Knowledge economies in advancing the freedom struggle

The 25th of May is a day for the observation of what was inaugurated as Africa Freedom Day or Africa Liberation Day. Although some today focus on the day’s association with the African Union, the idea of a Freedom Day[1] originated at a 1958 Accra conference, a full five years before the founding of the AU’s predecessor. The official conference chronicle reports that the day was proposed to: “mark each year the onward progress of the liberation movement, and to symbolise the determination of the people of Africa to free themselves from foreign domination and exploitation.”

Let us pause to consider this formulation, and the concepts it frames: onward progress, liberation movement, people, free themselves, foreign domination, exploitation.

The 25th of May has since 2002 been renamed Africa Day, eliding the fundamental call to Freedom. In opposition to this erasure, this article emphasises the significance of these concepts six decades after that Accra conference. The rousing call imagined the freedom struggle as a continuous, collective effort grounded in popular mobilisation. Each year’s celebration is conceived as a way marker in the freedom struggle against structures that stifle the people’s capacity to thrive. We inherit Africa Freedom Day not merely as a celebration of flag independence, but as a summons to labour for ecological, economic, social and cultural progress.

Ceremonies of memory around Freedom Day reveal the continuing urgency of the freedom struggle. Through reflections of past failure to transform opportunity into improvement of the people’s welfare, these events consider the question, ‘how can such an abundance of human and material capacity exist alongside the despair and misery?’ In the lead up to a JENA conference this October at which answers to this question will be contemplated, this article focuses on the structure and consequences of our knowledge economies, arguing that the nature of the processes of knowledge production illuminates a key cause of persistent unfreedom. By knowledge economies, we track here the shift in late capitalism to economies that are dependent on the quantity, quality, and accessibility of information, rather than the means of production, for development.

The gap in knowledge economies across the world shows a stark and particularly consequential feature of global inequality. Worse than GDP figures, global shares of scientific publication and expenditure on research and development reveal a vast chasm between the G20 and the low income countries. In 2013, G20 states accounted for 91.9% of total world expenditure on Gross Domestic Expenditure on Research and Development (GERD). The whole of Africa in contrast accounted for a mere 1.3% of worldwide GERD. In that same year, North America, Europe and South East Asia accounted for 18.5%, 22.2%, and 36.9% of global researchers respectively, while Africa’s fraction was a meagre 2.4%. The picture with regard to patents is just as grim. Against North America, Europe and South East Asia’s respective 52%, 16.3% and 27.6%, Africa recorded a diminutive 0.1% of the patents registered with the US Patent and Trademark Office. Dependency theory has long clarified that these figures don’t show an absence of skill or resources in Africa. Rather, they index the disadvantageous manner in which African countries are integrated into the world economic system, and how value flows out of Africa and into the wealthy countries. Undersized knowledge economies entrench Africa’s marginality as a site of mere extraction.

Under-investment in the sites of knowledge production has far-reaching consequences. For example, against a gross tertiary enrolment rate of 84% and 23% in North America and South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa records a mere 9% of citizens with a tertiary education. Forecasts suggest that absent radical change to reduce drop-out rates, there will be approximately 400 million people in the continent with less than 5 years of schooling by the year 2022, and another 300 million with our high school completion certificates.

The training of capable workers is more necessary now than ever. As climate change, resource crises and resultant conflict increase the precarity of traditional forms of economic production, practices of innovation become central to the construction of thriving and resilient communities. The deficiencies outlined in the previous paragraphs undermine the collective capacity to generate and implement appropriate interventions when our societies need them. They lead to shortfalls in skilled persons able to advance welfare outcomes and to contribute to the achievement of freedom from hunger, disease, poverty, productivity and cultural flourishing.

The well-informed reader will no doubt be aware of the campaigns in Southern Africa to ‘decolonise’ universities. The decolonisation of tertiary education is instigated by liberation movements led by students situated at these most important sites of knowledge production. These students refusal to persist with the colonial vestiges of the status quo, and demand the repurposing of functions and objectives of institutions of research and instruction. This campaign supplies a key insight to the possibility of continued domination at the sites at which knowledge is generated, the founts at which ideas are birthed, and the hearths at which our sense of ourselves is reproduced and transmitted to future generations. As the students have revealed to us, if spaces of discovery and learning are not purposed to advance freedom, mere personnel shifts, name changes and the increase in credentials does little to achieve the transformations in their output that are essential to Africa’s future.

And we must think beyond universities to other institutions for the production and circulation of knowledge and information. What role do research institutions, technology hubs, policy think tanks, NGOs, and media organisations play in our societies? Where else is the work of invention of products, processes and ideas performed? Are our institutions producing solutions for the problems of our present and future crises, water, food, climate change, migration? Are they rebelling against systems that naturalise exploitation and entrench the hierarchies that allocate wealth and privilege as explicated in the harrowing statistics above? Do they serve the larger purpose of illuminating the condition of our people, and equipping our societies so we can constitute ‘liberation movements’ and so ‘free ourselves’ of the bonds of ‘domination and exploitation’ as articulated in Accra 61 years ago? Is the knowledge they produce accessible?

These campaigns of ‘decolonisation’ remind us that domination and exploitation need not manifest in immediately visible symbols or practices. Instead of the sjambok, the Maxim gun, the alien flag, the pith helmet or the punitive expedition, domination may take subtler and more normalised expression in the structuring of the world of knowledge and information. As we reflect on the past and imagine a better future on Africa Freedom Day, we should attend to the terrain of knowledge production. It is there where either the building blocks of the future are produced, or instead, brilliant minds are defeated, their efforts dispersed, and their potential dissipated.

Working towards answers to these questions under the Technology, Research, Economy and Education framework, JENA has organised a conference to provoke a Rethinking of African Development in Nairobi this October. For this conference, JENA invites thinkers and practitioners to renew the promises of the Accra declaration of 1958.  Promoting collaboration, sharing and exchange, JENA seeks presentations that investigate the causes of African marginalisation in global knowledge production, and that propose a path toward more robust, and transformative knowledge economies.

[1] South Africa celebrates its Freedom Day a month earlier on the 27th of April.