It’s not what you know it’s where you’re from: A Case for Social Justice in the International Flow of Knowledge with Specific Reference to African Scholars

J. J. Britz and Ms S. R. Ponelis



The global migration of people is an authentic sign or the times we are living in. The global workforce, amongst others, includes many who are skilled and come from rich educational heritages. They seek new opportunities to share their knowledge in the newly formed global communities; this includes the many international scholars that travel around the world attending conferences in order to obtain feedback and input to their work prior to publication. However, not all academics are born equal: for example, conferences held in African countries are few and far between and often not attended by many academics from outside of Africa, which necessitates these academics to travel more widely to conferences in Europe and North America. However, no African academic (traveling on a passport from an African country), even with impressive credentials, can merely get on an airplane to attend such a conference, not only because of geographic and financial reasons, but also because of political reasons. Most European countries, as well as the USA and Canada, have strict visa requirements for most African countries. And although technology makes it possible to make presentations virtually, not being physically present does limit the opportunities for knowledge sharing and exchange – an important component of such gatherings and one of the reasons conferences continue to be held and attended in spite of the current economic climate.

To put this in practical terms: why should scholars from Africa, just because of their country of origin, be restricted in many ways to travel to Europe to attend conferences while the same does not apply to their counterparts from countries like the USA and Canada? This state of affairs seriously hampers development and creativity that will benefit humanity by limiting the ability to learn from one another and to share knowledge. Thus it is a matter of social justice, not only because of the limits placed on international travel (irrespective of the reasons given as justification) but also because of the impact that this limitation imposes on human development. The global movement of people demand a fresh look at the interpretation and application of social justice – particularly as it pertains to the rights of nation states and the right of freedom of movement of scholars to share their knowledge on global platforms.

The intention of our paper is not to provide clear-cut answers to all the questions relating to the international movement of people, but to open the debate following our claim that we need to rethink, from a social justice perspective, the international movement of particularly African scholars and their ability to share their knowledge globally.

The research problem and content

It is this moral imperative that prompts our research question which specifically focuses, from a social justice perspective, on the political hindrances that many African scholars face in their efforts to attend and participate at international conferences in Europe and North America. In using Amartya Sen’s capability approach we argue that the global sharing of knowledge between scholars should be regarded as one of the ‘basic capabilities’ (Sen, 1993) since it does not only create opportunities for the development of Africa , but it is also instrumental to our freedom and to achieve human well-being. The strict travel arrangements by most European countries and the USA and Canada for African scholars form part of what Sen refers to as the social and structural constrains that influence and restrict global human development and well being.

We argue therefore that the international community has a moral and legal responsibility to create a more open and fair structure that should support the freer flow of knowledge between African scholars and their counterparts in Europe and North America. We view justice as one of the most important virtues regulating human behavior in the global knowledge society. We therefore use it as a normative instrument to argue our case for a fairer structure that will allow Africans more flexibility to travel and at the same time acknowledging the rights and responsibilities of the nation-state towards it own citizens (for example national security, human trafficking and disease control) but also towards global citizens (allowing scholars more from African countries more freedom of movement). We identified and use five categories of social justice in our analysis. These are:

  • Justice as recognition according to which the moral dignity of fellow beings necessitates equitable and fair treatment with respect to freedom of movement.
  • Justice as reciprocity that requires fundamental fairness with respect to exchanges between academics as a group and in particular that the same rules and norms will apply in similar situations.
  • Justice as participation that requires the creation of equal opportunities for scholars to exchange their knowledge at international conferences.
  • Justice as enablement which demands from society at large to enable the self-enablement and self-determination of individuals.
  • Justice as contribution that supports our contention that society should be structured in such a manner so that scholars are able to make a productive contribution to their own and the broader global society.

Based on our moral analysis we develop a set of moral guidelines and we propose an ‘academic travel card’ for African scholars that should meet the criteria of social justice. According to this, such a card should be agreed by all participating countries and as an expression of global justice it should be embedded in international rules and regulations that will allow African academics the same basic rights of freedom of movement, freedom of expression and freedom to privacy as their counterparts in Europe and North America. We deliberate also on the different rights and responsibilities of both the nation-states as well as African scholars regarding the use of the proposed travel card.

Structure of the paper

The paper is structured in the following manner: first, we emphasize the importance of the exchange of knowledge that contributes to human development. As indicated we base our discussion on Sen’s capability approach. Following from this, we elaborate specifically on the problems that African scholars experience in this regard whilst at the same time seeking to strike a fair balance between rights of nation-state and the rights of individuals to freedom of movement. We make use of both empirical evidence as well as statistical data in support of our argument. In the third part of the paper we analyze the abovementioned issues from a social justice perspective and in the final part of the paper we developed a set of moral guidelines and propose an ‘academic travel card’ for African scholars that should meet the requirements of social justice as argued in the previous part.


Summary Report. 2009. Academic Freedom In West African Universities, University Of Ghana, Legon, 15-16 April 2009 [online]. Available: (accessed July 24, 2007)

Britz, J.J. 2007. Critical analysis of information poverty from a social justice perspective. D.Phil thesis, University of Pretoria.

Renewing the African University [online]. 2005. Available: (accessed July 23, 2009).

Sen, A. 1993. Capability and well-being. In: The quality of life, edited by M. Nussbaum and A. Sen. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Unesco Academic Freedom Conference. 2006. Problems and Challenges in Arab and African Countries, Alexandria, Egypt, 10-11 September, 2005.