#inaspPrinciples for publishers 1: Taking the time to understand country context

Principle 1: Making the effort to understand the country context – understanding local needs and going beyond the capital city.

– for full list of the principles see here

The (admittedly specialist) news is awash with stories about the growth of research and higher education in developing countries. After years of neglect, interest has returned, governments are investing, and foreign donors are providing additional funding. Student numbers are growing rapidly, new universities are being built to cater for demand, and there’s a greater focus on the value that research has in tackling some of the difficult problems of development.

Infrastructure

But these headlines can conceal the more prosaic challenges that universities and their staff and students face day to day. This remarkable growth means that student numbers often outpace improvements to university campuses, and the ability to train new faculty. Government funding has to go further, and newer institutions – often located in smaller towns or rural areas – are often a world away from their more familiar capital city counterparts. In fact, there can be substantial differences even within the same city.

In Kenya, Agatha Kabugu who serves as Treasurer in the Kenyan Library & Information Consortium (and as Deputy Librarian for Planning at the University of Nairobi) observes that many universities simply don’t have the IT infrastructure they need to make good use of the online collections that their consortia have procured. Some are still struggling to put in place a basic campus network, enabling IP authenticated access. And bandwidth outside the capital is often much slower.

“Even in the same city there are connectivity variations”, emphasizes Audrey Mhlanga of the Zimbabwe University Libraries Consortium (and librarian at Bindura University of Science Education), reflecting on the varying ability of Harare’s universities to purchase adequate bandwidth.

Not all universities are created equal

As a result, the fact that new members are joining a consortium does not immediately mean that there are many new users.  As Trevor Namondwe (member of the Executive of the Malawi Library & Information Consortium (MALICO), and Librarian at the Lilongwe University of Agriculture), explains, national budgets have to stretch even further than before, so collective purchasing is the only viable option, and consortia are vital. And, as Trevor’s colleague, Geoffrey Salanje, notes, the number of members does not equate to the number of active users. Many are in name only, are not making much use of what the consortium provides, and are thus unwilling to contribute to the costs.

Not yet connected

In Malawi the problems are arguably greater. The fibre-optic cables laid down the African coast are still to reach land-locked Malawi, and the costs are still too high for many institutions to purchase the bandwidth they need. While there’s a national research and education network, MAREN (equivalent to the UK’s Janet in its ambition to provide national broadband access), Malawi has not yet raised the funding it needs to join its neighbours in the Africa Connect project. The figures illustrate this well – Patrick Mapulanga, MALICO’s Secretary, reports that a connection of 1Mb/s can cost $4000 a month, while joining Africa Connect could lower it to $450. Without decent bandwidth, access doesn’t mean much for many institutions.

Networks matter

The world over, users expect remote access off-campus. Academics’ lives are similarly stretched wherever they are based and research and writing often gets done at home out of hours. Similarly, students want to study while they work. Providing this off campus access often proves a challenge in Kenya and elsewhere.

Research cultures – the reality of demand

Francina Makondo of the Zambia Library and Information Consortium makes an important point. The research culture in Zambia is quite poor, she explains, and many institutions are not that active in research. “Funds for subscriptions to electronic resources would be the last on the minds of our budget holders,” she notes, “making it difficult to meet the annual subscription fees”.

So what can you do?

The key is to start a conversation.

As my colleague Anne suggested in her recent Scholarly Kitchen blog, publishers can make a difference by doing their best to understand the countries they’re working with. Some publishers have paid visits to the consortium and some of their members  and have started a productive conversation as a result. It is important to remember not to limit such visits to the capital city.

INASP can help here too. We work with over 20 countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. We talk to our partners every day, and hear about the difficulties they face – but also what they’re doing to tackle these. Our blog, and our PfD mailing list [sign up here] will help you stay up to date.

Follow Publishers for Development on Twitter, and join the conversation using the hashtag #inaspPrinciples.  PfD is a joint initiative of INASP and the Association of Commonwealth Universities.

Jonathan Harle
Jonathan Harle is Senior Programme Manager, Research Access and Higher Education and Director of the Strengthening Research and Knowledge Systems programme

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