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Why is collaboration so critical in science-society interactions, especially in the African context?

Reos Partners
September, 2023


Learn more about why collaboration is critical in science-society interactions, particularly in the African context. 

This article is co-authored by Karen Goldberg, Mpinane Senkhane, and Nwanyibuife A. Ugwoeje.

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others.” ~ African Proverb

The 2020s have been described by many as the “decisive decade”. Whether it is in relation to climate change, resource depletion or degradation or equity. What we do or don’t do in the next few years will have long-term consequences. The operative word is “we”. The extent and complexity of the challenges we face mean that we can only make meaningful progress on these issues if we work together. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) recognise how important partnering, cooperation, and collaboration are for their achievement through their universal, integrated and indivisible nature.

While the necessity for diverse actors to work together to make meaningful progress on our major sustainability challenges is true, the rationale for collaboration in the context of the global south tends to overlook a key imperative for genuine collaboration, which is the need to decolonise development and how academic research and researchers interact with society.

For anyone that has been in a research consortium or worked on an issue that involves researchers and societal stakeholders in the global south, it is well worth asking ourselves:

  • Who sets the research agenda?
  • Who provides the funding?
  • Who oversees and manages the projects?
  • Who are the supervisors and who are the student researchers?
  • Who makes the decisions?
  • And on what basis?

Many of our answers to these critical questions point towards a skewed power differential, in favour of individuals or institutions based in, originating, or strongly supported by the global north; and in favour of researchers and academics, as opposed to societal actors, in particular communities.

As such, the imperative for collaboration in the global south is not only vital to address sustainability challenges per se but to advance justice and transformation as a means to addressing these challenges. And specifically to position the peoples and the wisdom of the global south on an equal footing as western and northern ways of thinking, being and doing. 

Importantly, this means disrupting the power differentials that invariably exist amongst stakeholders in the science-society interface when working in the global south and, the mental models that underpin these differences in power and how power and rank are exerted. This is arguably most pertinent when working on the African continent. 

What are some of these mental models? 

Deeply entrenched colonial mental models still underpin the view of the African continent as a whole, much of the development paradigm and traditional academia. It is the mindset that conveniently forgets that Africa was and still is being plundered for its natural and human resources. How its peoples were, and in many cases still are, viewed as second-class citizens, ignorant, needing to be steered, corralled and saved, with limited agency, resources or wisdom of their own. It is the assumption that certain types of knowledge or ways of knowing are more legitimate and credible than others. It is the espousal of individualism over interdependence.

How do we begin to shift these mental models? 

Genuine and successful collaboration across the science-society interface in the African context requires acknowledging and shifting these mental models, beliefs and assumptions – in Africans and non-Africans alike. This requires the deliberate development of certain meta-competencies (also called “21st-century skills”, which are viewed as essential for success in today's rapidly changing world) that many of us have never been taught, or if we have, have not thought these relevant to working with others to make progress on sustainability challenges. 

What are the meta-competencies required? 

START and Reos Partners have been exploring this question for several years now through several “Leadership Labs” that we have facilitated for West African sustainability researchers and practitioners.

Here we outline five meta-competencies we think are particularly important for shifting our beliefs and mental models: 

  1. Reflexivity: being able to focus on ourselves and critically reflect on how our assumptions, experiences and positionality (i.e. our differences in social position and power in relation to others) influence the way we see, experience and make sense of the world and how others see, experience and make sense of us. Reflexivity can help build contextual awareness and sensitivity when working with diverse people, it can illuminate power relations and power dynamics in a group and can help to spotlight potentially problematic assumptions that can hinder the success of collaborative work.

  2. Empathy: is about trying to understand the world through someone else’s eyes – to experience the world as they do – even if we have a different perspective or opinion. Developing this competency is especially useful when we hold very different worldviews or perspectives to others we need to work with, and is particularly important when we hold a lot of positional power in relation to other stakeholders.

  3. Flexibility: is the capacity to adjust to change quickly and calmly so that we can deal with unexpected challenges effectively. Building the competence of flexibility increases our faith in our ability to handle a wide range of situations, even in the face of conflict or change. It also invites a sense of openness to other ideas and ways of seeing the world and what might be needed.

  4. Courage: is the willingness to examine your own beliefs, mental models and blindspots and to tune into uncomfortable conversations or issues, including the extent to which we may be exerting our power over others in a way that causes harm. It is also the courage to be open, vulnerable and willing to make mistakes in order to learn when the situation warrants it. Courage is required by both individuals and groups to address potential power differentials in a group and to be able to have meaningful, difficult conversations.

  5. Curiosity: This is the willingness to “lean in” or “lean forward” to learn and understand more about ourselves, how others perceive us and the world around them, the readiness to try things out, and be curious, even about the things that are hard and make us feel uncomfortable. Developing this competency can strengthen the efficacy of the other competencies. 

What can be unlocked by shifting our mental models, assumptions and beliefs, individually and collectively? 

When we start decolonising our minds and our relationships with one another, we can develop a deeper understanding of our individual and collective complicity and contribution towards our unsustainable systems and practices as well as our agency in effecting change; this applies to everyone, not just some.

There is the possibility that those with more positional power can develop a sense of humility and shift away from either centering themselves or thinking that they are set apart from the issue to one of understanding the productive role and contribution we can make, as one of many vital actors in the collaboration – not the most important or powerful actor. And through doing so, we can cultivate greater mutual respect, transparency and trust amongst science-society actors and partners as an essential step along the journey to a more sustainable and equitable future. 

After all, collaboration is the bedrock of humanist African philosophy, encapsulated in the concept of “Ubuntu”, derived from the isiZulu saying: “Umntu ngumntu ngabantu”.  “A person is a person through other people”. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu so poignantly put it: 

“My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together”.


If you are interested in learning more about the work START and Reos Partners are doing cultivating these meta-competencies for sustainability leaders, researchers and practitioners, please contact Mary Thompson-Hall.

This blog article was written as a contribution to START International’s ProSus Magazine. The fifth issue of START’s ProSus Magazine features the Promoting Gains in Renewable Energy (ProGREEN) West Africa program. The full magazine can be found and read here in English and French. 

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