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Research collaborations with African institutions must be equal, fair and meaningful, says Damtew Teferra.

Africa's capacity for research and creating knowledge has always been the most marginalised and least competitive in the world.

Research collaborations are paramount to revitalising African knowledge systems. Such partnerships bring in vital financial resources and much-needed academic and research competence, as well as enhancing intellectual capital and confidence.

They also help tackle academic isolation. Collaborating with developed country researchers often generates publications in high-impact journals, making research institutions and their personnel more visible. This can lead to more grants, more research and publications, faster promotion and more invitations to major conferences and meetings.

So institutions come under much pressure to form partnerships to attract financial, technical, and logistical support. In a typical flagship African university the list and diversity of international collaborations is quite remarkable.

Unequal partnerships?

Africa is still at a stage where any partnership is better than no partnership. Yet collaborations are often criticised as donor-driven, unsustainable, and inappropriate.

The UN Millennium Development Goals increasingly form a lens for observing development partnerships. And the balance of donor-recipient influence has yet to change. Many donor partners set and shift research and humanitarian agendas without seriously considering local needs. And many programmes are too short-lived to build meaningful research capability. Some people even suggest such partnerships have been crafted to perpetuate dependency.

Research partnerships may also be disjointed. A major aid conference in Ghana last year (September 2008) declared that although funding for African institutions has risen since the last Paris aid conference, it is fragmented by multiple donors, objectives, players, and interests.

According to the Economist magazine, Uganda deals with 21 official and multilateral donors, each with their own projects, budgets, and administration requirements. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimates that in 2006, 38 African countries each worked with 25 or more official donors. Reporting to donors can easily become unmanageably complex — Tanzania's overstretched civil servants produce 2,400 quarterly project reports annually.

All this can lead to ineffective use of resources and poorly-run collaborations. Some medical staff in several African countries, for example, are so busy meeting Western delegates that they can only do their regular work, such as providing vaccinations or maternal care, in the evenings.

View from the other side

Donor partners also report problems — including backbreaking bureaucracy, poor infrastructure and capacity and institutions that are often closed or suffer strikes. Academic freedom — central to research and yet often lacking — is a persistent grievance. Some also complain that resources are used ineffectively, reports are inappropriate, and grants are difficult to renew.

Such problems have increased dialogue between donors and recipients. But practices are yet to change.

Some developed country institutions are losing interest in African collaborations. For instance, some international offices in Scandinavian universities reported fading interest in African partnerships, and that staff feel such partnerships have not promoted their research and professional growth.

On the other hand, some third-tier institutions in developed countries are pressing vigorously to expand partnerships on the African continent — largely in search of more resources (though such resources are limited). For example, a growing number of community colleges in the United States are establishing linkages with flagship African institutions.

Time for change

A new and vigorous effort is also underway to strengthen South-South partnerships. Countries like Brazil, China and India are actively engaging with African countries, for example through the Centers of Chinese and Indian studies in South African universities.

There is also a tendency to expand bilateral partnerships to encompass groups of Northern and Southern countries. For example, the Southern African Nordic Centre (SANORD) initiative is a partnership of Nordic and southern African higher education institutions aiming to benefit both regions.

Historical, geo-political, economic, cultural and, increasingly, business interests still predominantly guide international development partnerships, but the notion that partnerships are meant to solely support African institutions is losing traction fast. Common challenges such as the environment, climate, health, energy, migration, peace, and global security bind countries together in a shrinking global village. These problems are not amenable to national solutions. They increasingly necessitate a serious and equitable partnership between all stakeholders — rich and poor, North and South.

The world needs a new 'global contract' to face these challenges. Equal, fair, and meaningful research and academic cooperation is crucial to realising that contract.

Damtew Teferra is the Africa and Middle East director of the Ford Foundation International Fellowships Program, based in New York, and the founder and director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa, at Boston College, United States.