The SSRC’s Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa (Next Gen) program has now registered 100 fellows who have been awarded doctoral degrees. It is worth pausing to reflect on how the program arrived at this moment, not only because this number signals a momentous achievement, but also because there are replicable and scalable lessons to be drawn from this work.
The program, while resembling other fellowship programs in fundamental aspects of its design, is distinct for its nimble, creative approach to a series of core obstacles facing emerging scholars in Africa. Like many other fellowship opportunities, the program offers funding intended to be sufficient to cover both core costs of activities—in this case proposal development costs, research costs, or dissertation writing, depending on the award one holds—as well as core costs of living, including soaring tuition fees and expenses that come with living in cities that are prohibitively expensive, whether Johannesburg, Lagos, or Nairobi. (What the fellowship also attempts to recognize, even if surely to an inadequate degree, is the obligations facing most fellows to provide some measure of support for extended family.) Additionally, as is true with a handful of other programs with similar aims, the fellowship affords recipients the opportunity to travel abroad for research, networking events, and conference presentations.
None of these elements of the program are entirely new solutions to addressing the needs of young researchers pursuing a doctoral degree even as very few programs in the world have witnessed the remarkable impact enjoyed by the Next Gen program. To make sense of this success, it is necessary to understand how the program makes effective use of a series of standard tools deployed by fellowship programs to mitigate obdurate challenges facing emerging academics in Africa.“The Next Gen program, in offering a sequence of competitive fellowships for key stages of doctoral training (proposal development, research, and dissertation writing), allows researchers to complete their degrees while avoiding this funding gap, which traps a huge number of talented researchers.”
Graduate students across Africa face escalating fees, as the cost of university degrees across much of Africa outpaces inflation, just as it does in many parts of the world.1See, for example, Statistics South Africa, “Education Inflation the Lowest in 30 Years,” Government of South Africa, April 21, 2021. Moreover, students who receive funding for one aspect of the doctoral degree—proposal development or research, for instance—often get stuck, given extraordinarily limited opportunities to find funding for subsequent periods of graduate training. The Next Gen program, in offering a sequence of competitive fellowships for key stages of doctoral training (proposal development, research, and dissertation writing), allows researchers to complete their degrees while avoiding this funding gap, which traps a huge number of talented researchers. This sequence is vital to supporting a generation of doctoral candidates working across six countries, brimming with ideas and talent and pent-up capabilities, who can advance understanding of urgent economic, political, and social dynamics.
In addition to supporting individuals of enormous talent, this design increases throughput, thereby addressing a structural deficit that strains universities across Africa. Over recent decades, universities have expanded undergraduate enrollment dramatically without making proportionate investments in faculty development. On average across the six countries in which the program operates, university enrollment is expanding at 8 percent each year—doubling every decade with compound growth—even as the number of faculty has stayed largely flat or, in some grim cases, has declined over the last 20 years. To keep up with soaring enrollment and the deficit of PhDs produced by African universities, many universities increasingly hired faculty holding only a master’s degree. This situation strains the ability of universities to teach students adequately, produce new generations of faculty and researchers who can help countries pivot to the opportunities afforded by a knowledge economy, or even recruit faculty who would be positioned to train new faculty. The ability of departments to replicate themselves and plan for their future flourishing is put at risk under such circumstances.
From throughput to a community of practice
Of course, throughput alone is insufficient. Large numbers of PhDs, if inadequately rigorous and without creative spark or a commitment to producing new knowledge or teaching new generations of students, might not be a reason for celebration. At the core of the program are a series of workshops that bring fellows together several times each year from across the six countries. These workshops gather fellows, already identified as promising leaders in their fields, at various universities within Africa so that they might learn from—and with—more established faculty from across African universities. More seasoned faculty help mentor the Next Gen fellows, giving counsel on research agendas and methods, on challenges facing those trying to juggle pursuit of a PhD and the demands of life, and on the need to cultivate a new generation of leadership in African universities. In these discussions, fellows push one another to ever greater heights in the arguments they summon, the data they amass to bolster their argument, and the established theories they challenge. This is how intellectual excellence is fostered and embedded in institutions that themselves change over time.“There is a sense of dawning realization that fellows gain when they share their sense of uncertainty and anxiety, and they are often astonished that the challenges they face are both systemic and found in Ghana or Uganda, for example, just as in South Africa.”
The graduate students who apply for the program, regardless of the country in which they pursue a degree, often work in conditions of extraordinary isolation and powerlessness. Covid-19 has surely intensified this sense of deep despair. They find themselves navigating starkly hierarchical systems in which senior faculty possess vast authority and graduate students almost none. There is a sense of dawning realization that fellows gain when they share their sense of uncertainty and anxiety, and they are often astonished that the challenges they face are both systemic and found in Ghana or Uganda, for example, just as in South Africa. These workshops thus not only allow fellows to hone the craft of their scholarship but also share strategies for navigating—and sometimes literally surviving—systems that do not always seem to care about their basic wellbeing, much less their ability to thrive under the right conditions.
The workshops additionally allow fellows to overcome a sense of scholarly isolation in Africa, which graduate students feel across the globe and which has been intensified by the extraordinary cost of travel within Africa and the degree to which universities are disconnected one from another, in part a legacy of oil shocks from the 1970s and structural adjustment reforms of the 1980s, which served to corrode prior intellectual networks linking many leading African universities.2Mahmood Mamdani, Scholars in the Marketplace: The Dilemmas of Neo-Liberal Reform at Makerere University, 1989–2005 (Dakar, Senegal: CODESRIA, 2007).
It is through these connections and relationships that fellows forge a community that crosses national borders and disciplinary boundaries. Scholarship, so often an individual inquiry, becomes a collective enterprise through the Next Gen program even as the individual fellows pursue different research agendas from one another. Fellows cheer one another on as they cross the finish line and are awarded their doctoral degrees. They support one another at difficult times through to that victorious moment. It is a community of intellect and feeling, of sparring and mutual aid.
The scholars who make up the Next Gen community have thrived in the process. Fellows have shed light on social harms—not least environmental degradation in oil-producing regions, gender-based violence in rural communities, and the toll facing communities dispossessed of land and housing. Fellows from the program have also made extraordinary contributions to ameliorating these harms. Richard Mbunda (2013–15) has worked to transform foodways in Tanzania by building a community of activists committed to producing sufficient crops locally rather than relying on expensive imports. Steve Ouma Akoth (2012–13), in an amicus brief submitted to the High Court of Kenya, argued successfully for residents of informal settlements, evicted from the land on which they lived, the right to claim compensation for the labor they invested in their makeshift dwellings, an argument that was canonized by the Supreme Court of Kenya in January 2021. Noleen Leach (2015–16) has developed a degree program to train paralegals in South Africa to empower community members who cannot afford legal representation. This is only a snapshot, scarcely a full reckoning of the fellows’ contributions to equity and positive social change.
What might come next“The problems that animate researchers of the program are the same problems that vex countries across the globe, not least the United States and liberal democracies in Europe.”
The fellows who now hold a PhD, 100 strong, have thrived in the program, drawing strength from the opportunities it affords while making good on their enormous potential. The program itself is organized around a set of themes that are broad and yet particular, which is both a strength of the program and, frankly, an opportunity to reconsider its focus. The program invites applicants working on topics related to peace, security, and development to apply for fellowship opportunities. These are vast topics, which allow significant numbers of applicants to claim a place in the program. Yet these topics fit awkwardly—perhaps even uneasily—with many of the priorities identified by researchers among the six countries served by the program. Fellows often are more concerned with exploring questions about the obligations of government to citizens of a country, about revitalizing possibilities for participatory democracy, about enhancing civic power for the most vulnerable residents, and about soaring inequalities and their manifest form in institutions, laws, and social practices. In short, the problems that animate researchers of the program are the same problems that vex countries across the globe, not least the United States and liberal democracies in Europe.
However, the program appears to hold out a default trope of peace, security, and development for Africa rather than a more aspirational set of possibilities for innovating and renewing political and economic systems. This requires researchers applying to the program to contort themselves into an imposed set of themes that they might rarely recognize as motivating their analysis. The frame limits how the scholars who make up the Next Gen community engage one another and on what terms. It is very different to hold together a network focused on peace, security, and development than it would be to sustain a network of researchers concerned with growing civic power or expanding participatory mechanisms for democratic engagement. This is especially true for scholars who do not perceive their work as contained within these categories.
While this short essay is written in a celebratory spirit, it is worth reflecting on the limits of an intellectual community built under an ill-fitting banner, in part because it limits the likelihood of successfully replicating the program in other contexts as well as the impact such a program might have outside the university. The program brilliantly addresses a series of structure deficits we see in higher education across the globe: underinvestment in faculty ranks despite swelling numbers of undergraduates and lack of funds to allow graduate students to shape and pursue intellectual agendas of their own choosing. Through travel grants and workshops, the program provides opportunities for mobility in spaces where many researchers work locally precisely because they have few funding opportunities to expand their perspective and networks by undertaking research that is comparative or further afield from their homes.“Too often, at present, funders dictate these topics without the productive tension of locally based researchers positioned to modify the terms around which fellowship programs are organized.”
If these elements of the program are necessary to strengthen higher education, what still needs to be put in place is a sufficient framing that allows a group of fellows to see their primary concerns within the articulation of a funding opportunity. Such a structure, centering priorities of local researchers, would allow fellows to probe the same set of issues from different perspectives, asking how to strengthen democratic institutions, or how to improve economic opportunities for those outside centers of power, or whatever questions are deemed to require urgent address by African researchers. Too often, at present, funders dictate these topics without the productive tension of locally based researchers positioned to modify the terms around which fellowship programs are organized. Instead, there is an opportunity for foundations to build on the accomplishments of the program, while also nurturing communities of researchers that collectively and rigorously research a set of topics that they deem most pressing. In the process, researchers might connect with one another and better share insights around a set of issues that they regard as urgent, while bolstering their ability to inform decision-makers on the fundamental reforms that are needed.