Why international co-operation benefits all involved

David Sumpter
6 min readJul 5, 2023

This article originally appeared in Swedish in Svenska Dagbladet.

It wasn’t until I’d known Watson for four years that he told me the story of how he came to go to school. He was nine years old when he noticed that many of the other children in his village, near Kigoma in western Tanzania, were attending classes. But when he asked his dad if he could also learn to read and write, he was told that he was needed to take care of the sheep.

It took him a year of nagging, but eventually, when Watson was ten, his dad finally gave in. There were challenges, Waston told me, ‘we often didn’t have any food and couldn’t pay the fees and once, because of this, I missed a month of school and nearly dropped out completely.’

But he made it. All the way through his undergraduate and Masters studies to a position as a sandwich PhD student, employed at the University of Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania, under my supervision in Uppsala. He will defend his thesis in a few months and go on to teach and conduct research in Dar es Salaam.

Watson has used his PhD scholarship to pay for his youngest brother to study at university. Other members of his extended family pass through his household as part of their path to further education. When I visited him with my own teenage son, at the start of June this year, both his nephew and his wife’s little brother were staying with him and receiving maths lessons. The eldest of Watson’s three daughters told me that it was languages, rather than mathematics, which she most enjoyed at her local school.

From left to right. Watson’s nephew, his wife’s youngest brother, my son Henry, me, Watson’s middle daughter (Mercy), wife (Shimiye Niganya), eldest daughter (Martha), and (furthest left) Watson. Watson’s youngest daughter (Miriam) was sleeping. Picture taken outside Watson’s house in Dar Es Salaam.

When Watson told me his story about starting school, we had recently published an article in the prestigious academic journal, Royal Society Open Science. Watson had created a new mathematical model of social networks, describing how the simple process of following a friend and then a friend of that friend produces many of the properties of Instagram and Twitter: a small world network (where everyone is connected by only a few degrees of separation) and the creation of influencers (the friend of friends become disproportionality popular).

After he presented this work in a seminar, the discussions between researchers from all over the world went on for an hour. Particularly fascinated was one of Uppsala’s most respected mathematicians, Svante Jansson, who himself was already an undergraduate student when he was just 12 years old. But standing at the blackboard everyone is equal and ideas are judged on merit alone. The Tanzanian shepherd boy and the Swedish former child prodigy, brought together by an elegant set of equations.

I tell this story now, because the International Science Program (ISP) that funded Watson had its budget drastically cut earlier in the year. The ISP is funded by Sida, whose funds for research cooperation have been reduced by approximately 54%. There will be no funding for students like Watson next year. Additionally, the Swedish government decided last week to cut Vetenskapsrådet research budget into Development Research. A grant proposal myself and Ranjula Bali-Swain, Research Director at Center for Sustainability Research (CSR) at Stockholm School of Economics, wrote during the spring was (like many others) simply thrown in the bin without even being assessed. The message is clear: no support for researchers from developing countries to visit Sweden and no support for Swedish research in to development in other countries.

I have been primary supervisor for six African PhD students through the International Science Programme and had many other visits to my research group during the last 15 years. I have learnt from each and every one. Take Betty Nannyonga, who came to Uppsala from Uganda to study for a PhD between 2008 and 2012. It was clear from Betty’s first visit, that already knew, mainly through self-study, more than me about much of the mathematics of epidemics. What I could help her with was fitting models to data. She travelled to northern Uganda, remote areas where there are security concerns, and obtained local records of the spread of Hepatitis E, Malaria and other diseases. From these datasets we were able to make predictive models that helped plan for outbreaks and better allocate limited resources. Betty is now a professor at Makerere University and was one of the key people in organizing Uganda’s response to the both Ebola and Covid-19.

The examiner of Betty’s PhD thesis was Sweden’s best-known mathematical modeler of epidemics, Professor Tom Britton. At that time, pre-pandemic, Tom was mainly interested in theoretical results about epidemic models. I like to think that Betty’s thesis, with its focus on real-world data, might have contributed a little to Tom’s own preparedness when Covid-19 arrived in Sweden.

It is the multiple small interactions, like those between Betty and Tom or between Watson and Svante, which can lead to large benefits for both Sweden and the African countries from projects like ISP. I am currently working on a project, together with Tove Fall, Professor in Medical Sciences in Uppsala, about mobility and the spread of Covid-19. I first developed an approach to this problem working together with another Tanzanian PhD student, Augustino Isdory, using movement data measured from mobile telephones to better understand the spread of HIV. Other projects I have been involved in through ISP include modelling biodiversity, economic development and most recently Kiema Mohamado, from the world’s third poorest country, Burkina Faso, has begun a project of the geometry of shooting in football. Some interests are universal.

Staff and Masters students discuss new approaches to data science during a tutorial led during my recent visit to Dar Es Salaam.

I believe that it is important in my role as a researcher at a Swedish University to respect the changing priorities of different governments. Personally, and possibly in contrast to many of my colleagues, I don’t think academic freedom implies that researchers are free to decide our own agenda. We have a duty to reflect the democratic choices of the people who fund our research, even when we don’t agree with them.

This is why I cannot understand the decision by the current government to cut funding to international development. This funding allows talented individuals — like Betty, Isdory, Kiema, Watson and Watson’s little brother — to have a positive learning experience. The PhD students come here and contribute to our society, then go back home to occupy positions of authority and responsibility, allowing them to improve things for others.

Tidöavtalet, which is the agreement underlying the current Swedish government’s policy, states that ”Aid should include effective measures to reduce the underlying reasons for migration”. There is no better way to achieve that goal than to empower PhD students to come here and learn from us, while helping us develop; to create ways in which we can work as equals at the blackboard or in co-operation around epidemic modelling; that reinforces the value of democracy and free thinking for our guests; and that sets the groundwork for a technological revolution in sub-Saharan Africa.

Or is it, as I am sadly forced to conclude, that there is no substance to the claims that aid should help people stay and develop their own countries. That it is simply that the current government would rather just cut aid for Africa, and research which helps developing nations, irrespective of whether it contributes to Sweden or not.



David Sumpter

Books: Four Ways of Thinking (2023); The Ten Equations (2020); Outnumbered (2018); Soccermatics (2016) and Collective Animal Behavior (2010).