Ideas & Debate

Invest in Africa-led research to tackle health inequalities

research

A researcher tests samples for the coronavirus in a Kenya Medical Research Institute laboratory in Kisumu. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Summary

  • Africa has been viewed as a goldmine for research; a stepping stone to propel external researchers to greatness, without benefiting from its participation in scientific breakthroughs.
  • This is why, despite our contributions to research, Africa —which comprises 15 percent of the world’s population — continues to bear 25 percent of the global disease burden and produce only two percent of the world’s research output.
  • There are only 198 African researchers per one million people compared to 4,500 researchers per one million people in the UK and the US.

In June 2018, The Lancet published a piece on parachute research that sparked debate within the health and research fraternity around the world.

In the article, the writers called out the persistent practice of scientists and research groups from the global north jetting into poorer countries to conduct research and collect data, only to publish their findings in prestigious journals without giving credit to local teams.

It’s a practice as old as research itself, and one that continues to negatively impact foreign researchers’ ability to develop contextually relevant interpretations of African data, and therefore the capacity to inform health policies based on lived realities.

Three years after The Lancet published the article, the Covid-19 pandemic has once again brought the issue of inequity in research to the fore, highlighting the barriers faced by African scientists in their quest to meaningfully contribute to the development of locally relevant interventions with the power to bring an end to what is arguably the most devastating health emergency of the past century.

For decades, African researchers have been sidelined in favour of their counterparts from the global north. With many of them working in lower resource settings, African scientists are often relegated to support staff when their peers from developed nations swoop in to conduct research and collect data — with little intention of using their findings to benefit the very populations that enable their work.

Africa has been viewed as a goldmine for research; a stepping stone to propel external researchers to greatness, without benefiting from its participation in scientific breakthroughs.

This is why, despite our contributions to research, Africa —which comprises 15 percent of the world’s population — continues to bear 25 percent of the global disease burden and produce only two percent of the world’s research output. There are only 198 African researchers per one million people compared to 4,500 researchers per one million people in the UK and the US.

There is a glaring gap in Africa’s research and development (R&D) capacity, and our people suffer for it. Without R&D led by Africa for Africa, we will continue to lag while the rest of the world moves forward, and never has this been clearer than it is today.

While developed economies stockpiled Covid-19 vaccines early this year, African countries are still struggling to get the precious vaccines.

As of April 2021, less than two percent of the 690 million vaccines administered globally were in Africa. By mid-July, Africa’s Covid-19 fatality rate stood at 2.6 percent, higher than the global average of 2.2 percent, and was feared would rise even further as African countries still tried to acquire vaccines for their citizens.

This reality lends credence to the assertion that when the global north dictates research, the global south suffers. It is time we do something about it. We cannot — and should not — wait to be “rescued”.

We must act now. We must take responsibility for our own future, our own health outcomes, and this cannot happen if we continue to rely on R&D from the north.

The global north funds research based on its priorities, and rightly so. Because African countries still rely heavily on foreign funding to carry out research, health issues more relevant to us, such as tropical diseases that could be relatively easy to treat, are deprioritised in favour of issues that (may) affect the financing countries.

By failing to empower our own scientists to carry out research that can shape our health policies to meet our unique health needs, we choose to remain the victims in this narrative.

By relegating homegrown research to the back burner and failing to put R&D at the centre of national health policies, we choose to remain complacent in our situation, always the supporting cast when we can take the lead.

In so doing, we do ourselves a huge disservice. However, if we take R&D into our own hands, invest in the resources and infrastructure required for impactful R&D, we can come closer to shedding the history of exploitation and become gatekeepers to our own health and wellbeing.

Global health targets cannot be achieved when Africa’s — and the rest of the global south’s —health needs are not prioritised. To tackle health inequalities, African governments must place a higher value on African-led, Africa-focused research.

We must develop our own R&D capacities and infrastructure, train more researchers, adequately fund research institutions, foster environments that enable research and celebrate our own to accelerate growth in this area.

Africa does not need to completely break away from the global north to do this, for collaboration is key to shared success. But we must break away from the notion that we cannot lead, because we can, and we must.