New institute expands expertise in Africa

The University of Western Ontario’s commitment to making a difference in Africa will receive a major boost with the opening of a new institute consolidating Western’s research strengths in the world’s second-largest continent.

With the goal of advancing scholarship and policy development activities related to society, politics, economy, culture and health, The Africa Institute at The University of Western Ontario opens May 3 with an event at the University of Nairobi (Kenya), in partnership with universities across the continent.

Led by director Joanna Quinn, a Western political science professor, the institute will work hand-in-hand with local institutions, governments and communities across the continent. “The connections are pretty incredible,” says Quinn, who has been conducting research in Uganda since 1998. “The future is really unlimited. There is so much we can do. It’s exciting to think about where this could go.”

The institute builds upon nearly 150 internationally recognized researchers, graduate students and post-doctoral fellows at Western already established in the region. It will act as an inter-disciplinary institute dedicated to the critical essences of Africa: its people, land and experience.

“As scientists we have available to us large or small societies where we exchange ideas, learn from others and gain confidence that our work is done correctly and is valued by others,” says Charles Trick, part of a team leading the Ecosystem Health – Africa Initiative, which is closely examining the shifting ecological factors affecting health in Kenya’s Lake Naivasha region. “We can do this type of networking since we have funds to travel and participate. This is not true for many areas in Africa and it seems like a great idea to create a network of ideas and exchange. Working together on common goals, and leaving behind both capacity to work independently and a network for growth and independence is what the institute’s activities are all about.”

Quinn says a collaborative effort will foster stronger relationships with stakeholder groups, advance important research and improve lives across Africa.

“There are some issues that are common to many countries in Africa and it is likely that we can provide ideas and support each other as we work together,” says David Cechetto, one of the leaders of the Rebuilding Health in Rwanda project educating nurses at the Kigali Health Institute and doctors at the National University of Rwanda. “In addition, the institute will provide international exposure for the breadth of the work that is taking place at Western related to Africa and we can all benefit from that exposure.”

“Strength in numbers, definitely,” Quinn says. “We may have one person doing their own thing, but when you start to put them together it creates so much more. It’s that kind of connectedness we will all benefit from.”

Participants say efforts to create the institute reflect the university community’s commitment to building sustainable relationships with African partners and institutions, and form a growing engagement with the most important issues facing the continent.

“After more than 11 years working in Rwanda, I know that partnership is absolutely essential to success. It even goes beyond partnership. The African partners need to have local ownership of the project for sustainable results,” Cechetto says.

Trick agrees. “The real key is that we are eventually not needed any more than any other global member of the research community,” he says. “That experiences are left behind for everyone involved that make us better people, better academics and make everyone’s life more worthwhile. That is our job on campus and in any research exchange/partnership.”

The institute builds upon established relationships formed through research programs such as Western Heads East, the Rebuilding Healthcare in Rwanda project, the Ecosystem Health Program and many others related to waste management, health policy, gender studies, linguistics, refugee studies and transitional justice.

The latter is the area of research that intrigues Quinn. She’s interested in what happens after civil conflict and how societies move from conflict to peace.

“We’re thinking about collaborations with Africans, collaborations by Africans and collaborations for Africans,” Quinn says. “That is really the critical part for this. It has to be driven by, in large part, what they’re asking for. So I may have a particular research interest, but what will be useful to the community and what they really need is most important.”

Western researcher Gregor Reid echoes those sentiments.

“This is a very significant step in ‘internationalizing’ Western. You need a presence in other countries, and a commitment to provide resources or it can’t work,” says Reid, part of the Western Heads East program that introduced the use of probiotic yogurt as a means of addressing health issues related to HIV/AIDS. “Having said that, we also need much more commitment from African countries, especially investment in personnel dedicated to research, and government money for grants.

“Western is stepping up to the plate and should be lauded for that, but I think we need time to see if African partners also walk the talk. It is critical if sustainable progress is to be made that contributes to the health, well-being and prosperity of a continent facing such massive challenges.”

With agreements between Western and close to 40 African universities, Quinn is hopeful the institute will not only further ongoing research, but open the possibility to bring scholars to Western, create symposiums, publish occasional papers and provide spots for others to come to Africa to work.

“Part of this is harnessing the strengths that we already have. It goes back to what I said about strength in numbers; because there are more of us now able to work together, that really gives us the edge,” Quinn says. “There is no way we can go wrong with this. The only thing we can do wrong is fail to act on things.

“The world is our oyster.”