Setting up an Africa–Europe cluster of research excellence

04 Jul 2023 | By Charmaine Smith
Digital image of a cluster
04 Jul 2023 | By Charmaine Smith
Image of ARUA and The Guild logos


Lately there has been plenty to celebrate at the ACEIR, which is hosted by the University of Cape Town on behalf of the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA).

In May, ACEIR marked its fifth year since it was established as one of ARUA’s interdisciplinary research centres of excellence in 13 priority thematic areas that align with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Then, a fortnight ago, came the announcement that UCT will co-lead a Cluster of Research Excellence in Inequalities, Poverty, and Deprivation (CoRE IPD). This is one of the 17 research clusters launched by ARUA and The Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities (The Guild) to pioneer a new approach to equitable collaboration and capacity building.

The CoRE IPD will be co-led by ACEIR’s director, Prof. Murray Leibbrandt (Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit – SALDRU), with Professor Robert Lensink and the University of Groningen (Netherlands) as The Guild’s co-lead university. 

ACEIR’s Ghana partner at the University of Ghana, Legon (node led by Prof. Robert D. Osei, Institute of Statistical Social and Economic Research) and at the University of Nairobi (Prof. Damiano K. Manda, Department of Economics and Development Studies) are the other ARUA members of CoRE IPD. 

The other The Guild universities core partners in CoRE IPD are Aarhus University in Denmark (Prof. Daniele Nosenzo and Dr. Hanna Fromell Denmark) and the University of Gottingen, Germany (Prof. Sebastian Vollmer).

Coming from a strong base

UCT’s legacy in poverty and inequality research has a strong foundation in SALDRU’s history that spans one year short of half a century. 

“SALDRU's founder, the late Prof. Francis Wilson, always spoke of making the link between producing quality research as a bedrock for driving processes of evidence-informed policymaking”, explains Prof. Leibbrandt.

UCT research initiatives led by SALDRU that followed this approach include, at a local level, UCT’s Poverty & Inequality Initiative; the Mandela Initiative at a national level; and ACEIR at a pan-African level. 


The CoRE IPD is the perfect platform as it brings worldclass expertise from European Union partners to augment what ACEIR is doing, says Prof. Leibbrandt.

“As a partnership, this cluster of research excellence will grow indigenous African research capacity with a work programme that includes the multidimensional inequalities that are confronted in several of the SDGs and that intersect in perpetuating inequality and poverty.

“The key scientific challenge that this Cluster will address is how to reduce inequality so that it reduces poverty and deprivation in Africa. The continent has the largest interregional differences in inequality in the world, with southern African countries amongst the most unequal globally. This challenge is a common thread running through almost all the SDGs.”

UCT Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Internationalisation, Prof. Sue Harrison, believes “ACEIR has done well in its first five years to establish across its three nodes the strongest pan-African research group working on inequality and poverty”.

“UCT’s role in the Cluster of Research Excellence in Inequalities, Poverty, and Deprivation is aligned with our research and capacity building agenda, bringing to the partnership among the very strongest researchers and research areas that UCT has to contribute.”

For more than a decade, UCT has consistently placed in the top 12 universities globally in the QS World University Rankings in Development Studies.

Aiming for unprecedented research and capacity building

Prof. Leibbrandt points out that the Cluster differs fundamentally from conventional research co-operations.

“The mutual commitments to long-term cooperation provide opportunities for a longitudinal approach to building research and teaching capacities off the base of contemporary networks and bilateral partnerships.”

The six universities that constitute the CoRE IPD have all pledged to leveraging institutional excellence into a coordinated programme of research, graduate training, and broader capacity building that will create a programme at a scale that does not yet exist. Explains Professor Leibbrandt:

“The Cluster will consolidate the excellent research, training, and capacity building of the partner universities by designing and implementing impactful and innovative joint research programmes and associated capacity building activities.


“We’ll be developing joint Master and PhD degrees; a joint doctoral programme; and training programmes for policymakers, civil society, and business enterprises.

"And research staff will receive training and mentoring to enhance disciplinary – and interdisciplinary – knowledge to deliver an inclusive, multidimensional analyses of deprivation and poverty which addresses various inequalities.”

The CoRE IPD has identified six interdisciplinary themes to direct its focus, namely: 1. historical determinants of inequality; 2. structural change, employment, and inequality; 3. agricultural development, food and nutrition security, and inequality; 4. climate change, migration, social cohesion, and equity within societies; 5. health inequalities; and 6. financial inclusion and inequality.

Within each theme, specific attention will be given to understanding the situations of women and youth and the possibilities for their sustainable futures. 

As in-country and between-country inequalities are one of the biggest challenges of our time, the different theme experts plan to work closely together to achieve the transdisciplinary approach that is needed to realise SDG 10.