Universities – Critical partners in building sovereignty

Broken or inadequate relationships between governments and their local academic communities can undermine autonomous, democratic policy-making, leaving national polities prey to the agendas of foreign powers, according to a new study published by African Minds.

In worst-case scenarios, foreign donors – despite their proclaimed intentions – can effectively take over national policy-making in young democracies such as South Africa and Tanzania, say German social scientists Susanne Koch and Peter Weingart.

In their exploration of how the technocrats who are tied to foreign aid packages can influence government plans, they found that, without sufficient financial clout, administrative capacity and the support of a strong, local academic community, governments can be rendered quite helpless in the face of imported policy prescriptions, with disastrous results.

For example, the sudden World Bank-inspired introduction of universal, free primary education in Tanzania at the turn of the millennium led to a massive drop in educational standards since the sector’s teaching and structural capacity was ill-equipped to manage such massification.

Although foreign experts had provided the 'facts' that led to the ill-fated decision, it was the government, not the donors, which was left to shoulder the political blame for the failure, say the authors of The Delusion of Knowledge Transfer: The impact of foreign aid experts on policy-making in South Africa and Tanzania.

Endogenous academic communities

Along with relative financial autonomy and effective civil services, the importance of endogenous academic communities in enabling recipient governments to become more than mere consumers of knowledge and implementers of advice is crucial – particularly within the context of a continent in which national science systems have often been deinstitutionalised and are generally operating in subsistence mode, struggling to reproduce themselves.

By contrast with the rest of the continent, South Africa’s domestic scientific community is relatively robust, enabling the knowledge-based aid on offer to be tailored more closely to the host country’s definition of its own needs. It scores well in terms of its overall participation in science globally, according to indicators including budgetary support, the number of researchers and its research-output ratios.

It is also only one of the three countries on the continent – including Malawi and Uganda – which has met the African Union’s target of spending at least 1% of its GDP on research and development.

However, even in South Africa, local academics are disadvantaged by the inherent epistemological prejudice of the international development community, which generally prizes international or Northern knowledge as more credible and disinterested than local or Southern knowledge – and adopts procurement practices that marginalise expert communities in aid-receiving countries as a result.

In addition, although South African higher education institutions and parastatals deliver high-level research, they face the same kind of structural constraints as science systems in developing countries, such as too few human resources and dependency on external financing.

For example, more than 70% of funding for HIV/Aids and tuberculosis research was reported as coming from outside in 2013. The result can be a form of academic harlotry, as a senior medical scholar at the University of Cape Town revealed in confidence: “We’ve become scientific prostitutes in the sense that we are giving in to the highest bidders.”

Willingness to engage

A further factor that affects the impact of the science community in strengthening official policy-making capacity is the government’s willingness to engage with the local knowledge base. For example, ties between the national health department and the science community broke down under the administration of former president Thabo Mbeki as a result of its policy on antiretroviral treatment for Aids.

Subsequently, a professor at the University of the Western Cape noted the shift from “a kind of vacuum at the centre” to “the re-emergence of a leadership that is willing to engage in a much more explicit way”.

Similarly, in the area of education-policy research, despite constraints in terms of funding and human resources, a relatively small cadre of educational scholars form a solid knowledge base which the government regularly exploits to inform its policy-making.

At the macro level, the authors of the new study note that the advisory processes that are attached to external aid packages are volatile, conditional and supply-oriented. They are subject to often competing legitimation and accountability pressures between donor and host governments and a potential mismatch of donor interests and recipient needs within profoundly unequal sets of financial and political relations.

While acknowledging that aid strategies and processes are often shaped by historical relations and legitimate political differences, the authors focus on the relative strength of local science communities in the fields of education, health and environmental policy in 'donor darlings' Tanzania and South Africa and their resulting impact on national policy-making.

In Tanzania, the weakest area in terms of scientific capacity is education, with only 81 articles published over 14 years and no formalised system for facilitating exchange between policy-makers and social scientists. (Although it is interesting to note that a comprehensive five-year plan for the higher education sector prepared by local researchers in 2010 received little attention from donors and now, literally, sits on the shelf.)

South African capacity in this field by contrast is substantial – although research outputs are relatively few compared with the health and environment disciplines – and educational scholars form a solid knowledge base which the government regularly exploits.

Health research

The strongest area in the Tanzanian science landscape is health, which accounts for more than 42% of the country’s scientific research outputs. However, the relatively few researchers and the sector’s dependence on foreign funding obstruct the production of policy-relevant science. Similar patterns but an even more constrained situation have also contributed to a general lack of endogenous policy-making in the country’s environmental sector.

Meanwhile, South Africa has a strong medical science community which makes a significant contribution to global knowledge. Among the three fields under consideration, it ranks top, accounting for more than 22% of total science research outputs from 1990 to 2013 (compared with 11.7% for environment-related outputs and only 0.6% for education-related ones).

However, the local knowledge base in this field is weakened since expertise is stretched thin, highly concentrated on one subject – HIV/Aids – and quite dependent on external financing shaped by the agendas of outside players.

In the field of environmental science, the community operating within leading South African universities and parastatals is regarded as among the best in the world, although it is relatively small in terms of human resources and racially skewed, including too few scholars from historically disadvantaged backgrounds.

Notwithstanding these drawbacks, the authors of the new study rank the local knowledge base in this field the strongest of those surveyed and one which substantially informs national policy-making through its presence in advisory task teams and its contribution to a key government report.

Delusions of knowledge transfer

The authors of The Delusion of Knowledge Transfer conclude that decades of “technical assistance” have generally failed to help recipient governments worldwide become independent in their policy-making despite the international development community’s proclaimed commitment to a new, more inclusive approach to aid embodied in the 2011 Busan Partnership and an increased emphasis on the importance of local knowledge for development.

Little or no consideration is generally given in donor-recipient relations to creating pedagogical mechanisms to transfer knowledge, as if learning will simply take place of its own accord – as if, according to the World Bank, “knowledge is like light” that “can easily travel the world”. Some foreign experts may even be reluctant to share too much knowledge for fear of making themselves redundant.

In this context, the authors recommend that donors should rather seek to support the knowledge communities in developing countries to produce a critical mass of local experts to produce and scrutinise expertise, including imported knowledge. This support could take the form of investment to facilitate cooperation between research centres, within or outside the university system; funding for educational scholarships; and funding for new university programmes aimed at addressing country-specific challenges.

National governments in Africa are increasingly realising the importance of providing adequate funding to their higher education sectors to produce the human capital required for development and are intensifying their efforts to produce up-to-date relevant data on domestic science and technology systems in order to strengthen them and foster local knowledge economies.

Although the authors of the new study note a lack of longitudinal large-scale studies in the field of educational research, the Centre for Higher Education Trust based in Cape Town and scholars at the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science, Technology and Innovation Policy at Stellenbosch University have produced important data on research capacity at flagship universities in South Africa and across the rest of the continent with this goal in mind.

Against a background of foreign governments seeking to export their policy prescriptions to countries in southern Africa and the rest of the continent, the failure by governments in young democracies in the region to attend to and foster the local knowledge base (their higher education systems) leaves untapped an important resource for strengthening sovereignty – a resource that is indispensable if national decision-makers want to forge and implement their own policy visions.

The Delusion of Knowledge Transfer: The impact of foreign aid experts on policy-making in South Africa and Tanzania is published open access by African Minds and is available from the publisher’s website. Mark Paterson is a consultant with the Centre for Higher Education Trust in partnership with the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science, Technology and Innovation Policy at Stellenbosch University and co-editor of Africa and the Millennium Development Goals: Progress, problems and prospects.