More and Better Research Needed on Education in Sub-Saharan Africa

July 30, 2019


There is an acute underrepresentation of rigorous research on developing countries and of researchers based in the Global South in economics and development scholarship. This is reasonably well documented: for example, using a database of 76,046 empirical economics papers published between 1985 and 2004 in the top 202 economics journals, Jishnu Das et al. found that per-capita research output on a given country increases with the country’s per capita gross domestic product. Of the papers published on sub-Saharan Africa, much more research was produced on South Africa than on other countries, with some work on Ghana, Kenya, and Nigeria. There were almost no papers published on countries like Togo, Benin, the Central African Republic, and Somalia over this period.

Within the field of global education, we see a similar pattern and hear repeated arguments that African research is undervalued and does not get the visibility it deserves.

If we believe that there is a link between good education policy and country-specific research, the low volume of research on poor countries is a cause for concern. If we think that promoting regional collaborations and networks is an important route to developing research capacity, then it is a problem that it’s extremely rare for African scholars to get a chance to meet and talk with each other and find areas of overlapping interest.

On 16-17 July, Addis Ababa University hosted “Leaders in African Education Research,” which brought together 41 participants from 18 countries to debate research priorities and opportunities to deliver high-quality and impactful education research. In collaboration with the Center for Global Development, the UK’s Department for International Development, and the REAL Centre at the University of Cambridge, UK, the event aimed to elevate the evidence on African education published by individuals based in sub-Saharan Africa and build future partnerships and research collaborations.

Here are some takeaways.

The landscape of education evidence in Africa

The African Education Research Database was launched in June to raise the visibility of African education research, consolidate the evidence base, and inform future research priorities and partnerships.

The online database shows the impressive extent of context- and policy-relevant African scholarship. At the time of writing, it contains 2,490 articles published between 2010 and 2018 and written by at least one researcher based in sub-Saharan Africa. The majority of articles are in English, but there is also a growing body of French, Portuguese, and Spanish publications.

However, a synthesis report of publications that uses a subset of 1,650 articles published in English-language, peer-reviewed journals with an impact factor of ≥0.2  shows large differences in output across countries: Nigeria, Ghana, and Kenya alone account for over 40 percent of the overall research output and 30 countries published fewer than 20 articles. It also reveals scope for greater alignment between research and regional education priorities such as the African Union’s Agenda 2063 and Continental Education Strategy for Africa 2016-25, or Sustainable Development Goal 4.

The analysis suggests that research on primary, secondary, and higher education is broadly proportional to the share of enrolment at each level. But this doesn’t hold for early childhood education—a more recent phase for educational expansion on the continent and one that has little research coverage to date.

Across the database’s thematic areas, language and curriculum are popular, with “languages” and “literacy and reading” dominant keywords. Research around mother tongue instruction—its impacts on early literacy acquisition and the politics of reform—came out strongly among the researchers gathered in Addis Ababa when sharing their “big ideas” for education research in Africa (in particular, from participants of South Africa, Burundi, Ethiopia, and Botswana).

In the synthesis report, as well at the event, the composition of researchers is heavily skewed in favour of universities relative to other research institutions. This may be indicative of the incentives driving the behaviour of researchers in academia and other institutions. For instance, whereas most output from academia is targeted at peer-reviewed journals, other policy-relevant research institutions—such as the Centre for the Study of the Economies of Africa—tend not to pursue laborious journal publications, instead preferring to release working papers and policy briefs.

What motivates the issues African education researchers choose to study?

A wide range of research interests were discussed, with issues of pedagogy, teacher motivation, girls schooling, language of instruction, inclusion, financing, and assessment featuring prominently. While there seems to be consensus on the personal motivations for doing education research, there is considerable heterogeneity in what participants perceive to be driving the research agenda they end up pursuing.

One point of departure was around source(s) of funding. Many researchers argued that they were able to find a balance between their interests and the funding that was available and a handful seemed able to ignore funding altogether. Others felt that funders’ priorities, particularly for larger-scale empirical projects, dictated the research they pursued and tended to prevent their specialisation, with one participant seeking sweet spots that bridged national and international priorities:

[in each period] I’m looking for something that is selling. Both from a Western and a national perspective. So, I chose peace-building and peace education.

Another area of difference was around the balance between institutional mission and personal goals in guiding research choices. Most researchers appreciated the flexibility that they were afforded to advance their own agenda and said it was rare for institutional mission to lead or constrain this. Interestingly, this accords with Alex Ezeh’s writing on institutional challenges of leadership and maintaining “vision,” which summarises interviews from heads of several African research centres:

some leaders made the argument that the dearth of quality research reduced their impact and resulted in mission strain and drift. The constant need to chase funding through proposals and deliver on donors’ goals interferes with the creation of an African-led research agenda.

A third area which varied enormously across countries was the importance of policy-relevance in research design. Some researchers pointed out that they choose to research topics relevant to national policy because that is what will be funded and the basis for credit among their peers. Others argued that there was no way that policymakers were going to listen to their findings and so policy-relevance was not important when choosing an agenda.

African researchers’ views on policy impact

Sessions with UNICEF, the UK’s Department for International Development, and the African Union reinforced well-known arguments for achieving policy impact and provided some ideas on how researchers might react. Policy partners emphasised clear communication (utilizing experts in translating findings into policy briefs, using charts and video to reduce burden of information); building connections and using third parties, such as influential non-governmental organisations or civil society organisations to broker relationships; and timing as the essential ingredient for policy influence.

Researchers levelled strong challenges around writing style:

We are trained to write in a certain way and are trying to perfect that, but that’s in tension with the argument that we now need to write in the language that policymakers prefer)

…and on timing research to fit with policy demands:

we are reluctant to share findings during the process; we can provide research updates, but the findings typically only arrive at the end when data are cleaned and processed; we can’t often short-circuit that.

Researchers called for structures through which they can formalise the research-policy interface and reduce the importance of personal networks:

if there are so many universities, so many researchers coming to the Ministry of Education then they are bombarded… There is no platform for accommodating ‘pressure’ from different researchers and no structure to accommodate research findings.

(For example, Ghana’s National Education Week includes an Evidence Summit and Rwanda has hosted four research roundtables to date.)

What next for African education research?

Participants highlighted four main questions when discussing “what’s next” for education research.

  1. How can we improve South-South collaboration? At the start of the week only one researcher was connected with five or more others. Participants were critical of the shortage of opportunities to collaborate with peers across the continent. The meeting demonstrated one way to stimulate partnership and collaboration and generate contacts and networks for participants across sub-Saharan Africa.

  2. What can we do to strengthen data systems to support research and promote cross-border collaboration? An unexpected but compelling argument was made in favour of open data systems to democratise access and support cross-border collaboration (Data First, hosted at the University of Cape Town was cited as a good example). There is huge analytical value in administrative data that are collected but underutilised. As research funding is a constraint for many participants, particularly for empirical research, making better use of available data can be a cost-effective way of increasing research quality and output.

  3. What can we do to support early-career researchers? This will include finding ways to extend opportunities to those who wouldn’t necessarily call themselves “education specialists” today, but who can bring new skills and ways of approaching problems. One participant called for a single website that linked to every research call that is released by major funders, as a way to counter the dominance of personal networks in identifying opportunities. A linked suggestion was to encourage funders to allow joint principal investigators on research proposals, to retain experience while promoting new approaches and more opportunities for female leadership in the field.

  4. Which areas demand more research attention? In addition to language of instruction, participants were particularly interested in the impact of school leadership on attainment and achievement; in how to engage parents and communities in school-level decision-making; in associations between education, youth (un)employment, and labour market prospects; and in bringing a local context to curriculum design. Professor Hermenegilde Rwantabagu from the University of Burundi made a passionate case for research on education in emergencies.

Increasing the quality and volume of rigorous education research on sub-Saharan Africa

We are delighted to have co-convened this event in Addis Ababa and are grateful for our relationship with Addis Ababa University. Within CGD’s Global Education Program we aim to foster more substantive research collaboration with local research organizations, so that we ask the right questions and, we hope, have answers heard in local policy dialogue.

We aim to build strong partnerships with researchers from these organizations, undertaking joint research and co-producing analytical work. By doing this, we will support and promote more rigorous education research on developing countries and from scholars based in the Global South.

Efforts like the African Education Research Database are important: they amplify research output and help to improve representation of findings from the region. Similarly, finding ways to give developing-country scholars time away from their day-to-day responsibilities—and respite from a search for funding—allows them to focus on research and skills development. In this spirit we will soon launch a fellowship program for researchers from sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, with education research prioritised in the first wave.

But there are other approaches that are needed to build the evidence base on education and development in sub-Saharan Africa. We can take several pointers from the Addis Ababa event—whether it’s finding ways to promote South-South networks and partnership; democratising access to data, funding, or knowledge; or supporting research-policy dialogue in-country. Each of these can help to increase the quality and volume of rigorous research on education in developing countries and from scholars based in the Global South.



CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.