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Talking Policy: Fabrice Jaumont on Higher Education in Africa

Education is a critical element of development; societies require well-informed workers to drive progress. However, in universities’ quest for funding, the demands of donors can define institutional agendas. World Policy Journal spoke with Fabrice Jaumont about his book, Unequal Partners: American Foundations & Higher Education Development in Africa, which examines the role of American philanthropic foundations in shaping university education in sub-Saharan Africa. Jaumont is currently the education attaché for the Embassy of France to the U.S. and a program officer at the French-American Cultural Exchange Foundation.

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: Early in the book, you discuss how the modern concept of the university has developed over time: Islamic and North African institutions influenced European education, and Europe heavily influenced American education. With that in mind, how do modern Western universities compare to modern African universities?

FABRICE JAUMONT: Western universities and African universities face a constant dilemma. There's a struggle between both models. This question I ask is, is there an African model of higher education? And if there is, was it put together by Africans, or is it coming from other sources? This is tricky, particularly in the context of institutional development with outside funding. If you look at some of these universities, particularly those with ties to American foundations, they're definitely encouraged to replicate an American style of higher education. Universities that came from the former British colonial empire have definitely inherited models that came with the British way of constructing institutions. With American funding, and all the international donors, universities are developing the language of American universities. The example I cite in the book is Makerere University in Uganda, whose website positions itself as a globally engaged university with an international program. Basically, it’s the same way you would find NYU or another American university presenting itself on its web page. We're not looking at an African model, but an American model is replacing the British model. The question is: Is this the consequence of funding coming from American foundations, or is it simply the model that is "winning" in higher education? The other matter with old models being replaced by new models is that there are no good examples of a specific African model. As you mentioned in your question, there were African universities before there were Western universities. A lot of the Western universities were previously influenced by African models. There is a need for an African model developed by Africans. It brings to mind questions of ownership; one has to own their own development and one has to own their own institutions. 

WPJ: Given their bias toward Western values, how do American foundations develop authority and legitimacy in African higher education systems?

FJ: This is something that I looked at as much as I could. I considered what legitimizes the role of foundations in the development of universities around the world, particularly in areas where funding is needed, and how is this negotiated. The African scholars, administrators, or fundraisers will play this into their strategy, and on the foundation's side there will be a careful balance between the directions that are imposed or preconditioned and the participation of locals. In the foundations that I studied, there was a real effort to invite everyone to the table and accept feedback and criticism from grantees, as well as to discuss the grant and how funds should be used. However, this discussion is always within the parameters that have been predetermined by the foundation's mission and strategy. In the end, this is still a determinative agenda—it is not imposed, but it is not conceived by Africans. It is a negotiation, and within that negotiation, legitimacy is an important card.

WPJ: Unequal Partners brings attention to a term often heard in development: capacity building. This definition varies, but you say some funders see capacity building as a renewed focus on institutional outputs. If this is the case, what would you qualify as the outputs of African higher education?

FJ: Capacity building is a term that has been used so many times, by so many people, and with so many different definitions that it is hard to understand what it actually is. In the book, I joke that it's the buzzword that everyone uses. It is the answer to everything, with people justifying their choices simply by using that term. I always found this to be vague, particularly when appeals are made to international development. What is the tangible result coming out of these choices? Is this developing the next generation of faculty, teachers, and professors? With the brain drain that is continuously plaguing African universities, it’s something to consider. Is this creating better options for women for master’s degrees or PhDs? Is this something that is including minorities in gaining the right skills to succeed? These are questions that are critical, and need to be asked. This is what I think funding should focus on. 

WPJ: As you mentioned, a major issue is brain drain, when bright young students emigrate to other countries, either because they are more stable or provide better pay. How can educational institutions incentivize people to stay?

FJ: Brain drain is really affecting the teaching profession, although it might also be the case with entrepreneurs and other trades. Students keep enrolling in African universities, with more and more universities being created every year. This growth faces the problem of what happens when there is a lack of qualified professionals. While there is not a brain drain of students, though some certainly are going to the U.S. or Europe for a degree, I think universities are doing a good job of attracting external funding and increasing scholarship opportunities for students so that they can stay and finish their education locally.

WPJ: You write about the necessity of cultivating “knowledge societies” in Africa. Could you expand on how you define this term and what it means for higher education in Africa? 

FJ: There is a shift between what universities were doing in terms of producing skilled workers, moving from the manufacturing model to the knowledge-producing model. It's adapting for a field that is being transformed. Moving away from the old model, which was producing employees for the government, it is moving into creating intellectual, knowledge-based jobs. That is why the model of knowledge societies, along the UNESCO definition of knowledge societies, is prevailing in many parts of Africa. It is a direction that is being embraced by Africans. 

WPJ: You note that while American foundations and their partners can help provide grants and other monetary initiatives, governments are typically the primary source of funding for universities. However, political instability can put constraints on where a government allocates its resources. What solution would you offer for helping to foster viable funding in countries prone to instability? 

FJ: When a country is not stable, foundations tend not to go there. There is a link between a country's democratic process and stability and outside funding. There is a level of risk that tends to discourage funders, particularly when you add corruption to instability and political upheaval. Usually you don't see foundations there. It can be seen as a contradiction; if foundations are to have a high impact on societies, shouldn't we see more of them in places where they are needed? However, it is important to remember we're talking about a small number of investments, comparative to the needs of a country. Outside funders, other than the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund, are not going to become the solution. It's too small a group of donors; although impressive in terms of funding given each year, relative to the problem the contribution is still very small. Even in higher education, I looked at nearly $2 billion being invested over the course of 10 years, and this is still peanuts compared to the overall budget of higher education in Africa. In a way, this indicates the influence of foundations on development despite comparatively little money. Even with the impact that they've had, their influence is better looked at locally, because across the whole continent it is simply too small. 

*****

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Visit the Talking Policy archive page for more World Policy interviews!

[Interview conducted by Stephen Barry]

[Photo courtesy of Azri Alhaq]

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