Aware, Connect, Empower: An approach to North-South relations

International education practitioners and researchers in Africa are calling for new approaches to North-South collaborations, noting that the time has come for developing new best practices for mutually beneficial partnerships.

The current models of partnerships and collaborations between researchers from the two regions may have to be reviewed, especially those that have not worked well for the Global South.

In fact, the South and Africa have suffered the consequences of unequal partnerships, said Dr James Jowi, the principal education officer of the East African Community, and Professor Chika Sehoole, the dean of the faculty of education at the University of Pretoria in South Africa.

In a presentation titled, ‘Reimagining North-South collaboration through the lens of the ACE Model’ at the 25th annual conference of the International Education Association of South Africa (IEASA) hosted in Durban, South Africa, they said inequalities should now be replaced by mutuality, built on the strength of the understanding that each side has something to give in a collaborative partnership or any other undertaking, with each having its own unique strengths to bring to the table.

As a result, they are proposing more “responsive and mutually beneficial” partnerships to be established through the principles of Aware, Connect, Empower (ACE).


Also being proposed is the adoption of the African ubuntu philosophy, and the creation of awareness among collaborating partners of the need for transformations and empowerment to gain both intentional intercultural and international experiences.

Under the ACE principles, partners identify things that have caused past imbalances and inequalities, connect with colleagues and engage to find solutions to the problems, Jowi and Sehoole said at the conference.

They suggested that all humans are interconnected, belong to one planet, and are part of “one big whole” but operating as interdependent parts, joined together by the common goal of enriching humanity by responding to challenges facing the world today.

“Our presentation seeks to address the historical imbalances and asymmetries in North- South higher education collaborations. We propose that there has been so much rhetoric and discussions on this without much action. We argue that it is time that this has to change for more balanced and equal collaborations to be attained,” Jowi told University World News.


“We propose the ACE model as one that can enable us to achieve or explore this, because we need to have the awareness and consciousness that partnerships have not worked to the best interests of the South, but have mainly advanced the aspirations of the Global North and their worldview on knowledge, and perpetuated these hegemonies,” he added.

Awareness of the imbalances is important as it enables actors to reflect on the underlying values, attitudes and practices that have made the partnerships unequal as they have been, he noted.

The academics argue that there exists a “dissonance between Global North-South paradigms” with the North dominating in its relations with the South, a situation that needed to change since knowledge did not exist only in the Northern hemisphere.

Knowledge, they submit, can be co-created without anyone in a partnership or a collaboration having to arm-twist the other, or “having strong opinions which superimpose knowledge and practices from one region as superior to the other”.

Gatekeeper of knowledge

While the scarcity of funding in the South has been a key enabler of unequal relations, since most funding for research and knowledge generation comes from the North, the region is also the gatekeeper of most knowledge outlets, including leading journals, making access and utilisation a challenge to scholars from other world regions, they contended.

This has been made worse by age-old assumptions and stereotypes about the South and Africa, in particular, as a hotbed of societal problems, ranging from famine to poverty and violence.

In higher education, it is also worsened by the perception of the hemisphere as a place lagging behind technologically and in education, lacking the capacity and ability for quality research, they said.

Despite that, all human beings have vulnerabilities and challenges, including recent ones such as COVID-19 and the ongoing Ukraine conflict, which made true the old adage of “there is more that brings us together than what divides us”, they said.

In engaging in collaborative endeavours, parties at all times must be guided by the concept of ‘cognitive justice’ which the academics defined as the “right of multiple forms of knowledge and experiences to coexist”.

“This is mainly to call for justice within the knowledge space where there has been injustice [done] to the South – we have to put our cards on the table so that our intentions are clear. We need to work together from a humanistic perspective – and in the African philosophy of ubuntu as one of the ways through which we can make our collaborations more humane, responsive and inclusive.”

Intentional connections

Jowi and Sehoole also called for “intentional connections” in crafting partnerships, which means that, while intentions for partnerships and collaborations may not always be the same, all parties needed to be clear to one another about their expectations and contributions.

Taking advantage of emerging opportunities such as digitalisation of teaching and research, respecting and enhancing cultural awareness and “multiculturalism”, while being guided by the spirit of humanity, will be the key in successful and mutually beneficial collaborations, the academics added.

Overall, the speakers emphasised that modern-day partnerships needed to be meaningful, relevant and impactful while minimising the “risks” associated with internationalisation such as brain drain, negative perceptions of “lesser partners”, imbalances and asymmetries.

They should, instead, focus on pressing needs such as the Sustainable Development Goals in the interest of improving the wellbeing of all the people.

“Collaborations and partnerships should be steeped in values and principles of inclusivity, mutuality and respect,” they declared.

The academics appealed to universities in the South to bring forth strategies and policies to guide their collaborations with international partners from the North, to enable them to fully benefit from such engagements.