Data shows positive impact of African diaspora fellows

A higher education initiative that taps the African diaspora in North America as a way to reverse the effects of brain drain on the continent seeks to expand amid signs that it has had a positive and sustainable impact, new data shows.

Now organisers hope to broaden their scope – and their funding support – as they work toward a goal set by the African Studies Association in 2014 to bring 1,000 diaspora scholars a year for the next 10 years to African countries.

“Obviously we can continue tweaking, but I think basically it is a very sound structure,” Paul Zeleza, founder of the Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship Program, or CADFP, told members of the advisory council during a briefing on 22-23 September in Washington.

The initiative

Launched in 2013, CADFP offers fellowships to African-born academics in the United States and Canada to collaborate with African universities in six countries: Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda.

Under the terms of the fellowship, recipients spend between 14 and 90 days with a host at an African university. The focus is on three key areas: curriculum development, research methods and graduate student teaching and mentoring.

During the project’s two-year pilot phase, which ended last December, 110 African-born academics working at 86 United States and seven Canadian institutions participated in the programme.

Of those, 86% have since established a formal agreement, linkage or collaboration with their partner institutions in Africa, according to surveys released during the meeting by the Institute of International Education, a US-based non-profit that is administering the grant.

Of more than 104 hosts at 66 African institutions during the pilot phase, 96% have continued collaborating even after the formal fellowship ended. In all, 81% of the hosts cited positive and mutually beneficial results.

Experience satisfying, say alumni

Alumni attending the briefing said the programme was satisfying both personally and professionally.

“I was looking for an opportunity to give back to my home country, and this provided a platform,” said Ghana’s Tina Abrefa-Gyan, a professor of social work at Norfolk State University in the United States.

Abrefa-Gyan, who earned her PhD from the University of Maryland and has lived in the United States for 13 years, spent much of the summer at Garden City University College in Kumasi, Ghana, working with faculty to develop curricula in her field and other disciplines, including political science and psychology.

The university is now applying for accreditation by Ghana’s National Accreditation Board, and a research paper on HIV conducted by Abrefa-Gyan with a Garden City colleague has been accepted for presentation in India.

Albert Acquah, chancellor of Garden City University College, said the members of Africa's diaspora also serve as mentors and role models in their home countries.

“In the past only white professors were interested in Africa. Now we see Africans. That’s why we get so excited,” he said. When students meet scholars such as Abrefa-Gyan, he added: “They say, ‘Maybe we can be these kind of people in the future'.”

Africans set the agenda

One CADFP hallmark is that it matches fellows based on proposals from host universities.

“The nature of global flows [has] typically been the global South coming to the global North,” Zeleza said. “One of the key things we have tried to change is, 'Who’s driving the demand?' The demand is very consciously from the global South, saying this is what we need.”

During the briefing, George Rading of the department of mechanical and manufacturing engineering at the University of Nairobi said fellow Andrew Otieno, a professor at Northern Illinois University, served as an external examiner of a PhD candidate, helped refine the curriculum to inculcate manufacturing automation, and taught an accelerated masters course in materials engineering.

Although all did not go exactly as planned, collaborations are ongoing. “The diaspora movement is not brain drain," Rading said. It's "brain gain”.

Expanding the fellowships

In Washington last week, the council selected another round of scholars, 70 in all, to work on 69 projects. Earlier this year, 59 North American-based scholars were selected to join 41 African universities.

Teboho Moja, a New York University clinical professor of higher education and advisory council member, said a greater focus in the coming year will be placed on research-related activities, “an area that we know is weak… and in the past didn’t get much attention” she said.

Other priorities include an emphasis on the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – and mentoring graduate students. CADFP also hopes to build its alumni network to serve as resources for new fellows.

CADFP is funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and administered in partnership with the Institute of International Education and the United States International University – Africa in Nairobi, where Zeleza was recently named vice-chancellor. Zeleza, born in Malawi, had previously been vice-president at America’s Quinnipiac University.

The concept has already been adapted by other organisations. The Stavros Niarchos Foundation this year awarded a US$1.25 million grant to launch the Greek Diaspora Fellowship Program.

And as it considers expanding to include African-born scholars in Asia and Europe, CADFP's advisory council is looking for additional sources of financial support.

Growing recognition of diaspora role

As part of the gathering, Zeleza also signed autographs of his recently published book, The Transformation of Global Higher Education, 1945-2015 (Palgrave MacMillan).

In one chapter, Zeleza notes the growing recognition of the role of diasporas in development by governments and donor agencies. While he describes higher education today as facing enormous challenges, he also urges the global academic community to welcome the chance to “own the future of higher education”.

“There is no single system in my view right now that we can point to as being the model of functionality, of effectiveness, that everybody is asking about,” Zeleza said at the Washington gathering. But “a lot of us should not despair because of all these challenges. They give as an opportunity to really think about what higher education ought to be.”