AFRICA: Dilemmas of development work

I recently finished writing the book Higher Education in Development: Lessons from Sub-Saharan Africa with my colleague Dr Philip Rayner. We have worked in Sub-Saharan African countries for a number of years in higher education at the government level and within institutions.

During this time we have seen development workers, volunteers and consultants fly in and out, some staying a few days, some for years, sometimes as part of a long-term project, and sometimes as part of a shorter programme, sometimes individually and sometimes as a group enterprise. We have noticed each of these groups trying, with varying degrees of success, to improve the quality of education in the country and, often, to promote other agendas, such as good governance and poverty reduction.

We have often observed a disconnect between the knowledge and expertise that development workers bring to the situation and the needs and interests of those working permanently in the country. Very often the ideas are good, the intentions are good, the methods are good, the values are good. But somehow the results are disappointing.

Generally, this has not been because of any lack of willingness and interest on the part of the recipients; frequently consultancy missions and volunteers placed in institutions are very highly evaluated by those with whom they work. Very often the changes suggested by the development worker have been enthusiastically embraced, only to wither and die after quite a short time.

On other occasions we have seen some slower-burning initiatives, started as a result of a development intervention, that have apparently sunk without trace and yet some time later re-emerge within various contexts, having undergone a 'sea change': the ideas, techniques, and knowledge that have been applied in the longer term have almost invariably been 'Africanised', look far different from those originally presented and seem to have a greater chance of taking root and effecting longer-term change.

We became interested in this process of successfully achieving some deep change and the ways that change might become embedded, owned and adapted over time.

In our book we tease out the elements in the mix of context, ideas, concepts, attitudes, behaviours and qualities that make it more likely that a development intervention will (a) be adopted in some form and (b) will then improve the situation. We distil what we have learned over a number of years of long-term work in Sub-Saharan higher education systems. In doing so, we have found a kind of 'practical wisdom' emerging from working in the reality of the development context.

We have noted that consultants and others from 'the North' often bring with them experiences and theories developed in very different contexts: they often find it comfortable to advocate a theory that they are familiar with.

They present these 'taken-for-granted' views of the world in workshops and meetings with partners. These are often eagerly received by their southern counterparts, but after the intervention, after the consultants and experts return home, no real change emerges. Southern partners find that they cannot apply the ideas: they may not fit their work patterns, time available or organisational systems. Slowly, it becomes evident that the answers that were suggested did not take account of the reality and complexity of a very different situation and did not provide a road-map to get from where they are today to where they want to be.

Change is not easy and cannot be done in one or two weeks. It takes longer than most consultants and northern partners have available to look deeply at what is right for a particular set of people, at a particular moment and in a particular place and to work intensively with those people on the problems that they actually face.

This is why I do not advocate theories or methodologies that can be applied across contexts, whether they are sociological (such as notions of neocolonial legacies), psychological (for example, theories of group dynamics), or managerial (for example, business process re-engineering).

Real problems emerge where consultants, government and-or top management teams seek to apply them as 'answers' rather than interesting ideas that may have a limited use within their particular context. What seems to work better is a process - of understanding, of working, of collaboration - that is conducted with a suitable humility and awareness of the complexity and the actuality of the problems that those in the situation face, sometime heroically, day-after-day.

The language of dilemmas

Development work is fraught with problems that must be faced and engagement with the language of dilemmas can be useful to understand these.

It is very easy for ideology to get in the way of appreciating the reality of the situation from the point of view of those living with it: for instance, many donors are keen to advocate a move to immediate democracy in many African countries, yet however desirable in theory this may be, in practice there are many dilemmas that are not fully recognised by some of the northern governments giving aid.

This does not mean that one should not work towards more democratic arrangements, but the process is problematic and can create new tensions, for example, where there is ethnic dominance or national disunity. This means that such advocacy may fail or be counter-productive unless it is properly contextualised and modified to meet local conditions.

The same holds true for others from wealthy countries working in Africa who have developed a theory of management (for example, the utility of strategic planning), a theory of teaching and learning (such as the efficacy of active learning), an economic theory (for example, the rightness of the free market) or even a theory of life, and who assume that these would be of benefit everywhere, to everyone, at all times, without modifications.

Dilemmas of expansion

One of the most important dilemmas in Sub-Saharan African higher education is the problem of quality of educational experience versus quantity of graduates produced and the issues raised by massification.

Developing countries cannot manage without more professionals, and many of these have to be produced by universities. However, the resources are scarce to manage the expansion that producing these professionals requires. The dilemma is how to get more out of those resources (human or otherwise) without compromising quality unduly.

Another dilemma is the question of affordability versus access and equality. Financing expansion creates real issues for the poorest in a country as the government diverts resources from other priorities.

If students are asked to pay, an increasingly common strategy, then poorer families and those most disadvantaged, such as women, will face an additional burden. However, this expansion may create the extra professionals the country needs at an affordable cost to the government, but in the short term at least it will compromise equality of opportunity.

There are no simple strategies that will magic these problems away. Any intervention will need to recognise them and explicitly tackle the issues with the people who have to grapple day-to-day with the stresses that expansion creates.

Cultural dilemmas

Sub-Saharan African higher education also has to contend with the dilemma of whether to promote fast change over depth and sustainability.

The introduction of new ways of doing things by ministerial dictat rather than consensus is one manifestation of this dilemma. Ordering change is certainly quicker and less complicated than embedding it in people's hearts and practices, but the results may not be sustainable, and some consequences will be unintended.

Time constraints create tensions that development workers often have to face. For example, in a five-day workshop it may seem a good idea to deal with several pressing issues in the hope that participants can take ideas away with them and work on them in their own institutions.

This approach might be well received by the recipients, but the reality is that once participants are back at their desks they will be overwhelmed with their day-to-day work, and will not have time to reflect or act on the workshop suggestions, and so sustainable change is unlikely to result.

Collaborative ways of working can be difficult in traditional, authoritarian societies. Cultural change is often necessary, but it is difficult and long term. However, it is possible as the changes in assumptions about gender in developed countries in our own lifetimes demonstrate.

In the 1940s, my mother was prevented from taking paid work because my father's pride would be hurt by the notion that he could not support his wife. In the late 1960s, I had better school-leaving qualifications than my then husband, but it was I who worked to support my husband while he went to university (at that time, university education was mainly for boys; only about 7% of the students were female).

Nowadays, almost no one in the UK would understand or hold these ideas. A majority of higher education students are female, and it is assumed that no one would have the right to tell a woman not to work. Cultural attitudes toward gender have changed radically in two generations.

This raises the dilemma of whether it is right to respect traditions even where they inhibit social progress and, if not, how to work to change them. Development work is complex and subtle and requires people to get 'inside' the context. People working day-by-day in a country have expert knowledge that needs to be accessed, but that does not mean that the local perspective cannot be questioned.

Dilemmas raised by unequal power

One of the dilemmas in development work that is often ignored within interventions is the inequality of world trade. It could be argued that, until this is rectified, all the money for development that goes into Sub-Saharan African higher education is merely a sop. It is true that such aid and support does not address this unfairness, and so is (ultimately) problematic.

It may be that improvements in Sub-Saharan African higher education can be directed at empowering people to make a difference and empowering Sub-Saharan African countries to develop their economies to the point where they have enough 'clout' in trade talks to change the balance of argument in their favour. However, this requires long-term commitment and the concentration of resources on such empowerment.

Although we do not necessarily subscribe to the notion that the information superhighway is open for business to everyone, it is true that the internet means that knowledge is now to some extent global. Sub-Saharan African higher education is part of this global society but another dilemma that we have encountered is the inequality of academic power and definitions of 'knowledge' and 'research'.

It is no coincidence that the older universities in the world are generally the most prestigious (the University of Bologna, acknowledged as the world's first university, was founded in 1088, Oxford University in 1096). Universities in developed countries have had longer to 'get it right', therefore to attract and retain the most talented academics and access larger resources for research. Nowadays, such universities commonly recruit worldwide and so can 'poach' the brightest and best from Sub-Saharan African higher education and elsewhere.

Development work tends to view problems as residing in the southern partner. Few funds are put into changing the global context and attitudes in which they must operate. Almost no funds are made available to 'educate' northern countries in the notion of different types of validity and standards that are related to development purposes, and almost no systematic or regulatory change is suggested to deter or make unacceptable the exploitative behaviour of northern universities in relation to the less developed world.

Sub-Saharan African higher education (generally) is left with a colonial legacy that may not suit its needs today. The legacy has its strengths (for example, academics in African countries are often fluent in the European languages in which most new knowledge is recorded), but the post-colonial curriculum, structures, modes of learning and language do not necessarily fit the culture or the social needs of the people.

African universities face the dilemma that international standards define academic respectability and provide access to competitive funding but they might not suit local needs nor yield local solutions to local problems.

Development workers from developed countries sometimes compound this dilemma by unthinkingly advocating international standards and international methods for achieving them as the only possibilities. Sub-Saharan African higher education has to develop to meet its own society's needs and reduce poverty. Standards can be different, but the question is how to ensure that they are just as high as international ones.

Political dilemmas

Another dilemma that we have encountered is that much of Sub-Saharan African higher education must work in cooperation with some very nasty and corrupt regimes, while at the same time trying to protect freedom of thought and speech.

Aid may help to develop higher education in such a country and better education might lead to freedom and empowerment, or it may lend legitimacy to corruption and repression. Graduates who can think for themselves and who have looked beyond their own borders may be empowered to make changes in their societies or to become more efficient oppressors.

There are dilemmas created by both centralisation and devolution. Today it seems generally agreed that devolution, and autonomy, are 'good things', but in situations where competence and probity are limited they are by no means unproblematic. Sometimes a strong leader with vision and drive can bring about desired outcomes and sometimes democracy can be no more than cynical window dressing aimed at appeasing donors.


Most Sub-Saharan African problems are multilayered, requiring social, cultural, economic and scientific solutions that work together. If real change is to be sustained, it takes time and much working together in partnership, inquiry, reflection and working on real day-to-day problems in situ. This is more difficult than finding an off-the-shelf 'cure' to a problem and applying it.

Ultimately, solutions that emerge from real situations are complex and messy, and do not conform neatly to any one theory. We have found that the actions that development workers take will be more effective if they are based on evidence collected in the situation, long-term cooperation and people working together over months and even years.

Working to develop Sub-Saharan African higher education will not cure all of Africa's ills, but cumulatively, small changes and improvements can make a real difference and eventually help Sub-Saharan African countries reduce poverty and share more equitably in the benefits of a rapidly developing world.

* Professor Kate Ashcroft is emeritus professor of education at the University of Wales Institute in Cardiff, UK. She has advised on Ethiopian and Zambian higher education, as higher education management adviser to Ethiopia's Minister of Education and the acting director of the Ethiopian Higher Education Strategy Centre, and as a consultant on various projects funded by NUFFIC and UNDP. She has written extensively about development issues.

*This article is based on the concluding chapter of Higher Education in Development: Lessons from Sub-Saharan Africa by Kate Ashcroft and Philip Rayner, published by Information Age Publishing: Chicago in September 2011.