Foreign aid’s educational blind spot

Memories are short. We forget that it was the [university] students in both countries who were in the vanguard of social protest movements in the 70’s and 80’s that led directly to the civil conflicts that the world  remembers now only because of ‘blood diamonds’ and child soldiers.

But in the beginning it was university student groups, sometimes funded by pan-Africanists like Libya’s currently besieged President Quadaffi, who struggled for the overthrow of despotic regimes in both countries.

Charles Taylor, a graduate of Bentley College in Boston, got his start in Liberian student politics in the United States where he organized protests against the Tolbert regime.

That is Michael Keating writing on the sad state of universities in Africa, and the possible political downside.

He makes a couple of great points that don’t think get made enough.

First, everyone worries about revolt from the poor masses. Those people should read their history. The poor may or may not be more likely to revolt than a middle classman (I am a skeptic). But frustration and aggression are channeled into violence when they are politicized. And it is not the poor and dispossessed who do the organizing and politicizing.

Second, the aid community are on top of primary education like an overzealous mother. Tertiary education is pretty much ignored. The MDGs are both a cause and en effect of this sad state of affairs.

Universities will train the next generation of Presidents, bureaucrats, generals and business leaders.

You want industry? Institutions? Accountability? Technological diffusion? Peace? Time for donors to rethink education spending policies in a big way.

13 thoughts on “Foreign aid’s educational blind spot

  1. In Ethiopia tertiary education gets its share of aid. I am one of hundreds of expat teaching staff at Addis Ababa University (and also at other Ethiopian universities) who are paid through some UNDP fund to develop Ethiopian MA and PhD programs (though it has been impossible for me to find out what fund this is and why other African universities do not seems to partake in the same program, in the end I am not even sure anymore that it is UNDP). There is money, but it is mismanaged from top to bottom level. AAU has money, but it is not distributed correctly. Our department didn’t have photocopying toner for 6 months and our PhD qualifying exams were delayed because of that. Rumors circulate at AAU that the amount expats receive in payment for their job is less than a 3rd of what the government receives from UNDP per professor and that is why we don’t need to pay taxes. I think whoever is funding this program should take more interest in how the money is being spent and also in assessing the funded programs in other ways than just counting the number of graduates each year (I don’t get me started on the extremely poor standards, and requirements for a pass grade)

  2. Chris (and Michael): My tweet may have been obscure. I think we all agree that higher education in Africa is in a sorry state, but I’m not sure we should put the blame on the donors’ “blind spot.” As my co-authors and I try to show in our paper (, the problem is caused at least as much by the presumption that higher education should be financed and provided by the government (essentially free of charge), which has led to elite capture and politicization of the system. Regards, Shanta

  3. As important as education surely is the more uncomfortable issue for development to ask is what really is achievable with more/better education. John Marsh just published a book on the topic of education for poor communities in the US and luckily, I wrote about it on my blog a few days ago ;):
    John Marsh: Why Education Is Not an Economic Panacea-insights for development?

  4. And also, after secondary education people are able and willing to leave their country to pursue tertiary education in North America or Europe, thus adding to a further brain drain.

    But then, some developing countries might be happy about the brain drain because it rids them of rebellious youngsters. Iran for example, seems to do everything to drive more academically and intellectually minded people out of the country:

  5. apart from this obscure UNDP program mentioned by fatou2002, are there any other sources to bring foreign professors or expats to teach in African Universities for short/medium term? I will be happy to do it, but have never found a source of funding…

  6. “But frustration and aggression are channeled into violence when they are politicized.”

    Dunno about that – seems to be plenty of countries where de-politicised frustration and aggression have led to serious problems with domestic and other criminal violence. I’d hazard a guess (and it is a guess, I admit) that in the long term, politicised frustration will lead to more positive action than unfocused apolitical anger.

  7. Well, Germany actually issues study visas for foreign students quite generously; they’re a great deal since German university education is nearly free, you can get plenty of DAAD scolarships, and you’ll have an unrestricted work visa upon graduation. The only big catch is that you (or your parents) need to know this and react by starting to learn German in high school already.

  8. I am grateful that the role of tertiary education has come onto the table of development, given its paramount importance for virtually every aspect of “development”.
    Yet, the state of African Universities, as described by Michael Keating, is certainly not only the result of lacking funding and political importance, but, as we can experience with the current student protests in South Africa, also a result of intransparent and corrupt institutions, which have proven to be capable of appropriating a large share of the overall budget for education.
    Beyond this challenge, while tertiary education is doubtlessly worth increased investments, if it is to advance societies through the formation of responsible leaders for the different sectors of society, close attention will also have to be paid on what is actually going to be taught. With the experience of business school teaching in various countries, I would like to warn here from a simple imitation from “top” western educational institutions, where training for societal goals such as Accountability or Peace is absent, at its best.