Addis-Ababa, 6-8 Decembrer 1994


Jacques VERON

Africa has, in the domain of demographic research, huge needs. It also has great potential. A greater coordination of efforts is one means of expressing this potential.


In Africa it is impossible to talk about research without reference to the crisis affecting the whole continent, albeit in varying degrees. It is important to take the crisis into consideration regarding research themes as well as financial means.

The participants raised questions regarding the nature of demographic research. If it is to be useful, research runs the risk of being politicised. If it is academic, it then runs the risk of being useless. It must avoid both pitfalls and be coherent regarding development objectives.

Themes of Research
It is out of the question for traditional research themes to be abandoned: demographic transition, child mortality, reproductive health including abortion, urbanisation and rural development and migrations in general: urban-rural, rural-rural and international. In conjunction, new subjects need to be addressed: relations between men and women; AIDS (including its socio-economic and political aspects); population and environment (in accordance with the Agenda 21 recommendations); population and development (highlighting the interrelationships between variables); population policies (notably evaluation); population, structural adjustment and poverty; refugee problems. It is necessary to go outside the scope of pure demography to discover the links between population and other variables and to look for the reasons behind changes by favouring a pluridisciplinary approach.

A discussion on the criteria for selecting research themes is necessary. How can research respond to the needs of society? Are decision-makers interested in the results of research, and if not, why not? Researchers cannot be left to their own devices; priorities must be established, it being understood that they will vary according to countries.

The Analysis of Data
In most countries there are mines of unused information coming from worldwide surveys on fertility, Demographic and Health surveys, censuses, etc. There is a definite need to exploit existing information leading to syntheses.

The availability of data can in some cases pose a problem, notably when statistical institutes are tempted to withhold information. Data is also sometimes more rapidly exploited in northern countries.

Data produced on a current basis do not, however, make a longitudinal analysis possible: follow-up prospective population laboratories should be established.

Studying the question of concepts and problems
The creation of regional centres would be a means of encouraging demographic research. For training as well as for research to be effective, a certain grouping together of activities has to be reached.

The phenomena have become more complex. This is the case of migrations that result in family strategies. Some thought must therefore be given to concepts and methodologies. To widen the scope of analysis from mortality to health, from fertility to the family, from migration to the "espace vie"[1] makes new approaches to population issues possible.

Researchers feel that there is no social acknowledgement of research work. Providing material and human resources, eliminating internal problems and reinforcing collaboration with other centres are measures to be encouraged to improve the research capacities of centres.

Financial and Administrative Autonomy
Demographic research centres suffer greatly from a lack of financial and administrative autonomy. There is a great demand for more autonomy from national institutions or foreign and international donors. Real autonomy does not eliminate the controlling of centres a posteriori.

As for centres set up with UNFPA support, if they have substantial means at their disposal, they are vulnerable. Unless they are associated with national structures - statistical departments, for example - they may not be ensured of existing on a permanent basis.

The Mobilisation of Human and Financial Resources
Southern countries faced a real dilemma. To improve the training of their researchers, they send them abroad which leads to a brain drain. Training abroad encourages a departure from the country of origin (students not returning home). And locally, training opportunities, notably at higher education level, are definitely insufficient.

The problems of training and research are compounded by that fact that libraries in centres often lack material. Access to reference works is difficult, at times impossible. The possibility of using CD-Roms would make up for a certain number of difficulties such as the small number of documents available in libraries.

Research suffers, in general, from low budgets. As researchers are not paid enough, they tend to abandon research in favour of working as consultants. Publications are insufficient or poorly circulated. Computer equipment and the communication infrastructures are often lacking. All these factors are not favourable to the integration of African researchers within the dynamics of international research.

The question of financing demographic research in Africa is a central issue. The absence of a funding agency really concerned with African problems and having in-depth knowledge of these problems is to be deplored. Research on poverty, for example, does not receive funding.

In fact, funding can be obtained even when a subject does not initially interest donors: the example of the urbanisation network in West Africa which was set up by CERPOD is proof of this. Coherent programmes to which research teams can commit themselves must be proposed. At present centres respond little to invitations to tender, because of the lack of information or because information is circulated too late. The quality of certain responses is also insufficient (in the responses to the UAPS invitations to tender, research themes are often vague).

To reduce dependence on donors, centres could show greater initiative in order to integrate new research within the fields of activities they finance. Research teams working on priority subjects could be set up within the framework of the CICRED so as to federate the respective concerns of countries.

A Scientific Policy
To improve their research capacity and their notoriety, centres should set up research programmes that can be integrated within a veritable scientific policy. The mobilisation of outside resources is easier when activities present a greater degree of coherence.

The Creation of Networks
The lack of communication between centres from different countries and within the same country is detrimental to research. On the scale of the continent, there is the language barrier with a division between English-speaking, French-speaking and Portuguese-speaking countries. At a local level there is a certain division of labour between population units which in principal only carry out research, statistical departments which collect data and centres exclusively dedicated to research. This division of tasks makes the exchange of information difficult. Researchers are more often better acquainted with the results of international research than of national research.

Improving communication between researchers is a need that has been expressed several times before, notably in Arusha in 1984 and in Kampala in 1993 but such demands have come up against a lack of local support. For a network to be able to set itself up, national concerns must correspond to those of the researchers.

The migration-urbanisation network set up by CERPOD could serve as an example. It was indeed made possible by support from donors but this support would have been insufficient if researchers had not taken the initiative of working together. Professional associations such as UAPS could play an important role in establishing networks. Suggestions and initiatives are to be encouraged.

Improved coordination of national research activities would make it possible to reach a sufficient level of activity making greater means available and facilitating the work of comparing national experiences. Countries would continue to control the gathering and analysing of data but coordination at an international level would increase theoretical and methodological synergies. OAU, UNECA, UAPS and CICRED could foster such synergy around specific themes.

Organising research in common does not deny any of the cultural, social, economic and political diversities of Africa and which may also be observed within African countries. On the contrary, it helps research to progress through the exchange of different experiences.


The quality of research depends on the quality of the training of the demographers. What are the links between research and teaching in Africa? The results of demographic research should enlighten public decisions and at the same time be known to the public at large. How can centres fulfil this dual objective of providing information?

The Status of Demography in the University
The question of the identity of demographers within university (identity in relation to economists, sociologists, geographers, etc.) deserves special attention. In French-speaking West Africa, university training in demography has definitely fallen behind. There is no teaching of demography at university level. The status of the discipline must be improved for decision-makers to give population issues greater consideration.

When teachers are also researchers, they find it very hard to conciliate teaching and research because of a lack of time. The exchange of ideas is even more difficult when administrative responsibilities limit the amount of time available for teaching and research. The ethnic question can also interfere and aggravate problems of integration between teaching and research.

The Collaboration of University Research Centres
The situations centres find themselves in and their links with universities vary greatly. Certain centres belong to a university (the Demographic Research Unit of Lomé and the Demographic Study and Research Unit of Ouagadougou, etc.) whereas others are independent of universities. The question of the type of links with institutions and the activities carried out in conjunction with them become even more acute. Institutional habits vary according to countries and there are differences between English-speaking and French-speaking countries. In English-speaking countries, most research is carried out in universities.

The differences in the means available to different centres can be marked: although many centres lack means, in certain cases a centre may appear to be "an oasis in the desert" and pay its personnel salaries far above those of a rector or vice-rector, which is a source of tension.

The question of the usefulness of demographic research must be raised in clear terms. The relations between centres and governments, NGOs and the population as a whole must be taken into account when evaluating the activities of centres. It is to be noted that there are strong examples of integration between research, the formulation of policies, and evaluation (the case of Thailand, for example).

The need for researchers to be of use to the countries in which they live is widely acknowledged. However, demographers and governments may not be interested in the same problems. Research results are not always exploitable for development planning.

Dialogue between politicians and researchers is needed. Research carried out must therefore respond to two constraints: they must conform to the requirements of the scientific community and conserve an operational aspect. Making research useful should not result in researchers losing their independence. It is of the utmost importance that they should be able to remain independent from the political authorities. In a country such as South Africa where population problems and political problems are linked, politicians must allow researchers a certain scope of freedom.

A Partnership with NGOs
The role of NGOs regarding population issues is increasing. The CAFS or the UAPS for example, can encourage new research. It might even be a good idea to establish in Africa foundations of the same type as the Ford or Rockefeller foundations to support research. The private sector can play a role by providing subsidies.

The dissemination of research results seems essential and is insufficient. Publications at different levels provide means of reaching different audiences. An increased awareness of population problems is an important issue in Africa. It must, and can be made at the levels of primary and secondary education as well as through the media. The organising of seminars for the dissemination of results must be encouraged: in the case of AIDS, information and making pupils more aware of the problem may lead to parents being informed by their children.

The participation of researchers in public debates, either in conferences or in television programmes is another way of promoting research. It is possible for a government to be made more aware of a demographic problem through its exposure by the media. Researchers must resist the temptation of protecting themselves by remaining "scholars".

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