African academic diaspora fellows initiative expands

The African diaspora fellowship initiative, brainchild of Malawi-born diaspora academic Dr Paul Zeleza, is building a platform from which to launch a ‘10-10’ initiative that will sponsor 1,000 diaspora scholars a year for 10 years to visit African universities for collaboration. Now Zeleza himself has left a top academic job in America to head up a university in Kenya.

Launched in 2013, the Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship, or CADF, programme over two years enabled 110 fellows – Africa-born academics working in North America – to return for short-term educational projects proposed and hosted by universities in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda.

In its second, bigger phase the initiative will support around 140 fellowships and will be used as a base from which to expand the initiative globally, said CADF programme founder and chair Zeleza, who was formerly vice-president at America’s Quinnipiac University and is now vice-chancellor of the United States International University – Africa or USIU in Nairobi.

Administered by the New York-based Institute of International Education or IIE, the academic diaspora project is being picked up as a model, Zeleza told University World News.

This month the IIE announced that the Stavros Niarchos Foundation had awarded a US$1.25 million grant to launch the Greek Diaspora Fellowship Program. Over two years, 40 Greek-born academics working in the United States and Canada will receive fellowships to visit Greek universities for collaborative academic engagements.

Big plans

This weekend CADF council members from across Africa and the world met in Nairobi to select a new round of diaspora fellows and to have conversations with stakeholders, including government officials, African universities and funder the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

There was sharing of experiences with the programme – growing pains, its tweaking based on African needs, and how it may be further improved. It is moving forward on two tracks.

One is to ensure that CADF is strong and “even better than the first cycle”, said Zeleza. There have been some changes. For instance, there are multi-institutional projects, and not only universities but also research organisations can now access African diaspora academics. “That is going to help us have a broader and deeper impact.”

Second, crucially, “is to solidify conversations with stakeholders about building the platform for ‘10-10’”. The Mobilise the Diaspora or ‘10-10’ project was one of six proposals included in the Draft Declaration and Action Plan of the first African Higher Education Summit held in Senegal last March.

The ‘10-10’ programme will be much larger and will be run from Africa with resources from around the world, said Zeleza.

He is reaching out to foundations in and outside Africa, as well as African governments interested in mobilising their academic diasporas, the African Union and continental bodies such as the Association of African Universities and African Development Bank.

“We will have partners in different parts of the world, to access the diaspora everywhere.” The IIE will continue managing the Carnegie initiative and it is hoped other agencies and foundations in Europe and Asia will come on board.

“It is important to get ideas on how to realistically and systematically lay the foundations for ‘10-10’ so that within a year we have a platform and can begin securing resources that will enable us to launch in two years.

“What we are doing now is important but it is really only a drop in the ocean in terms of both the need on this continent for capacity building at the tertiary level, and interest on the other side of the African diaspora where people are trying to do something.”

New base, increased capacity

Zeleza was appointed vice-chancellor of USIU after an international search. The university knew about CADF and had applied for a fellow. When offered the job, he asked if USIU would be willing to host the programme, and was “gratified to see that they jumped on it”.

CADF was officially relocated at the beginning of the new grant last October, under the caretakership of previous vice-chancellor Professor Freida A Brown. Zeleza was on a fellowship at Harvard University and took up his new position on 1 January 2016.

As gratifyingly, he said, “the programme is now being perceived – and we can tell by some of the applications – as African, more than it was when the institutional partner was my former university in the United States. So the African-ness of the programme has been enhanced.

“Applications are skyrocketing as word goes around, both on the continent and in North America. This round of applications we had almost the same number as for the three sets of applications for the first cycle.”

Applications for the new grant cycle have been peer reviewed – a rigorous process undertaken by the IIE based on its peer review system for Fulbright scholarships – and up to 60 new fellows have been selected from a ‘long short-list’.

Being in Kenya has also made it easier to reach certain audiences such as governments and funding agencies and multilateral organisations on the continent, and being in Africa gives the initiative more credibility than when it was in the global North.

“That has strengthened our outreach.” For instance, applications from Kenya for the current round of fellowships had more than doubled. There would also be more opportunity to be on the ground and to hear directly from African institutions what works, what does not and how the programme could be improved.

The upscaled CADF has grown in capacity. First, funding has been upped from around US$2.9 million to US$3.5 million, enabling more fellowships. Second, it has more staff, including project coordinator Everlyn A Musa, a Kenyan based at USIU who has vast experience working with international organisations, including in the US.

Before moving back to Africa, Zeleza received a letter of congratulations from the president of the IIE, praising the innovativeness of the initiative and saying it had become a model – the Greek initiative is using the same structure as the African one. “We are becoming the model for how to organise diaspora connections.”

Leading USIU

Zeleza is delighted to be back. “My transition from the US to Nairobi and this position is the most exciting professional opportunity I have had in my life.” It also works at a personal level. Zeleza knows Kenya well – his PhD was on Kenya, he writes about the country and he taught there in the 1980s.

The United States International University was especially attractive to Zeleza. Opened in 1970, it was the first private university in Kenya. “A lot of the changes that have happened in higher education – including in quality assurance – have really been pioneered by USIU.”

He finds it attractive that USIU is accredited both in Kenya by the Commission for University Education and in America by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. “It means that we can combine the best of Kenyan and US higher education.

“It also positions us structurally at the cutting edge of internationalisation in higher education, because we have to navigate both the African and the American higher education landscapes.”

The university, said Zeleza, is probably the most international in the region, if not in Africa. There are students from 73 countries and every continent, “not to mention students from across Africa, all the way from Egypt down to South Africa, and from Senegal to Somalia”. Opportunities for students to interact with others from elsewhere is embedded in everything USIU does, he added.

Historically in Africa, the public sector has dominated higher education. But there have long been private institutions and the sector is growing fast – there are now more private than public universities. Zeleza believes it is important to strengthen both sectors. “We need to make sure that some private universities perform at the highest levels of excellence.”

“For me this was an opportunity – after my experiences in Canada, in the US and with engaging in discourses on the future of African higher education – to actually do something directly as part of institutional leadership.”

Universities in North America have their own problems but are already developed. “You can make a much more profound impact on higher education, working in an institution like this,” Zeleza said. “The sense of contribution is a lot greater. The professional satisfaction is the greatest I have had in my life.”