By Cora Burnett
University of Johannesburg, Professor and Director, Olympic Academy
& Global Fellow University of Edinburgh, Academy of Sport
Having been in the space of sport for development (SfD) for more than two decades, I have met amazing scholars and continue to engage with them around a common interest – SfD in Africa. In this field, context is everything. Over the years I have shared the forum for vibrant public discussions with some of the most informed and some of the most uninformed about the conditions of my country and continent.
I would like to raise five main issues concerning: i) the documented ‘under-representation’ of African scholars and their research outputs; ii) research on filtered realities in support of the academic argument; iii) the focus on neo-colonial practices without capturing the voices (sense-making) and praxis of the affected populations; iv) the lack of critical introspection; and v) exclusionary practices.
For some, Africa represents an abstract collective of ignorance, backwardness and not ‘yet there’ phenomenon. As academics from non-first world countries, African scholars are often invited to contribute to discussion and debate but often solely about ‘context’. It seems that scholars from the Global North’s insights are recognised first and foremost in advancing first world discourses through the ‘production of (new) knowledge’. Mapping the field of SDP work, shows the small proportion of scholars from Africa whose work has been published in high impact research journals, whilst scholars from the North are increasingly conducting research on Africa and, in some instances, they have the arrogance to explain this by stating that local expertise does not exist.
The statistics tells a story. Cronin found 20% or 27 reports of all research to be conducted in Africa with five of the researchers living in Africa. In another analysis by Schulenkorf, Sherry and Rowe an even more dismal picture emerges. Of the total published research 73% of all authors were from Europe (37%) or Northern America (36%), whilst 8% authors were from Africa contributing to 9% of publications.
The latter was reported in 2016 which contradicts an analysis I conducted last month. I found at least triple the number of published research from authors in Africa, although not all 63 papers were strictly categorized or had keywords indicating a Sport-for-Development domain search. The under-representation raises some questions on many accounts. Such analysis contributes to the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ of an absence of Sport for Development researchers delivering quality research in Africa which may partly explain the absence in ‘other’ circles as well.
For many years, I have been silent about this issue. Discussing how some First World academics constructed and built stick figures for critical work on ‘neoliberal’ practices has become ‘entertaining’ lecture material in post-graduate classes. Notably, many of these first world academics come to the same conclusions. Some discover the complex truth based on a few interviews, blog or face book material, reducing the complex reality to build a case that would serve their particular flavour of ‘critical analysis’; or, they argue for the inclusion of ‘local voices’ (captured as an additional data set).
How can some academics be so sharp, intellectual and blind all at the same time? What about real reflection? Why construct hyper- or filtered realities and ‘lamenting’ on the unequal power relations, ideology and structures that in the first place continue to perpetuate SDP work without addressing the root problems to which they (possibly unintentionally) contribute? Why is most work pitched at the level of the recipient such as women and girls, who ultimately benefit little through endless temporary initiatives aimed at their empowerment and improved self-worth and self-esteem?
One must question who is actually benefitting from such programs when women and girls eventually return to real life and real conditions that render their newly founded power relatively meaningless. What about action? What about the authentic truth? What about real inclusion and collaboration on equal partnerships?
I intentionally did not quote the work of scholars as I think we should all reflect on our own academic practices. A recent ‘practice’ which mirrors many others, is a forum of invited and influential experts within the field of SDP that will gather in March 2017 at the University of Illinois. Of the invited experts, all but four are from Northern America and none are from Africa. Another example that rings hollow when talking about ‘human rights’, ‘inclusion’ and ‘partnership’ within academia, relates to invitations to publish in open source journals where the cost of the author’s contribution is completely out of the reach of many African scholars. Yet, as an African-based scholar I am repeatedly asked, and as a professional, often contribute, by reviewing the manuscripts of first-world scholars.
As South African academics we face violent student demonstrations, such as the Fees Must Fall Campaign and other poverty-related issues, on a daily basis. Conditions necessitate that we must work as relative generalists due to cash-stripped universities of which some provide up to three meals per day to needy students. We do not have the luxury of funds for large scale longitudinal research projects and associated opportunities to pay-to-publish, or to attend international conferences.
Nor, do we have the advantage of extensive and well connected networks of specialist colleagues for support. When I received some recognition from U21 universities at the end of last year, I tried to mask my level of indignation by merely stating: “Researchers from the Global South are obliged to unearth new ways of knowing with a voice that matters in academic discourse.”
I may have stepped on important toes, but I trust I can count on those academics who are committed to integrating their humanitarian beliefs to create a more just society and a truly genuine, inclusive scholarly community. Sometimes it seems that apartheid is alive and well amongst those scholars who live by some sense of their own objective morality yet, remain unaware of the meaninglessness of their detached, highly abstract but well-articulated arguments.
 Cronin, O. (2011). Comic Relief Review. Mapping the research on the impact of Sport and Development interventions. Manchester, UK: Comic Relief.
 Schulenkorf, N. Sherry, E. Rowe, K. (2016). Sport for Development: Ann integrated literature review. Journal of Sport Management, 30, 22-39.