Returning the gaze: Why we need more African think tanks that study the United States

For decades, there has been a focused interest in the study of Africa by American universities through academic centres, programs and think tanks. There are currently over 40 institutions in US universities that study Africa. Their focus and areas of study are varied, ranging from foreign policy to cultural issues. This penetrative gaze on Africa and Africans as a continent, its countries, people, bodies and everything else African dates back to the 1940s. The first comprehensive program for the study of Africa began in 1948 at the Northern Western University, where its anthropology department launched a program which gradually developed into a full-fledged study of African cultural anthropology in the fields of economics, geography, government, history, and linguistics. Through Ford Foundation and Carnergie grants, several similar programs were founded in a number of Universities resulting in the formation of the African Studies Association (ASA) in 1957. The purpose of the association is “to improve communication among Africanists, collection and dissemination of information on Africa, and stimulation of research on Africa”.

The community that studies Africa at American universities has grown exponentially. This has its pros and cons. One of the pros is that these academic think tanks and centres produce knowledge that is important in informing policy and engagement. However, it is a disadvantage that Americans are studying us so intensely and producing knowledge about us when we do not know much about them. When the US is gazing at Africa, where is Africa looking? Does Africa return the gaze?

American Gaze

Firstly, I classify these academic centres and institutes as think tanks because, in one way or another, they have the characteristics of one. American academic, founder and director of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the Lauder Institute, James McGann, defines think tanks as “organizations that generate policy-oriented research, analysis, and advice on domestic and international issues that enable policymakers and the public to make informed decisions about public policy issues”. He further categorises them into academic, contract research, advocacy and party think tanks. Described according to their utility, academic think tanks are mainly centres located within universities and they conduct research, publication, and public engagement on certain focus areas.

To explain the gaze on Africa by American think tanks one has to look at their explicit visions and missions. The Harvard University Center for African Studies poetically describes itself as a think tank that “has the power to influence perspectives on Africa” with a vision of “a world where authentic understandings of Africa, African experiences and African perspectives are commonplace”. The Council on African Studies at Yale states that it has “coordinated an Outreach Program aimed at expanding and enhancing knowledge of Africa in educational institutions, the media, business, and government local schools, colleges, and civic groups in Connecticut and throughout New England”. These are but two of the many American academic think tanks and centres that have a clear mandate to study Africa and ensure that outcomes of their research influence American policy towards Africa.

Christopher DeMuth, a lawyer and former president of the American Enterprise Institute, once remarked that “think tanks serve as storehouses of ideas, patiently developed and nurtured, waiting for the crisis when practical men are desperately seeking a new approach”. These academic institutions host debates, conferences and webinars to substantively discuss various thematic areas related to Africa. American institutions are studying us as Africa and Africans in-depth. The areas of study are cross disciplinary in a manner that almost covers the holistic lives of Africans historically and contemporarily. They therefore engage with Africa from the added advantage of knowing its people, policies and cultures (albeit theoretically). Whether their studies fully capture what and who Africa and Africans are is a debate for another day. The truth is that Africa has been studied by the Americans for the purposes of driving policy and engagement, but Africa has not studied the people it is engaging with sufficiently. Therefore, it engages from an inferior and disadvantaged position.

This brings us to my initial question: What is the African perspective of the US? Of course, there are institutions in Africa that have studied it but most of them are not completely focused on the US as comprehensively as the think tanks in American universities are. The African Centre for the Study of the United States (ACSUS), to which I am affiliated, is one of the few institutions that are an exception. Based at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, it was “created to turn a nuanced and analytical African gaze on the US” and has, over just a few years, began to “redress the imbalance in the knowledge flow between the US and Africa.” The ACSUS seeks to create “extensive, multi and interdisciplinary, incisive and cutting-edge perspectives on America as a society, nation and global power”. It is also an avenue for scholarly and policy exchanges on Africa-US engagements.

Delegates follow proceedings during one of the Mandela-Obama colloquia hosted by the African Centre for the Study of the United States in July 2018.

Another African centre that has been positioned to study and engage with the US is the American Language Center (ALC) in Morocco. There are other similar centres in other African countries. The US embassy in Morocco established the ALC with the primary purpose of teaching the English language and hosting American cultural activities. Over time, the Americans withdrew from the project, which led to it becoming independent. The ALC is committed to the study of American language and culture. Moroccans who have gone through its doors are equipped to deal with Americans not as foreigners but as a people and a nation they are familiar with.

There is a need for more African academic think tanks that study the US comprehensively. It is not ambitious to propose country-specific African think tanks that study the US, as it is a leading global power with many political and commercial interests in Africa. This will help African countries to understand the US better and, hopefully, make engagement with the superpower more balanced, with more positive outcomes – in the process, helping to close the inequality gap in engagement.

Governments, businesses, philanthropic institutions, think tanks and many others that are engaged in US-Africa relations stand to benefit from research and public engagement from institutes such as the ACSUS and the ALC. The teaching of the US to Africans will help produce scholars who are experts on the US, which will improve the calibre and depth of African engagement with the US.

There is also a need for African businesses, governments, civil society and other stakeholders to invest in think tanks that study the US. Cohorts of African experts who have primarily studied all aspects of the US are long overdue. If Africa is to continue engaging the US, African experts who are knowledgeable about the country are needed in African embassies, foreign ministries, corporates, academia and so forth. This is what returning the gaze means.