“We want to open up opportunities”

“We want to open up opportunities”

On the Africa strategy of the Max Planck Society

The word “Africa” initially conjures up images of open savannahs and vast herds of wild animals. Or of poverty, hunger, diseases and conflicts. And yet Africa also holds a great and diverse research potential. Max Planck researchers have been actively carrying out research in Africa for a long time. Now the Max Planck Society is exploring to what extent it can better support African scientists on the ground. The first “Africa Round Table” (ART) was held on 15 December 2020 – initially only virtually due to the pandemic.

The MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology maintains field stations for behavioural research on great apes in the Congo and the Ivory Coast. Teams from the MPI for Animal Behaviour are on the move in Kruger National Park to record animal movements there with GPS transmitters. The MPI for Psycholinguistics is investigating linguistic diversity in different regions of Africa. And with H.E.S.S. in Namibia or the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) in South Africa, huge measuring instruments for astronomy have been created with the cooperation of Max Planck Institutes.

“I myself have been carrying out research in Africa since 1991,” says Bill Hansson, who has assumed the positon of chair of the “Africa Round Table”. “For all of us, Africa is a really ‘cool place’ to do research. But I have often felt that we are not giving back as much as we are receiving. Moreover, Africans will not want to continue playing a merely secondary role.”

Africa’s population is young – half of its billion-plus inhabitants are under 19. And even if the young Africa of smartphones and solar cells has not yet quite conquered established politics, it continues to shape and develop societies. “We can support Africans in raising this potential themselves through education. But you have to be very careful in doing so, so that you don’t expose yourself to the accusation of post-colonialism,” says Hansson. “We want to open up opportunities. But Africans should choose for themselves whether and how they want to accept them.”

Bill Hansson has been carrying out research in Africa since 1991. Now he is chairman of the new “Africa Round Table” at Max Planck.

As a first step, the Max Planck Society wants to establish lowthreshold measures, such as lectures and mentorships. There will also be a special partner group programme and mobility grants for African scientists who want to work temporarily in Germany at an MPI. “An important aspect must be to provide returning junior scientists with a very good chance for a start back home,” Hansson explains. The bigger challenge, however, will be to establish a long-term scientific environment and adequate research conditions. How do you make a science system work? “We can’t take our cue from European institutions like Max Planck or the French CNRS,” Hansson explains.

“We have to look at how research politics and granting opportunities can be set up in Africa so that they work there.” Hansson knows what he is talking about. He has been on the board of the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology, or icipe, in Kenya since 2006. “When I joined the board, the institute was close to bankrupt – we more or less had to borrow money to pay the salaries,” Hansson says. But with strong local management in combination with an active Governing Council, the Center is now on a very good path. “Today, icipe is a model institute in Africa.”

International donors are eager to find someone they can trust – an efficient organisation that will take their money and put it to good use. If you have such an organisation, that’s where the money will go. “icipe has a multi million dollar budget, all ‘soft money’”, as Hansson points out. These are, for example, endowment funds. In close cooperation with the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, which has a large alumni network in Africa, he wants to explore further funding opportunities. One thing is already clear: the MPG will need staying power and a long-term vision for Africa – there are no quick fixes.

Text: Christina Beck 

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