‘Innovation, Transformation, and Sustainable Futures’ (#dakarfutures2016) from June 1 – 4 in Dakar, Senegal sounds like it’s going to be quite an interesting conference.

It is organised by the American Anthropological Association (US-based) and African Studies Association (US-based). It is hosted by CODESRIA (an African institution headquartered in Dakar) and West African Research Association (US-based), which has an ‘overseas’ headquarters WARC in Dakar (yes: the West African Research Center considers West Africa overseas, rather than their headquarters in Boston). The conference will be held in Dakar’s downtown Novotel Hotel (French-owned).

You can probably tell where I’m going with this. But it goes a bit farther than the exclusionary practices of western institutions.

175 USD is the non-refundable registration fee for general participants. 60 USD is the student cost participation in the conference. Not to mention adding the cost of intercontinental travel within Africa to get to the western most point of West Africa: Dakar.

Given the costs of attending, it is presumable that a large percentage of the participants will not in fact be African nationals.

Given the costs of attending, it is presumable that a large percentage of the participants will not in fact be African nationals, and even fewer will be African nationals representing sub-Saharan African universities (as opposed to those who have the financial capacity to attend foreign universities) despite it being held in Africa. You can see the programme here. There are about 80 speakers and around 60 of those represent European and North American universities (there are a number of people who don’t have a web record that indicates where they are based). You can follow the conference online using #dakarfutures2016.

The prospect of attending a conference such as this opens up opportunity for, say, an American graduate student whose research might engage little with things like ‘technology’ and ‘innovation’ beyond the loaded buzzwords they have become. Financially capable of attending the event, American scholars and US-based scholars can simply reword some of their research to make it passably applicable, pay the fee, and attend. Whereas, say, an African student who does work rigorously with these concepts in their research is more likely to be excluded from participation given the financial imposition.

Furthermore, participating in conferences such as these is important for budding scholars whose career success relies largely on networking with senior and influential scholars in their disciplines who also attend such conferences. These senior and influential scholars also serve to validate the products of junior scholars’ work, thus reinforcing a hierarchical system of validation pertaining to the production of knowledge.

It is a shame: academic scholarship is generally considered to be a great equaliser that breaks down barriers. This is often seen as a key purpose of formal education. But academic conferences on large and small scales like #dakarfutures2016 are commonplace events in African cities and they show that that’s not often the case.

Academic institutions are built from the economic and geopolitical systems in which they are situated.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising. Academic institutions are built from the economic and geopolitical systems in which they are situated, these conditions do in fact reinforce barriers when it comes to generating knowledge. Considering the conditions of the global economy, this means that Western institutions have more economic power to fund research, fund journals, and libraries. In turn, because of economic robustness of Western institutions, the research that is produced within the confines of the Western ivory tower is considered more legitimate, scholarly arguments are considered more valid, and overall of a generally higher quality.

So, not only does the conference perpetuate exclusionary economic relationships between western and African scholars, it also reinforces the ways in which western academia continues to imagine and create an ‘Africa’ through its own western lens. This is a skewed ‘Africa’ – not a ‘TRUE Africa’ (like what I did there, with the play on words?).

The ‘Innovation, Transformation, and Sustainable Futures’ conference is just another unsurprising – but disturbing – iteration of neocolonialism in Africa. It undermines work that is happening in Africa, by Africans, and analysed by Africans. In the age of cosmopolitanism and globalisation, it is essential – and more interesting – to engage with African experts and visionaries on their own terms.

Hopefully, Africa’s ‘sustainable future’ as the conference title says, will not entail conferences like these.