The ‘soft power’ proof of the pudding – Not in the branding

It is with interest that I followed the conversation between Jane Knight and John Kirkland on soft power and soft diplomacy in the last two weeks. First of all, I am not sure I would agree with Knight’s premise that the term soft power has become the ‘buzzword’ in international higher education circles; if it is, we have not noticed a hike in Africa, at least as far as I know.

As a major ‘marginal centre’ of international higher education – not by participation but by omission – the absence of that ‘buzzword’ in the region may be an indication that its prevalence may have been overblown, if not misstated.

As a matter of fact, most ‘historical’ players are retreating from development cooperation due to predominantly economic, social and financial crises at home. Whatever soft power talk there is around the region, it mainly revolves around the increasing China-Africa relationship.

No illusion

There should be no illusion on the fundamental tenets of international higher education – be they in student mobility, or research cooperation or establishing networks.

And I appreciate the decency of Kirkland in stating that “any government not wanting to boost its reputation in the world [through development cooperation]…would be neglecting its obligations”, which is a far cry from the “why do we call them instruments of soft power” position of Knight, which seems to refute the essence of the practice.

As government policies in development cooperation go, the United States’ position stands out for its unapologetic and unambiguous stance unmasked in politically correct development talks. The US Global Development Policy 2010 states that “development is vital to US national security and its strategic, economic and moral imperative”.

In any case, I know of no country that does not wish to exert global influence – as broadly defined – but probably more diplomatically and discreetly.

To be sure, boosting ones “reputation in the world”, to pick Kirkland’s point, has been in the active minds of governments, states, organisations – and despots – alike.

While the ‘softball’ game has been known to be manoeuvred by the ‘developed’ world, a number from the ‘developing’ world are also toying with that exercise – although with mixed, if not counterproductive, results.

The so-called ‘Obiang Chair’, a title that had to be sanitised to ‘UNESCO-Equatorial Guinea International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences’, was one such game that has gone awry.

The prize, which attracted international condemnation from eminent Africans including Nobel prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu and even pressure from the Barack Obama administration, was chronicled by the Economist as “UNESCO's Dictator Prize: Reputation mismanagement”.

Beyond neo-colonialism

The popular term neo-colonialism was first coined by former Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah to describe the perpetuation of socio-economic and political hegemony of the colonial and global powers through economic, linguistic, cultural and educational interventions.

Indeed, as Kirkland noted, “while today’s desire to use soft diplomacy is not in the same league” as in those days of independence, the dynamics of partnership and cooperation have not seen major changes despite intense debates in development circles.

It is exactly in recognition of these underlying unpopular policies and paradigms, which still pervade the 21st century, that the Paris Declaration (2005) and Accra Agenda for Action (2008) were developed to foster mutual benefits between all the parties of partnership.

The accords, which were founded on five core principles, stipulate joint ownership, alignment, harmonisation and results, and mutual accountability in development cooperation. They are gaining slow but steady traction in shaping the development cooperation landscape, including in international higher education.

Thus the argument of introducing “an alternative approach – and the notion of mutual power”, espoused by Knight, seems out of touch with the already shifted and shifting ground of development cooperation realities.

The current global reality is such that the concerns of one are becoming the concerns of all – not by choice but increasingly by sheer necessity, mutual interest, imminent threat and survival instinct.

Regardless of the effort in describing the inherent ecology of the relationship in this global village – soft power, soft diplomacy, benevolent hegemony – the hard fact is that the old institutions, paradigms and instruments of global engagement have become so archaic, if not dangerous, to ensuring a collective survival of the global community.

Common agendas

The common agendas that bind countries together and the common challenges that confront them in the shrinking global village, I opined in a book published some years back, increasingly necessitate a serious and equitable partnership between all stakeholders.

The environment, the climate, health, energy, migration, peace, finance and global security, to mention some key concerns, are simply no longer amenable to solutions conceptualised only within national jurisdictions and confined by artificial political boundaries.

More than ever before there is a need for new and sustainable forms of global and regional engagement that are mutually beneficial, in order to address these common issues and challenges of critical importance.

Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, recently delivered a powerful speech at the Richard Dimbleby Lecture imploring a new form of “multilateralism for a new era”.

She posed a central question: “Do we cooperate as a global family or do we confront each other across the trenches of insularity?” and called for “a renewed commitment to international cooperation; to putting global interest above self-interest”.

Maybe too much to ask the entrenched global marketplace of interests – self-interest, national interest, regional interest, global interest – where many needed to be “neglected”, recalling Kirkland?

Quoting Martin Luther King, she noted: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Even more so now than at the time of King, one would have thought!

For sure, the new and anticipated sustainable approach to global partnership – international higher education partnership, cooperation, collaboration and so forth – would not simply prevail by tampering with the nomenclature.

Rather, the conversation needs to sharply focus – without distraction and detraction – on how higher education stakeholders, especially universities, engage both in practice and dialogue, in proactively shaping and aggressively pursuing the new international cooperation paradigm.

* Damtew Teferra is professor of higher education, founding director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa and leader of Higher Education Training and Development at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. His recently edited book Financing Higher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa (Palgrave Macmillan 2013) visits some of these issues.