With this new issue we welcome Dr Wesley Morris to our editorial board. A proper introduction will be presented later.
It is a clear core focus of this issue how Western academic and literary establishments deal with data, factual data, about Africa. Many Western authors appear to openly invite criticism on the basis of prejudice. Their strident offensiveness appears to seek such a response so clearly they are prepared for this. What they appear not to expect is anyone to look simply at their data. This is of course extra-ordinary.
This confidence speaks to two environments: they are fearless that no African scholar will dare to call them out, and that no Western scholar will do so either. In the first case we need to compare the present environment with 1970’s when there could be no such confidence and when the emerging presence of African scholarship and the African Academy was visibly evident. During the period of structural adjustment many of those Africans who had pitched their careers with the development of African universities found their lives largely wrecked. In Ghana at one point it was not unusual to see former university lecturers selling matches by the street side or for similar candidates in Nigeria with PhD’s seeking jobs as lorry drivers. Those fortunate with opportunity, mostly determined by appropriate foreign qualifications or sufficient academic status, fled abroad often to US. A cumulative effect of all this has been critical silence. These academics arrived in US at time when separate US domestic forces were seeking to convert US universities to suppliers of market required labor. These are powerful factors but yet at the same time one cannot but be reminded that during the 40’s to 60’s pioneering African scholarship was produced often at great personal and family risk. By the 1980’s and subsequently the African Academy had been ‘depoliticised’ such that each academic viewed his endeavours through an entirely personal lens. It is an area worthy of further research how Western institutions enforced conformity. Numerous reports abound of the iron fist behind the velvet voice. Journalist report that colleagues who did not report according to head office requirements did not always find their reports suppressed, though often this was the case. They did however invariably find their contracts not renewed. Many reports of such experience have been made by those who used to work for the BBC.
Silence from Western scholars is more problematic. It would appear that the dominant post- Berlin wall ethos, the collapse in confidence of the critical left, in effect closed apparent doorways for young aspiring scholars as did the slashing of education and research budgets generally but specifically for anything related to Africa. It is at this point that we have the entry of the neo-liberal consensus and the substantial funding of hard right leaning scholars. With their potential opponents under funded or under employed their academic victory was a foregone conclusions. This bears consideration. An academic consensus has only value to the extent that it has been arrived at as the result of open discussion and criticism from all sides. This is like an open market of ideas. But all such resulting consensus will always be flawed if one part of the ‘conversation’ is formally absent, either by force or other means. It will be seen that it is inevitable, given the way Western academia is structured, that it will invariably by itself arrive at a hostile consensus for Africa as a mathematical certainty. If citations and references are deemed equivalent to ‘votes’ this is clearly obvious. Market imperfections are closely studied in micro-economics and this is simply another one. Any suggestion that objectivity can be attained by a single scholars’ critical self reflection is not worthy of serious consideration. A simple thought experiment is sufficient: exclude all Jewish scholars from debates and the resulting consensus will inevitably be seen as anti-Jewish by Jewish scholars. Vigorous and open debate is not the issue. Attempts to ‘soften’ the hostile consensus by political pressure actually only perpetuates matters by giving more credibility to the consensus which on its own might become so prejudiced as to loose all credibility. It is in response to this formal position that we call for the re-establishment of an African Academy. Western academy cannot and has shown itself incapable of generating a safe neutral consensus.
If this seems an extreme conclusion we have to say there is overwhelming evidence for it. At a formal level, at the level of the production of and sociology of knowledge what one would expect is a bias of assumptions and the thousand invisible hesitations and conceptualisation of academic productions. But what we find is far deeper, it is the wholesale abandonment of academic standards. Breaches of academic protocol are not rare or unheard of but are generally punished when found. In respect of Africa these same breaches which are patently available and barely concealed but when found no consequence follows. Here Western academia dips its toe into the gutter. Let us repeat: the key allegation is not that some Western scholars fabricate their data but that the Western Academy makes no effort to check for this and when it is found takes no action.
In the case of Professor Neil Turok we have both events. Here a brilliant mathematician takes two data points to make a major economic and political point. Any mathematician, let alone a brilliant one, will know that between two data points there are an infinite possibility of lines and that a proposed straight line is a horrendous joke! Secondly the actual economic data was readily available. Nevertheless Prof Turok was allowed to win a prize and even with all this attention no Western academic saw fit to protest. When complaint was made to Ted X that they had given him a major prize where his talk was based on fabricated data no action whatsoever was taken.
What we have with The Economist beggars the imagination (note 1) . First they claim in a report on global inequality that the richest Tanzanian earns less than the poorest American. No howls of protest from the Western Academy, no string of letters from economists pointing out the horrendous data abuse and dishonesty in this report. What are the facts? The report claimed to be based on UN figures. Firstly, the UN report stated that the lower end of figures for the US was not to be relied on as it was pure guesswork and not based on any actual finding. Secondly the populations identified were the populations of the poor. Now economic theory currently define s poverty not in absolute terms but in relation to percentage of median incomes. The data provides information on the poorest people in Tanzania. There are obvious issues with the data when it comes to country comparisons, the most obvious being whether the US $ reflects similar purchasing power in different countries. Strong objections to merely comparing across US$ have been made on the basis that for some countries housing, transport and basic nutrition are outside the money economy and are provided by family networks and these distributions are not caught in income surveys. All this notwithstanding, the report actually compared the top bracket of the POOREST Tanzanians to the bottom bracket of the poorest Americans and claimed that this showed that the richest Tanzanians earned less than the poorest Americans. When this was pointed out to the Editors of The Economists far from apologizing or removing the report they simply stuck by their report and refused any further discussion. The Economist has no ‘ombudsman’ or regulatory body that it accepts.
We have all since learnt that many millions of Americans live on less than $2 a day and that a proper abject poverty threshold should be $4 a day for the US given higher housing and transportation costs.
What we have above are not the result that sociology and theory of knowledge production would imply because those are still theories of KNOWLEDGE and these instances are violations of the basic rules of knowledge production.
It is our belief that the only way forward is the resurrection of the African Academy.
In another context it was once said .. ‘The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few’ …(note 2)
La lutta continua …
- Matthew 9:37 & Luke 10:2
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