Why development needs social science

pupil holding a CRE book
Copyright: Tom Pilston/Panos

Speed read

  • Social and political science can offer powerful insights for Africa’s development
  • But Western bias rooted in colonial history limits its relevance
  • Understanding local relationships and agendas is key to solving Africa’s problems

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Africa’s problems can only be solved by supporting social research with local relevance, says David Bennett.
SciDev.Net and other media sources and commentators provide very good coverage on a wide range of development issues — but it is striking how little attention they give to the social sciences.
A recent editorial, for example, appears to mean the natural sciences when setting out arguments for focusing aid on science funding based on the UN’s Financing for Development conference in Ethiopia in July. Last year SciDev.Net, in partnership with UNESCO (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), published a book of 11 African science, technology and innovation success stories, again of the natural sciences.
Yet the social and political sciences have much to offer in providing powerful insights for promoting development. And in fact, the division between the natural and social sciences only emerged in the mid-19th century.
My own career straddles the divide and most recently has focused on biotechnology’s increasing role in developing countries, particularly in Africa, where — like in other economically emerging and increasingly influential regions — the social sciences are the poor relation.

Limited relevance

This neglect of the social sciences is part of a larger challenge: that of producing research that addresses development priorities such as food, health and energy security, rather than simply meeting academic objectives such as conference presentations and publication in peer-reviewed journals.

“African history and its societies, like those of other non-Western regions, differ radically from those of the West — and so must the social sciences.”

David Bennett, St Edmund’s College in Cambridge, United Kingdom

Thabo Mbeki, the former South African president, criticised the African education system for its “limited relevance” to the continent’s social and economic challenges when delivering a keynote address at the start of the inaugural Africa Universities Summit in Johannesburg in July.
This has roots in the history of African education. There are some 620 African universities now, yet until the 1970s, many were extensions of British and French universities. Their curricula and research were dominated by Western paradigms, concepts and theories.

As Mbeki said in his speech, this dominance still continues in the social sciences. Marxist, neoliberal and gender studies derived from Western thinking and research prevail over local thinking and research. So social scientists generally avoid topics deemed unfashionable, politically incorrect or too sensitive in the local context. Those topics include large rural populations, widespread relative poverty, massive young population growth and governance involving extremist violence, tribalism and corruption — but there are many others.

The result is that African social sciences are of questionable relevance to local conditions. And this is part of a wider problem in the higher education system. As Mbeki said, the relationship between universities and political leaders has been “weakened and destroyed in many instances” since colonial times, partly because universities are perceived to be part of the political opposition.

This has led to African universities becoming “impoverished”, “weakened” and “marginalised”, in the words of Mbeki again. This means they are starved of funds, being regarded as a drain on public finances rather than potential contributors to countries’ economies, and their findings and recommendations are frequently ignored, rejected or even opposed.

So when they are able to, bright students go abroad for their postgraduate training, as they used to, but no longer return enthusiastically to contribute their knowledge — depriving the continent of a new generation of natural and social scientists. Instead, many join an ever-growing diaspora. If they do return, they frequently face poorly resourced and managed facilities with little opportunity to participate in the work of their international academic communities, or to advance their careers.

Development disconnect

This resource deficit feeds into the disconnect between social science research and African development, which has to be rectified if that research is to have local relevance, be accepted and supported by political leaders, and therefore play its full part in informing development.

“Natural sciences have a much better chance of succeeding at solving Africa’s problems if they are combined with understanding of social factors and relationships, based on locally appropriate agendas.”

David Bennett, St Edmund’s College in Cambridge, United Kingdom

The reason is self-evident. African history and its societies, like those of other non-Western regions, differ radically from those of the West — and so must the social sciences, which are concerned with societies and the relationships among individuals within societies.

There are organisations working towards this goal. The Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), an independent organisation set up in 1973, aims to bring together and promote the social science community on the continent. CODESRIA cohosted the World Social Science Forum 2015 earlier this month in South Africa. Its title was “Transforming global relations for a just world”, yet it focused on tackling global inequalities — a theme that’s in line with dominating Western paradigms — rather than Africa’s development needs.

Mike van Graan, executive director of the African Arts Institute, said of his focus at the forum: “We are trying to understand the cultural dimensions of development. How do you pursue development and how do you understand development, both itself as a cultural construct, but also in the context of societies where culture is an important player?”
This is precisely the question that needs answering. But it was asked in relation to solving inequality, not addressing the many components of development.

CODESRIA’s strategic plan for 2012-16 points to the lack of transferability of knowledge from developed to emerging economies, which is an important issue. [1] And it looks towards economies such as Brazil and China as examples for development. China is, of course, also a major investment partner — another crucial topic for social science to take on board.
Aid therefore needs to be targeted at both the natural and social sciences. The natural sciences have a much better chance of succeeding at solving Africa’s problems if they are combined with understanding of social factors and relationships, based on locally appropriate agendas.
David Bennett is a senior member of St Edmund’s College in Cambridge, United Kingdom, and now leads the Biosciences for Farming in Africa programme. He can be contacted at [email protected]