• September 4, 2015

Nine Problems That Hinder Partnerships in Africa

Nine Problems That Hinder Partnerships in Africa 1

Gianpaolo Pagni for The Chronicle

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Gianpaolo Pagni for The Chronicle

African higher education faces a crisis. The quality of university teaching and research has declined drastically as institutions across the continent contend with budget cuts, growing enrollments, repeated strikes, a crumbling infrastructure, and a migration of the most talented professors to developed countries.

In response, universities from America and Europe, government aid agencies, and charitable foundations have started major efforts to help rebuild higher education in Africa. While those projects have dedicated substantial funds and human resources to the cause, they so far have produced mixed results. The problem is that representatives of universities from developed countries and other well-intentioned people come to Africa with basic assumptions that undermine their work.

Those assumptions about how to assist the region are not always explicit. They are manifested in subtle ways in the behavior and speech of higher-education officials who come to Africa. What's more, the officials often fail to examine their own assumptions, some of which are obviously unrealistic. To be sure, not all Europeans and North Americans make such mistakes. But as the former and current directors of the Office of International Education and Partnerships at the University of Botswana, over the past four years we have seen such assumptions ruin potentially promising endeavors.

While many factors lead to the failure of partnerships, we have identified nine problems that hinder outside aid to Africa's universities and several ways to improve the interaction between African academics and their peers:

1. Academics from developed countries often take the lead in research, while African colleagues are relegated to minor roles. A recent example occurred when an American scholar came to Botswana with a grant from a prestigious international organization to study aspects of condom use as part of an HIV/AIDS research project. The researcher approached the University of Botswana saying she needed a graduate student from her discipline to conduct the field research. She would pay the student well and allow the student to use the data for a thesis. From her viewpoint, the proposal sounded like a good deal.

But our university's faculty members had two issues with her approach. First, they had not been involved in the development of the problem, the hypothesis, or the methodology. (The researcher had been in Botswana when she was developing the project but had made little attempt to contact the university.) Second, she was proposing to employ a graduate student whom the Botswanan academics would prefer to have working on their research. Ultimately the Botswana faculty members gave their American counterpart the cold shoulder, leaving her most puzzled that her "generous" offer had not been taken up.

2. Outside scholars think they know what curriculum is best for universities in the developing world. Consider a recent situation involving a graduate program in Italy. The program was an interdisciplinary master's degree in community development to help Central European universities educate civil servants to work with local governments that are making the transition to a post-communist society. Several institutions offered the degree jointly. Italian academics proposed starting the same cooperative program, with virtually the same syllabus, in conjunction with four southern-African universities.

But the context of southern Africa is quite different from that of Central Europe. Moreover, the tuition required to cover the costs of circulating among universities was beyond anything southern African students, their parents, or their governments could afford. Finally, similar programs, although not as good, already operated within several of the countries at a much lower cost. Scholars from developed countries should not propose curriculum-development programs with African institutions without at least examining the existing curricula and the tuition charges. They should also understand the knowledge and skill levels of the students coming into the program, as well as the human resources required and the ability of African faculty members to be involved in the project.

3. Visiting academics think a top-down approach is the most effective way to get things done at universities in developing countries. The idea is that the vice chancellor, president, or other top administrator will round up the necessary academic staff members and resources to ensure the success of a project. In the short term, that approach will sometimes work, but over time it does not. New administrators come with new agendas and budget priorities, and previous partnerships have no value.

Top administrators often play into the problem, usually because they are good friends with a scholar organizing the project. The reality is that projects are sustained by personal and professional relationships developed among the key persons who are responsible for day-to-day operations. Top administrators should refer people who are proposing a particular endeavor to the appropriate faculty members at the institution and suggest that if concrete plans develop, the administration will try to allocate some start-up resources.

4. African universities, students, and faculty members often can't afford significant project costs. One thing that surprises us in negotiating study-abroad exchanges is that universities from developed countries often refuse to pay room and board for students from Botswana. In some cases where such costs are heavily subsidized, like Japan and China, that sort of agreement is possible. For the most part, however, room and board are high-cost items in developed countries compared with Botswana. An exchange proposed by one European university was going to cost each Botswanan student about $5,700 per semester for room and board. By contrast, students coming to Botswana from the European university were to pay little more than $1,380. When we protested that the ratio was not fair, we were told that the university was just trying to treat Botswanan students equally compared with all other students attending the institution.

Other African universities face harder financial challenges. Because of Botswana's diamond wealth, which helps support the country's higher-education system, the University of Botswana is able to cover some of the costs of its students going abroad. Many of our sister universities in Africa simply cannot afford to cover any such costs. Unless a partner university is willing to be generous, student exchanges cannot become a reality.

Finding a fair monetary basis for student exchanges is not easy. The best situation for an African university is to exchange room, board, and tuition with universities in developed countries.

5. Projects with developing countries are often done with multiple partners. The reasoning, prevalent among foundations and multilateral donors, is that combining a number of African universities into a cooperative organization is efficient in the long run. Resources and staff can be pooled and thus create a more robust academic enterprise. For example, the World Bank for two decades has supported a program that sends economics professors from several universities to Nairobi, Kenya, for one semester a year to offer specialized graduate courses to students from partner institutions. More than a thousand students have studied in the program. Another notable example is the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa, started by American foundations. That effort brought universities together to buy new technologies to increase their Internet capabilities.

But those examples aside, more often than not the approach doesn't work. One of the key problems is that financial support for such partnerships never lasts. Foundations, for example, usually cover the start-up costs of a multilateral program but don't want to be long-term supporters. And African universities do not have the funds to sustain the administrative costs themselves.

Our experience is that projects developed between two institutions appear to have a much better chance of success. The costs are lower, and administrators and faculty members are more likely to be personally invested in the effort.

6. Researchers from developed countries often feel an obligation to their financial supporters. Often scholars from America or other nations who win grants to work in Africa understandably feel responsible to the institutions supporting them. While grant dollars and other awards should be well managed, such obligations should not trump the need to make African faculty members full partners in topic selection, formulation of project objectives, budget building, and other aspects of a research effort.

Some donors are attempting to reverse that situation by insisting that African scholars be primary investigators on projects. Several such projects at the University of Botswana have forced major research universities to adopt a more egalitarian posture. But that approach requires senior scholars on African-university staffs who can manage the research ventures—and, unfortunately, experienced academics are in short supply in Africa. A cadre of African scholars who can administer programs must be created to fix the situation.

7. Top-quality universities in Europe and America want to do projects only with institutions of comparable quality. We have been told on more than one occasion—usually by universities in Europe or Australia seeking to improve their images internationally—that they cannot work with our institution, because it does not have adequate status in global-university rankings. In effect, the product or learning experience that emerges from a partnership does not matter. It is strictly a means to raise status. We do not waste our time with such universities.

8. The risks to the health and safety of students and staff members in Africa are exaggerated. Thanks to the American and European news media's focus on political violence and health problems­ in Africa, partnerships with universities on the continent are sometimes perceived to be high-risk activities. In Botswana the two risks that are particularly well known are HIV/AIDS and crime. But while HIV/AIDS is certainly a serious problem, the incidence is frequently overstated. Visitors should simply use the same precautions they would at home to avoid the disease.

Foreign visitors can also take simple, common-sense steps to avoid being victims of crime, which tends to be thefts of laptops, cameras, and cellphones; it rarely involves physical violence. There is no doubt that visitors, particularly from developed countries, are attractive targets to thieves. But chances of being robbed can be reduced if valuable items are kept out of public view when not in use; dorm-room doors are locked; windows on the first floor are closed at night; and computer locks are used for laptops.

9. Efforts to teach African university staff members new skills are often done in quick workshops. African academics and administrators probably welcome such workshops because they mean time away from work, free food, and a chance to socialize with friends. Foundations and other donors like workshops because they reach a large number of participants who usually provide positive survey evaluations. But although workshops of five or fewer days may be productive for learning computer programs or accounting, they are often not effective at teaching more in-depth subjects, like conflict management, or important qualities, like leadership. They can't provide the sustained interaction that participants need to take on new responsibilities, develop professional skills, or become managers. To develop those talents requires reading, feedback from mentors and colleagues, and reflection.

Our objective is not to to focus on the negative but to start a broad discussion about the challenges to university partnerships in Africa and make them more effective. Such a dialogue has been largely missing or, at best, intermittent.

Faculty members from developed countries, especially in subjects crucial to Africa's development, like engineering and the health sciences, should understand that their assistance must be delivered in a different social and cultural context in Africa.

African professors need to start a frank discussion with their counterparts about the conditions for cooperation. We have repeatedly heard our University of Botswana colleagues grumble that they receive no respect in partnerships. Yet they do not speak up when they have an opportunity.

The challenges can be overcome, but not over a one- or two-day visit. They require the development of a relationship that stems from friendship, trust, and mutual respect, a relationship that comes with shared experiences, disagreements, conversations, and solving problems together. All of that is demanding, but not impossible.

John D. Holm and Leapetsewe Malete are, respectively, the former and current directors of the Office of International Education and Partnerships at the University of Botswana. Holm was previously director of international programs at Cleveland State University.


1. rwaller - June 14, 2010 at 09:40 am

I like this sentence: "African academics and administrators probably welcome such workshops because they mean time away from work, free food, and a chance to socialize with friends." Take away the word "African" and this is still a true statement.

2. rclariana - June 14, 2010 at 10:55 pm

"Botswana faculty members gave their American counterpart the cold shoulder". You're kidding? Right? Imagine how that student would feel who was denied this opportunity. They would never forgive the Botswana faculty members for this arrogance.
1. Why would any academic imagine that they should be allowed input in the design of someone else's research? 2. Those specific African faculty have shown that they have no regard for their students. My interpretation is that they just wanted a cut without doing any work and that you as an administrator have some culpability in not calling them on this. 3. With that attitude, good luck to that University on getting any further external support, they are not the only game in town; an ad in the local paper (or an aid agency) will produce any number of qualified and motivated nationals and the research findings may actually inform a policy that saves lives. Will someone die because of these decisions that delayed or prevented this research?

3. supertatie - June 15, 2010 at 10:02 am

This is a brilliant piece, not least because the mistakes "western" academics make in trying to partner with African institutions absolutely echo the mistakes made by western NGOs offering aid for African economic development.

This is the fallacy of "expert-centric" versus "user-centric" interaction - something which I have been writing about in my work in entrepreneurship, economic development, and public policy.

The economic development efforts that work best, do so because they are operated entrepreneurially, to wit:

(1) they start SMALL;

(2) they focus on what the customer (African nation, region, population) wants - not what they themselves want to provide;

(3) they are actively engaged in an provider-user feedback loop, so that they can be sure that what they are providing is what is needed, and so they can avoid making the mistakes that have been made by so many of their precedecessors;

(4) they have "boots on the ground" - in other words, they are THERE where they seek to make a difference, not operating from thousands of miles away.

No entrepreneur could be successful running the way most NGOs do, and few NGOs have been successful at their African initiatives (eliminating poverty, reducing HIV/AIDS, increasing education, elimination abuse of females, etc.) because they refuse to operate in a consumer-centric fashion.

So, it's no surprise to me that academics - the most "expert-centric" people in the world - are failing in their efforts to engage African academics and scholars.

4. thessaly447 - June 15, 2010 at 06:12 pm

#2 has got to be pulling our leg -- or supremely naive. Take a look around any Western university. How many academic do you see who will give away their best assistants' expertise, for nothing in return? How many do you see who will allow some outsider to walk in and tell them what to do -- and smile while the stormtrooper's boot is up their backsides? C'mon now. The Botswanans' reactions are normal. It is the offensive interloper who needs to learn some manners if she wants to engage in effective collaboration.

5. wangshiyin - June 18, 2010 at 03:41 am

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6. emmadw - June 18, 2010 at 05:41 am

I suspect another issue is the time scale; Some years ago I spent time in Papua New Guinea working with local teachers (I was a school teacher at the time, rather than a University lecturer).
I'd gone with VSO (a UK organisation, similar in many ways to Peace Corps). They stressed frequently that over the two years, you should see the first year as purely getting to know how things work - the people etc. - that only in the second year would it really be possible to start to make changes.
I wonder how often university level exchanges get similar time scales..

Also: Re. the differential costs between students going from majority world to developed & vice versa; don't forget that as well as the real differences, the buying power is probably even greater ... so, a £5,000 fee for a year is going to cost, in real terms to the family of the majority world student, way more than 5 times the cost to the developed world student.

7. wcousar - June 18, 2010 at 11:16 am

As a scholar myself who is African American and learned through DNA testing that I share DNA with the Mende, Limba, and Mandinka of Sierra Leone and Senegal this article gives me a renewed perspective on research in partnership with African countries.

I am in a position where I can influence our American counterparts as a doctorate student to approach research in a manner that respects customs, norms, and culture. I am also now even more motivated to contact a University professor in South Carolina who has invited me to connect with the Mende of Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone when they come to the U.S. for the Gullah festival. Thank you Holm and Malete for this article!

8. fearlessjana - June 18, 2010 at 11:51 am

Collaborative exchanges should be economically viable and of value for both a US and African university. Its just good business sense. One time projects are fine but anything long term needs to have realistic and sustainable financing both ways.

9. trcage - June 18, 2010 at 05:26 pm

As a former Peace Corps Volunter in Botswana (2008-2009) and a fairly new international student advisor at an American public university, I really found this commentary interesting and found many of its points to be valid. "The asymmetries of university partnerships between Africa and the developed world: our experience in Botswana," a paper prepared by the same authors for the 2010 Going Global 4 Conference, presents similar ideas in more detail and outlines 10 major ways staff in developed country academic institutions can increase the chances of facilitating effective partnerships with African academic institutions. I am interested to know what the authors propose staff at African academic institutions can do to also aid in dispelling and overcoming the nine erroneous assumptions discussed in the article.

10. anthonyleolin - June 19, 2010 at 08:00 am


11. jomul - June 21, 2010 at 02:02 am

In the midst of all the arguments, having gone to school in Congo, the major issue has always been funding. I keep warm memories of those talented teachers who for less than 100$ a month were willing to give me and others the best they had. Education in Africa suffers from a lot, but the inability to keep talented staff in our schools is the most pressing issue.
Going for a Masters here in the US,I know the lure of financial stability that the Western world offers, but I keep myself open to the possibility to return to give something with or without support, but I know I will have support.
This article does an excellent job to highlight some of the issues that stiffle relationships between African universities and Western universities, but even more pressing is the issue of all these African scholars enjoying Western privileges while forgetting their homelands where illiteracy is incredibly high?
Why have a PhD, when 90% of your community doesnt have a reading level past the sixth grade?

12. jomul - June 21, 2010 at 02:08 am

I tend to not proof read what I write so the first sentence should have been: "In the midst of all the points mentioned, the major issue has always been funding; and I know this because I went to school and grew up in Congo."
Another interest of mine is to start an African American/ African forum of discussions on a national scale that could rectify some of the past injustices and some present issues.

13. sid_from_somalia - June 21, 2010 at 09:56 am

I have recently spoken with people at the World Bank and UNDP about why global donors are so stingy when it comes to assisting African Universities. They both acknowledged the problem but had no clear explanation to explain their policies. The simple fact is that without good universities there will be no 'next generation' of African leaders who can move Africa away from the culture of dependence. A cynical person might say that that is precisely why the aid agencies don't help. It might put them out of a job.

14. baileyjg - June 21, 2010 at 01:41 pm

I value this article and the call for a dialogue on building meaningful partnerships tied to strategic outcomes.
Bravo for this beginning! I am project director for a technology-driven program that addresses literacy, at a Liberian University. Partnerships and "buy-in" have been fundmental to our success.
Jennifer G. bailey, Ph.D. Baileyjg@gmail.com

15. inselberg - June 24, 2010 at 02:06 pm

An interesting perspective, but one not well founded on grant realities (in the USA at least). Many federal agencies refuse to allow an international co-PI or science collaborator (e.g., NASA). So many of us in this case hire field consultants (yes less respectful, but a mechanism to hire local scientists). Other agencies will allow meaningful subcontracts and local PIs in certain circumstances (e.g., NIH) The challenge in this case is that many of the African groups are unable to effectively account for resources spent or budget appropriately, and I am not speaking of corruption here, just best accounting practices typically required by funding agencies. I've taken many graduate students into LDCs and usually I pay, via my grants, for their vaccinations and malarial prophylaxis, so safety is a budget concern. My most recent funded work was delayed 6 months from its budgeted start date by violence within one African country. I am halfway through this particular award and still have budget headaches over this. It would be great to develop long term formal fundable working relationships with African Universities. They have no control over exogenous funding requirements, but could do a much better job of being capable of collaborating meaningfully.

16. chaussures1 - June 25, 2010 at 09:39 am

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