by Mark Jessell

1 Introduction

After a number of years working in this area, this essay summarises my thoughts on the use of research in Structural Geology and Tectonics (SGT) as a development tool, and provide links and references to projects and organisations active in this area. To be clear “development” in this case refers to social and/or economic development, not the more common association of R&D (Research and Development) aimed at technological advances (although both may occur in a single research project). Hopefully the list of links to organisations and projects will be useful to geoscientists inspired by the idea of “Research for Development” RfD. Given that many countries in Africa use French as their administrative language, some the links here are in French, however online tools these days do fairly good job of translating.

The idea of Research for Development is not new, and more generally there is an acceptance that research programs will include “Broader Impact” goals including associated outreach and training activities. The National Science Foundation provides a range of possible activities, however these currently do not extend to development goals, a point I will return to later.

There are essentially three overlapping domains of RfD:

a)    Research aimed at raising the socio-economic level of a region;

b)    Projects aimed at raising the capacity of a region to undertake research (which in turn may or may not be directly aimed at raising the socio-economic level of a region) and

c)    Studies into the mechanisms of development and appropriate research methodologies (a minor example of which is provided by this essay).

There is a huge volume of SGT research that takes place in developing countries (not least because many of the world’s active tectonic margins are hosted by developing countries), and often this research is carried out in the form of an international collaboration, however I will not refer to this work in detail, even though they are often of high value and have direct development implications for the organisations involved, as these outcomes are not in general a stated aim of the project.

There is no single metric for development: one could include social, education, health, gender, polity (form of government) and other factors in various blends.

In this essay I will draw primarily upon African examples of RfD, both because it is the focus of much current activity, but more importantly because it the only area where I have sufficient first-hand experience to make any sensible comments. Similarly I do not wish to ignore the enormous efforts made by in-country researchers in the Developing World, however I do not feel comfortable speaking for them. Good starting points for further information can be found via the Word Academy of Sciences (TWAS), the Geological Society of Africa sponsored Colloquium of African Geology (next year to be held in Tanzania) and the Journal of African Earth Sciences, which publishes many articles by African researchers on African topics.

2 Research directly aimed at raising the socio-economic level of a region

In addition to the geological surveys typically implicated in the mining sector support programs, two organisations that account for a large part of the dedicated SGT RfD are the Netherlands-based ITC (Faculty of Geo-information Science and Earth Observation, University of Twente) and the French government IRD (Institut de Recherche pour le Développement, for which I am a Research Director).  The Missions of the two organisations distinguish themselves from most Higher Education organisations by their direct focus on development:

ITC: The ITC provides international postgraduate education, research and project services in the field of geo-information science and earth observation using remote sensing and GIS. The aim of ITC’s activities is the international exchange of knowledge, focusing on capacity building and institutional development in developing countries and emerging economies.

IRD: Emphasizing interdisciplinarity, the IRD has focused its research for over 65 years on the relationship between man and its environment, in Africa, Mediterranean, Latin America, Asia and the French tropical overseas territories. Its research, training and innovation activities are intended to contribute to the social, economic and cultural development of developing countries.

As their missions show, the ITC is a more narrowly-focussed organisation, whereas the IRD covers the whole spectrum of research having relevance to development, from medicine, to politics, to agriculture and the Earth Sciences. In both cases supporting graduate students from developing countries form a significant part of their activities.

UNESCO is the only United Nations organization mandated to support research and capacity building in geology and geophysics, and the UNESCO IGCP program is currently supporting or has recently supported 7 Geohazards, 3 Earth Resources and 7 Geodynamics projects all of which intersect with the SGT domain, and all include a commitment to sustainable development.

If we focus on SGT RfD raising the socio-economic level of a region, it falls into three principal categories:

a)    Research related to Hazard identification and Risk Assessment, principally studies of volcanoes, faults and landslides.

If we overlay regions of high risk tectonics-associated risk they fall predominantly in developing countries, so that there are both good scientific and solid development objectives that can be met by working in these areas, and this is a research priority for organisations such as the IRD. In the context of Africa, this translates into studies of seismic activity principally in North Africa and the East African Rift, and active volcanism in Cameroon and the East African Rift. At the global level one of the themes of the Integrated Research on Disaster Risk relates to characterisation of natural hazards.

b)    Research related to economic resources, principally minerals, oil & gas, and water resources.

Although the search for resources in developing countries can be a double-edged sword, the reality is that in Africa there are as many success stories as there are failures. The development outcomes of mineral or oil wealth are principally a reflection of how governments use the money and the sub-surface resource income is an amplifier of the existing quality of governance.

The largest minerals-focussed project currently running is the West African Exploration Initiative started as a collaboration between the IRD, the BRGM, the University of the Witwatersrand and the University of Ouagadougou, and now boasts over 50 companies, universities and geological surveys as partners and has led to scientific collaborations and the training of 30 graduate students, half from Africa and half from outside the continent. The overall aim of West Africa Exploration Initiative is to enhance the exploration potential of the West African Craton through an integrated program of research and data gathering into its “anatomy’, and to augment the capacity of local institutions to undertake this form of work.  The capacity building activities are completely underwritten by AusAID (the Australian Agency for International Development). Key motivations for undertaking this initiative are to assist exploration companies in focusing their activities in areas of maximum prospectivity and to help local Geological Surveys and Universities in the region in their role of providing pre-competitive data and information.

c)    Research related to fundamental geoscience data collection, synthesis and delivery.

The most common examples of this type of work are the national-level projects aimed at improving the fundamental geoscience databases with the aim of increasing inward minerals exploration investment. Major development agencies (World Bank, EU, as well as many bilateral aid programs) have supported country-wide airborne geophysical surveys, coupled with geological mapping programs, typically bringing together a European or North American geological survey (notably BRGM, BGS, BGR and the USGS) with the national department of mines or geological survey.

These mapping programs, and in particular the acquisition of airborne geophysical data (typically magnetics and radiometrics), have resulted in much of Africa having available higher resolution data than most of Europe. This resource allows a level of large-scale tectonic analysis that is simply not possible in many parts of the world, even if this is counter-balanced by often quite poor outcrop density.

A partial (although rather Anglophone-centric!), overview of these programs can be found in Kay et al. 2013 (Kay, P., Hoatson, D.M., Huleatt, M.B. and Lewis, B.C., 2013. Assessment of mineral potential, geoscience survey capacity, risk, and geological aid in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Pacific. Record 2012/64. Geoscience Australia: Canberra. The value of these programs in terms of supplying extremely valuable fundamental datasets is undeniable, and their application to development in the African Context is discussed at length in Ovadia et al. 2012 (Ovadia, D., McCourt, W., O’Connor, E. 2012. Geodata for Development, a Practical Approach in Most if not all of these programs are coupled with capacity building activities, and if the overall design of these activities has a weakness, it is that the Universities tend to be somewhat overlooked when it comes to support. This lessens the long-term usefulness of the capacity building as they are not balanced by the support for the ongoing university training of young nationals that is needed once staff that received the training in the government agencies have moved on.

Unfortunately, lack of access to recent and historical data represents a fundamental limitation to research in Africa, either because data has been lost, or simply due to difficulty in establishing communication links with the current data holders, be they in Africa or elsewhere. The African European Georesources Observation System, which has brought together 23 African and European organisations, predominantly Geological Surveys to define an Africa-wide geoscience information system, and is currently working towards attracting funds for its implementation.

The International Mining for Development Centre has used some of the methodologies outlined by the AEGOS project to build a multi-country Central Africa open access geoscience information portal. Other important archival sources for African geodata include the IRD Map Library and the JRC Soil Map archive, and the Bureau Gravimétrique International provides high quality gravity grids of Africa, and the rest of the globe.

Similarly thirteen African countries have also provided their 1M geological maps to the One Geology platform. The AEGOS project has a long-term goal to provide decentralised access to African geoscience data which may integrate many of these services into a single system. Finally for those interested in the GIS aspects of African geodata, there is an ongoing series of workshops run under the GIRAF umbrella.

One of the challenges facing SGT research in Africa is that there are simply a lot of countries. The resulting plethora of national boundaries divide single tectonic terrains into small portions. The West African Craton for example is shared between 14 countries (Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Niger and Togo), above and beyond any associated terranes that are now in South America. Similar sized cratons in Canada and Australia are wholly contained within the same country (the Yilgarn is within one state). The recently published African Mining Vision cites this fragmentation and the development of terrain scale synthesis as a key to future development.

The stand-out example in Africa of systematic global geophysical data collection is the Africa Array project, which was founded in 2004 as a partnership between Penn State University, the Council for Geosciences and the University of the Witwatersrand, and has expanded into a collaboration based on the development of a Seismic Array (and now other observational networks) across central and southern Africa combined with an extensive program of scholarships and training.

3 Projects aimed at raising the capacity of a region to undertake research

Many of the SGT projects mentioned above include a training component, either in the form of short courses or graduate scholarships.  The Africa Array project holds four geophysics degree programs from BSc to PhD level. In terms of specific education programs in SGT, the WAXI project mentioned above has run 15 training courses over the last 7 years in West Africa on topics related to field and lab-based structural, geophysical and minerals topics. Again the IM4DC is heavily involved in supporting training in the broader minerals sector.

The Commission for Tectonics and Structural Geology of the IUGS has supported a number of individuals to attend conferences as part of its stated aim of promoting structural geology education particularly in the developing countries, and there are many other organisations that provide higher education scholarships and grants in support of development goals.

4 Research into the mechanisms of development

Although SGT researchers are not trained to analyse their research in these terms, we need to consider whether RfD is actually achieving the laudable goals it sets itself: does RfD actually result in the long-term development of countries or organisations? There have been some well publicised recent essays that question the whole idea of Aid as a development tool, and who suggest that Aid is not only ineffectual, but is actually one of the barriers to development (Easterly, W. 2006. The White Man’s Burden, Penguin, 440p.; Moyo, D. 2009. Dead Aid: why aid is not working and how there is a better way for Africa. Allen Lane. 188p). Even in more developed countries the link between research and national good is hard to establish, and in countries that face fundamental challenges in terms of health, governance and education, it is a brave soul that defends direct evidence of the long-term benefits of RfD, but of course that does not mean that it is not true. The two books cited here are primarily referring to government-level support than the work discussed here, however Reedman et al, 2002 (Reedman, A.J., Calow, R., Johnson, C.C, Piper, D.P. and Bate, D.G. 2002. The value of geoscience information in less developed countries. British Geological Survey Commissioned Report, CR/02/087N. viii, 43pp.‎) have made the argument that the collection of geoscience data in itself supports development. As a geologist I believe that a better understanding of the local geology is of long-term benefit to that country, as long as all of the in-country stakeholders (public and private) have access to the outcomes of the research, which is unfortunately not always the case.

The clear beneficial results of the Capacity Building aspects of RfD are easier to see, especially at the individual level, where many of the senior staff at private and public organisations have benefited from training within RfD training programs.

5 Conclusions

One question that arises when carrying out any research in developing countries is the responsibility of “guest” researchers who undertake research in these countries.  If research organisations take the lead from industry (as has happened with respect to Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) standards) then perhaps we need to look as this as a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) issue. Just as companies went from seeing OHS as the “right thing to do” to a position where they see it as benefiting the company economically, so they are moving to seeing CSR as being a key success factor for good business.

There are a number of organisations of geoscientists that aim to encourage development geoscience (Geology for Global Development; Geoscientists without Frontiers; Geólogos del Mundo; The International Society for Geoethics; The International Association for Promoting Geoethics). Specific grant schemes do exist such as that supported by the SEG Geoscientists without Frontiers, however in general this is not a criteria for research funding. A recent special issue of the Annals of Geophysics (Geoethics and geological culture. Reflections from the Geoitalia Conference 2011; Annals of Geophysics; Vol 55, No 3, 2012) provides a challenging introduction to many aspects of this topic.

Researchers are used to answering questions in grant applications about bioethics, or “Broader Impacts”, in the future we may see research carried out in other countries held up to the same standard. Nearly all geologists carry out work in other countries (otherwise pity the Achaean tectonics expert in the Netherlands) and many of the people I have worked with would actually welcome this criteria, as it would enable them to be rewarded for the often challenging conditions and the efforts they make to build collaborative research programs. A draft statement on “Research Integrity in Cross-Boundary Research Collaborations” was developed this year that provides an excellent basis for an extended, development-focussed, “Broader Impact” criteria.


This essay is based on my experiences, but as I have no formal training in the subject area I apologise in advance for any oversights. My work in Africa would of course have not been possible without the continuous collaboration with and support of my colleagues, above all from Africa. Finally I would like to thank Esther Harris for encouraging me to remove some of the least sensible phrases.

Mark Jessell is affiliated with the IRD, Géosciences Environnement Toulouse, 14 av E Belin, 31400 Toulouse, France
and the Centre for Exploration Targeting, UWA, 35 Stirling Highway, Crawley, WA, 6009, Australia