University partnerships – A carrot and stick approach

The United States is reaching out to empower Africa’s youth and build partnerships with African universities to enhance their role as instruments of national development. Should Africans be worried about the motives behind such overtures and their longer-term implications?

University partnership-building was among the aims of last month’s six-African nations tour by Tibor Nagy, assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of African Affairs at the US Department of State, that included stops in the Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Sudan, Sudan and Somalia.

During the tour from 15 to 29 January, Nagy promoted the September 2019 University Partnerships Initiative (UPI), a new programme designed to strengthen ties and encourage collaboration between US and African universities.

According to Nagy, the UPI is designed to strengthen collaboration between US and African universities while harnessing the opportunities posed by Africa’s projected doubling in population by 2050 and the ‘youth bulge’ it will produce.

Funding opportunities linked to the US-South Africa university partnership initiative (UPI) have already been published with a deadline of 28 February, according to the website of the US embassy and consulates in South Africa.

In a statement during International Education Week in November last year, Nagy said: “Expanding existing links and promoting new partnerships at the university level will strengthen Africa’s educational institutions as instruments of national development – enhancing regional prosperity, security and stability.

“Such cooperation will also promote the values of academic freedom, human rights and good governance, which are increasingly under threat across Africa and around the world as less-open societies attempt to export their own models of development.”

Nagy's tour also highlighted the 10th anniversary of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), a programme that engages the next generation of leaders on the continent by facilitating connections with their peers in the United States and Africa.

In Ethiopia, Nagy inaugurated the sixth American Corner – Mekelle American Corner (MAC) – at Mekelle University. The American Corner describes a “modern space for learning, discovery and collaboration aimed at developing and empowering Ethiopian youth and emerging leaders”, according to the website of the US embassy in Ethiopia.

Besides the Africa-US Higher Education Initiative, the Fulbright Program, International Visitor Leadership Program, Study of the US Institutes for Scholars and other international style exchange efforts, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has launched several education initiatives in Africa.

Fareeda Khodabocus, director of quality assurance at the University of Mauritius and a member of the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa (HERANA), welcomed the US-Africa university partnerships.

“For Africa to emerge, it needs the help of powerful economies such as the US to grow both economically and socially and to learn from good higher education practices,” Khodabocus told University World News.

“US-Africa university partnerships are key to more academic mobility and educational exchange programmes and have the potential to improve African curricula and learning experiences as well as facilitate career development,” she said.

“We learn better through healthy competition and benchmarking for good practices.”

Echoing these sentiments, international development education expert Fabrice Jaumont, research fellow at Fondation Maison des Sciences de l'Homme in Paris, told University World News there was a need for even more higher education cooperation between the United States and all countries in Africa, particularly in areas related to financing and fundraising.

“For instance, I am currently examining the development of university foundations in emerging African universities as well as analysing the new opportunities and new challenges associated with this form of fundraising for universities in Africa,” said Jaumont, who is the author of a 2018 book entitled Unequal Partners: American foundations and higher education development in Africa.

“The model’s American origin, the context of its implementation in African countries, and the limits of its transferability in developing countries where giving to one’s university – and even giving back to one’s country – are understood differently … [these are] new areas for which greater cooperation between the US and Africa would be beneficial,” Jaumont said.

Carrot and stick approach

Not everyone agrees.

Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, professor in global thought and comparative philosophies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, said: “Anyone with a shred of integrity needs to view any policy initiative coming from the Trump administration with the utmost suspicion as they are geared to creating quasi-vassal countries that are subservient to US dictates, rather than accountable to the interests of the people.”

Taking the argument further, Magdi Tawfik Abdelhamid, a professor at Cairo's National Research Centre, said the US was using a “carrot and stick” approach in Africa to secure its interests.

“The US uses the UPI and YALI as a carrot or reward for contributing to African higher education development and youth empowerment and at the same time it uses African universities as a proxy battleground to counter the influence of other international powers such as China and Russia and as a soft power tool for expanding its cultural, political and economic spheres of influence,” Abdelhamid said.

“On the other hand, the US also imposes travel bans and sanctions which harms the academic community and higher education sector as a stick or punishment for African countries to secure its interests.”

According to “The Soft Power 30”, a global ranking system for soft power, the US ranked at position five globally and was at number one in the category of education as it has more top-ranked universities than any other country in the world and hosts more international students than the next two closest countries (the United Kingdom and Australia) combined.

How then should Africa engage with powers such as the US?

“Africa must work on twisting the agendas of international powers including the US into benefits for its own African universities and gains for achieving sustainable development,” Abdelhamid argued.

Jaumont said while challenges remain in the power relations between donors and universities that often result in unsatisfactory results for both actors, he questioned whether dealing with a different international power would serve African development any better.

“How would a counter-strategy against other international powers serve Africa's development on Africa's terms?" he asked, stressing the need for serious interrogation: “Can donors embrace Africa's development on Africa's terms? Can grantees retain more ownership of the agenda itself and still receive funding? Can grantees be consulted when a donor establishes a specific strategy or seeks a desired target of change?” he asked.

According to Atta-ur-Rahman, UNESCO Science Prize laureate and former coordinator general of the Standing Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, African leaders should “create an environment in which US, China and Russia compete against one another in investing in the necessary scientific fields that constitute the basis for the fourth industrial revolution, which presents a number of challenges and some wonderful opportunities to Africa”.

Atta-ur-Rahman's view is an interesting response to the recently released African Development Bank report, African Economic Outlook 2020: Developing Africa’s workforce for the future, which called for swift action to address human capital development in African countries, where the quantity and quality of human capital is much lower than in other regions of the world.