in peer-reviewed journals – in both the social and the natural sciences. The study also found that qualitative improvements, such as institutional transparency, and a push toward collaborative research, lead to good results. Thus, among the three regional universities, those that are better at implementing these concepts are also doing significantly better in terms of research production. There is, however, a slight obstacle in that the state is still not supportive of social science research and  is not a significant source of demand for social science knowledge. This means that demand still comes mainly from the international public sector and does not relate very much to the interests of researchers or even to perceptions of social utility in the country.

What will keep it going?

The primary stakeholders in the research environment are the researchers themselves. As we have seen, the state is barely a stakeholder, and the international public sector is more interested in technical, “actionable” knowledge than in serious research. Most of the improvements noted above came from movements internal to the community of researchers. However, the researchers also have problems themselves. The lack of convergence in their efforts shows that there is no common agenda to advance the cause of social science research in the country. The main motivation of the leading reformers is apparently to meet the regulatory demands of the African and Malagasy Council for Higher Education, the supranational body that regulates careers in Niger’s higher education system. Yet the positive changes of the last ten years did create a climate in which it has become possible to work out a purposeful agenda for the growth of social science research in the country. Critical issues need to be tackled, including new ways to train students, include more women and engage the public. The latter point is especially important if social science researchers want to become relevant in the country and capable of advancing their preferences in decision-making about their turf.

So in a nutshell, this positive upswing will carry on only if researchers, as the main stakeholders, mobilise and organise themselves around an agenda for the growth of social science research. As was stressed in the recommendations listed at the end of working paper, researchers should, in particular, advocate for the development of public demand for social knowledge, invest in “social” training for both students and career scholars and establish interactive relations with all demand sectors.

 

The full working paper can be downloaded here.

More information on the Doing Research project can be found at www.gdn.int/dr.

This blog is part of the GDN Doing Research series which brings together insights from the researchers across the project.