UP EXPERT OPINION: Great minds thinking alike is no way to solve Africa’s complex problems

Posted on July 26, 2022

What do veterinary epidemiology, African literature, food science and political sociology have in common? Not much – and that is as it should be. Great minds thinking alike has done very little to solve the problems of humanity, as a quick glance at the state of the world shows.

Instead, what we need are many great minds thinking differently – and doing things differently, too – but working together to resolve the complex problems of our time, such as climate change, food security, biodiversity loss, poverty, health and well-being, and human rights.

While some of those minds should be university academics and researchers, many of them should not be. Among them should be stakeholders from industry, government, non-governmental organisations and – most importantly – civil society, which is often left out of these kinds of conversations, and can be a costly omission.

Consider the way South Africans have responded to appeals from government and the medical community to wear masks, wash their hands, and be vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus.

At this stage, slightly over 32% of South Africans have been fully vaccinated. We also know that only a small proportion of the population are regular handwashers, and that mask-wearing behaviour often left a lot to be desired.

This shows the limitations of approaching a complex problem from a single lens, in this case a medical one. As we have seen in hindsight, all manner of factors were at play during the pandemic, including philosophical, political, human rights, religious, and even constitutional factors.

What’s more, narrow participation in problem-solving tends to create an “us and them” situation instead of “we’re all in this together”.

Moving forward in a divided society

In South Africa “us and them” is a reality of daily life, embodied by the haves and the have-nots in a society with the highest Gini coefficient in the world for income and wealth inequality.

How do we move forward in an economy so divided? One way is to reform our state-owned enterprises (SOEs), which have lost the public’s trust. How, then, do we go about initiating reforms that will build public trust and hold government and the private sector accountable?

We need to get everyone around the table – business, labour, government, academia, NGOs, and all sectors of civil society, including the religious sector, which has the trust of a substantial portion of South African society.  

If we are to make any progress in dealing with complex problems such as poverty, it is crucial to have multi-stakeholder conversations that depart from the perception that any one grouping knows all the answers.

The Future Africa Institute and Campus at the University of Pretoria has some experience in evidence-based, participatory problem-solving, also known as transformational or transdisciplinary research.

Our focus is on bringing different disciplines and stakeholders together to have the conversations that allow solutions to complex problems to be co-created. Future Africa is a transdisciplinary research hub that aims to become a pan-African space for thinking, research, and learning, to tackle the seemingly intractable, complex, complicated, and intersectional continental problems. These “wicked challenges”, often represented by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), require that we co-create new knowledge, not just as academics collaborating from multiple disciplines, but also working with civil society, governments, and industry. The campus facilities, which include a conference centre with breakaway rooms, research commons, 300-bed accommodations, and a dining room complex, are an example of sustainable architecture and construction. It is a conducive space for training early-career academics and engaging in collaborative problem-solving partnerships.

Simple, complicated, and complex

I have used the word “complex” several times, and an explanation of what makes a problem complex is warranted.

Essentially, there are three types of problems: simple, complicated, and complex.

An example of a simple problem is baking a cake. You have a recipe, which you then give to 20 different people, all of whom are likely to bake a reasonable approximation of a cake.

A complicated problem is difficult to solve but easy to define and, once a solution for it is found, it can be repeated and replicated. Sending a space shuttle to the moon would be an example.

A complex problem is not necessarily difficult but has many different components and dynamic interrelationships, is systemic in nature, exists in a context of contested values, and cannot be addressed through a single intervention. Climate change and poverty come to mind.

Knowing this, Future Africa has for the past three years been running a transdisciplinary Early Career Research Leadership Fellowship with the support of the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The fellows on the programme are 12 early-career researchers from Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mauritius, Nigeria, Uganda and Zimbabwe, whose disciplines could not be more diverse. They include animal production and nutrition, population studies, bioprocessing, African literature, cultural studies, epidemiology, plant chemistry, history, microbiology, food science, and agricultural economics.

We paired the fellows with University of Pretoria mentors from different but complementary disciplines and established an integrated pan-African network to tackle real-life problems – zoonotic diseases in southern Ghana, biodiversity loss in a sediment-impacted river in Malawi, and food insecurity in Kenya and Nigeria.

Multi-stakeholder engagement has been a critical component, with interaction among researchers, specialists, policymakers and practitioners in industry, government, intergovernmental organisations, NGOs, and local communities.

In this way Ghanaian veterinary medicine scholar Dr Sherry Johnson discovered that Rift Valley Fever was circulating in southern Ghana, posing a threat to animal and human life. Ongoing stakeholder engagement should lead to the inclusion of Rift Valley Fever as a disease of concern at the livestock-human interface in the country.

Similarly, water research management researcher Dr Emmanuel Vellemu uncovered new facts behind the polluted state of Malawi’s Mudi River. In addition to multiple household and recreational uses, people were collecting river sand for construction and dredging the river for sediment, disturbing the ecosystem structure. A more complete picture has therefore emerged of what needs to be done to manage water quality and biodiversity in vulnerable hotspots.

When evidence-based research is conducted across disciplines, and civil society is included in critical conversations about complex challenges, the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. These days, no initiative with a societal impact should be undertaken without having multi-stakeholder conversations that break down the silos and get great minds thinking differently.

Dr Neeraj Mistry is Deputy Director at the Future Africa Institute and Campus at the University of Pretoria.

- Author Dr Neeraj Mistry
Published by Hlengiwe Mnguni

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