Tapping into the diaspora – The search for sustainability

The diaspora is widely acknowledged as a critical resource for the development and revitalisation of higher education in Africa, but how to extract that value, and forge mutually beneficial academic relationships with diasporans and Africa-based scholars and institutions, is less straightforward, not to mention the question of who, ultimately, should be responsible for funding such initiatives.

No-one knows for sure how many African academics are in the diaspora. In an indication of the scale and significance of the African diaspora, in 2010 the African Union declared the diaspora to be its sixth region, and the AU Commission established the Citizens and Diaspora Directorate.

In 2012, the World Bank noted that the estimated number of African diasporans in North America was 39.16 million; in Latin America, 112.65 million; the Caribbean, 13.56 million, and in Europe, 3.51 million. How many of those are academics is not entirely clear.

Another challenge is defining the African diaspora, particularly over time: some might have been forcefully expelled from their countries, while others may have left owing to political persecution; others to seek a better life.

Partly in response to this heterogeneity, the African Union takes a necessarily broad approach, defining the African diaspora as “people of African origin living outside the continent, irrespective of their citizenship and nationality, and who are willing to contribute to the development of the continent and the building of the African Union”.

Notwithstanding such complication, determining how best to identify, tap and effectively use that potential power was a big component of the Continental Forum on Diaspora in Higher Education, Research and Innovation held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in November last year and aimed at consolidating the goals of the Continental Education Strategy for Africa as far as they relate to the diaspora in higher education, research and innovation.

Other objectives included a consideration of how to harmonise the various diaspora initiatives in existence around the world, including Africa's growing numbers of government-led initiatives such as Ethiopia’s Diaspora Fund and the impending AU’s African Diaspora Investment Fund; how to deal with communication challenges and power dynamics that tend to afflict diaspora academic partnerships; and the possibility of advancing a policy framework to encourage greater sustainability of diaspora engagement among universities and researchers.

A tribute to Pius Adesanmi

The forum, co-hosted by the Institute of African Studies at Carleton University in Canada, the African Union and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, was part tribute to the late Pius Adesanmi, the Nigerian-born scholar who was director of Carleton University’s Institute of African Studies and was a champion of many initiatives that led to partnerships with several universities in Africa.

Adesanmi, who actually conceived of the forum in 2018, was tragically not able to attend it, having been among those passengers who died aboard the Ethiopian Airlines jet which crashed on 10 March 2019.

His absence was touchingly noted by a range of speakers, including his colleague Professor Pauline Rankin of Carleton University who vowed to “continue the agenda”, Claudia Frittelli of the Carnegie Corporation of New York who described Adesanmi as exemplifying the “multidimensional flow of human knowledge and capacity”, and former Nigerian education minister and past vice-president of the World Bank's Africa division Dr Obiageli Ezekwesili, who called her former countryman the “epitome of the engaged diasporan”.

Sustainable and systematic engagement

A session on “ministerial perspectives”, which gave representatives (both former and present) of the governments of Senegal and South Africa the floor to share experiences of diaspora engagement from the perspective of government, prompted what came to be a recurrent discussion about the role of governments in facilitating sustainable and systematic diaspora engagement, rather than relying, as is generally the case presently, on individual academic institutions to reach out where possible to colleagues in the diaspora.

Examples of the latter highlighted at the forum included the Wits Alumni Diaspora Programme and the University of Ghana Diaspora Linkage Programme, both of which recorded successes but faced challenges of sustainability and were necessarily limited in their impact by scale and financial resources – although many African institutions and organisations like the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) receive some support from philanthropic entities such as the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Taking a lead in the debate about sustainability, Professor Adam Habib, vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, argued that in countries like China that had successfully lured skilled people back home (for example, through the innovative 1,000 Talents Plan aimed at Chinese scholars below 55) to play a part in the revitalisation of the economies and education sectors, government had put in place a system of (financial) incentives.

“That seems to be absent in a conversation about Africa … if the return of diaspora and revitalisation is to be constructed on individual terms, we may never be able to offer the incentive structures to attract them on sufficient scale,” he said.

An appetite for systemic approaches?

Rather than “engagement between individuals”, an “alliance – probably transcontinental” was needed between universities, said Habib.

“Is there an appetite by governments to enable those systemic approaches rather than the individual approaches we have now?” he asked.

South African Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology Buti Manamela said incentivisation was needed to move beyond salaries to the creation of a platform within which academics – both local and non-local – are able to innovate, contribute towards research and development but also assist the country in meeting its obligations to expansion of the higher education system without compromising quality.

Professor Mary Teuw Niane, mathematician and former minister of higher education in Senegal, said his country has a “general policy” but also separate policies that set the stage for promoting institutional partnerships with colleagues in the diaspora.

He said there were also various research and innovation policies and infrastructural improvement programmes aimed partly at attracting the diaspora. He said in addition to facilitating visas for diasporan scholars, the issue of “brain mobility” needed to be settled – probably under the aegis of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement which came into force last year and which, among other things, facilitates the movement of capital and people as an aid to investment.

However, Manamela agreed that “deliberate” policies were needed that were “focused and institutionalised” …. “And we need to resource those,” he said.

At the heart of the issue is the need to link diasporan engagement strategies to national and regional development, expressed by Ezekwesili as follows: “You have to have an institutional mechanism that understands diaspora as a resource as part of the development process. The development vision of countries cannot marginalise the very important [diaspora] voice and content in its development.”

An ‘ameliorative’ approach

Amid suggestions of tapping African billionaires and philanthropists for funding, and warnings of an inevitable end to donor funding, Habib argued that the current piecemeal way in which diaspora initiatives are structured played a “largely ameliorative” role in arresting the decline of higher education and was “making up for problems, rather than creating conditions for a sustainable higher education system”.

He urged the African Union to “push boundaries” and use its regulatory powers to “begin to define how official development assistance is directed” and look at the possibility of systemic interventions, shared fellowships and joint appointments. “We need to move out of the idea of a charity case into the idea of a development project,” he said.

Although at times heated, the discussion reflected the sense of broad agreement among forum participants on the need for more coherence and sustainability in diaspora programmes and paved the way for recommendations to the AU geared towards a continental policy on diaspora engagement and funding, and the finalisation of the proposed African Diaspora Investment Fund.

It was recommended that the AU encourage member states to advocate for the development of policies specific to engagement of academic diaspora, encourage members to develop databases on their diaspora, streamline immigration processes to facilitate easier movement of academic diaspora and encourage the allocation and mobilisation of necessary resources for initiatives.

Toolkit for visitors

On a more practical level, one of the final breakaway sessions was dedicated to discussion around the content of a “toolkit” aimed at managing the cultural, academic and practical expectations of parties to diaspora academic exchange programmes, particularly those coming from developed countries.

Chaired by Professor Toyin Omoyeni Falola, a Nigerian historian based at the University of Texas, the group suggested the toolkit contain information that could help the visitor “to understand and live peacefully” in his or her new environment, rather than a list of “what you should and shouldn’t do”.

Participants suggested that the toolkit contain information on the history of the institution they were visiting, a precise description of the academic programme and privileges offered the visitor, information on living conditions (including what animals and pests might be encountered in the environment), details on the availability of water and electricity, as well as health and security-related information.

Unfortunately, such a list offers little remedy for a visitor with a “poor attitude”.

“Yes, twice I’ve had cause to tell departments to withdraw people from teaching because they are going to class and telling students that their professors didn’t teach them properly … This is a personality issue and there’s not much you can do about it. When things don’t work, we can only withdraw him or her. It will always be there,” said Falola.