AU’s ‘neocolonial entanglement’ undermines HE policies

Wagdy Sawahel26 January 2023

To regain legitimacy as a leading continental organisation, the African Union (AU) needs to decolonise itself and rely more on its member states to refocus its regional higher education policy processes towards African issues instead of excessive financial dependency on external actors which could manipulate policy processes towards donor interests.

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This is the main message of a study ‘Decolonising the African Union Regional Higher Education Policy: A tentative approach against neocolonial entanglement’ that is expected to appear in a book In Unyoking African University Knowledges: A pursuit of the decolonial agenda in the first quarter of 2023.

The study was authored by Professor Emnet Tadesse Woldegiorgis, the director of the Ali Mazrui Centre for Higher Education Studies at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa.

Speaking to University World News, Woldegiorgis said: “Most member states are not paying their membership subscriptions. The annual financial contributions of member states have been less than 40% of the total AU budget since 2002.”

Since the restructuring of the AU in 2002, only six countries – South Africa, Algeria, Nigeria, Egypt, Tunisia and Libya – have constantly been contributing about 65% of the AU’s membership revenue, according to Woldegiorgis.

“As a result, the AU resorts to engaging more with external actors for funding, policy direction, and implementation processes,” Woldegiorgis explained.

Impact of external financial dependency

Woldegiorgis said the AU has been initiating various pan-African higher education policies and programmes on issues related but not limited to curriculum harmonisation, academic mobility, quality assurance protocols, and centres of excellence.

“Even though these initiatives are designed to make the African higher education space more relevant and competitive within the context of the globalised knowledge economy, they have not been effective.

“For instance, even though the AU higher education harmonisation strategy has been running since 2007, the process has not yet significantly impacted the higher education systems on the continent.

“As a result, the harmonisation process is still mainly floating at the AU level without being much felt at national and institutional levels,” Woldegiorgis explained.

According to him, one of the reasons is the AU’s excessive dependence on external actors for its policy processes and funding.

“Most AU higher education policies depend on external sources, as more than 70% of funding for AU projects comes from bilateral and multilateral donors,” Woldegiorgis indicated.

“The AU is unable to sustain some of the projects when funding from external donors dries up. Thus, even though the AU has been hosting different regional higher education policy initiatives, its excessive dependence on the Global North to finance its operational costs and programmes makes it a reflection of neocolonial entanglement,” Woldegiorgis explained.

“Such neocolonial entanglement could make the AU gradually lose its legitimacy for African societies as it complies more with the needs of external actors than those of African institutions.

“Thus, it is the responsibility of AU to decolonise itself and re-centre African agenda and mobilise its members to effectively implement its policies and strategies,” Woldegiorgis emphasised.

“The AU has not adequately engaged higher education institutions, ministries, and academic bodies to craft regional policies effectively.

“Thus, the AU must re-centre its policy orientation on African issues and more intensively engage member states in its policy processes to regain legitimacy as a leading continental organisation.

“This includes mobilising resources and expertise from the African continent, constantly engaging with African institutions, and crafting a suitability plan for its policies and strategies,” Woldegiorgis said.

“Without developing a strategy to free itself from donor dependency, the AU will remain subservient to neocolonial interests,” he emphasised.

Various commentators agree that the AU – and its members – have to take responsibility to undo donor dependency.

Dealing with financial dependence syndrome

Violet Makuku, the director of Global Quality Assurance Association in Ghana, told University Word News that, as suggested by Woldegiorgis, high AU dependency on donor funding entails less freedom to do what is right and relevant for the African continent.

The AU should work with all key stakeholders in higher education at all levels including students at institutional, national, regional and continental levels to come up with an appropriate regional higher education policy, she suggested.

“The AU should be principled, innovative and creative along with working hard to raise income to sustain itself and even fund continental initiatives like the Pan African University,” she added.

“In case projects are donor funded the AU should devise ways of sustaining them without donors just like how successful private universities operate and survive,” Makuku pointed out.

Fabrice Jaumont, an international education expert and a research fellow at the Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme in Paris, and Professor Juma Shabani, the director of the doctoral school at the University of Burundi and the former director of development, coordination and monitoring of UNESCO programmes with a special focus on Africa, agree with Makuku about the challenge of donor dependency.

Shabani told University World News that “Africa has begun to take the necessary initiatives to reduce its dependence on external funding.” These include implementing a 0.2% levy on eligible imports to finance the African Union.

Jaumont, author of a 2016 book titled Unequal Partners: American foundations and higher education development in Africa has additional suggestions.

The AU must diversify its funding sources and increase its own financial resources through various means such as increasing its membership fees, implementing a regional tax system, or tapping into the continent’s natural resources.

The AU should establish a higher education advisory council made up of representatives from all African higher education stakeholders to provide input and advice on regional policies, and help ensure that they align with the needs and priorities of African HE institutions.

“The AU should also establish a regional accreditation system for higher institutions, which would help ensure that they meet certain standards and are held accountable for their performance,” Jaumont added.

Underfunding a key issue

Commentators, however, point out that donor dependency emanates from a shortage of funding for higher education and that African countries have a part to play in increasing funding for higher education and ensuring that external funds meet recipients’ needs.

Professor Atta-ur-Rahman, former coordinator-general of the Standing Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation of the 57 member states of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, which has 22 African member countries, told University World News African countries have to take responsibility for the funding needs of the sector.

“The real responsibility lies with the African countries themselves who must invest at least 3% of their respective GDPs (gross domestic product) in higher education research and development and developing strong policies to link universities with industrial development.

“It is only through giving the highest national priority to higher education, science, technology, innovation and entrepreneurship that African countries can emerge from the quagmire of poverty and deprivation.

“No one can help them. They [African countries] must help themselves,” Atta-ur-Rahman said.

Similarly, Dr Birgit Schreiber, the senior program lead at the Higher Education Leadership and Management or HELM programme at the membership organisation Universities South Africa, told University World News that universities “rely on donors because we are not generating sufficient funds from within our continent”.

She said that “[a] reliance on external, soft or donor funding is of course always a challenge, so our work needs to focus on ensuring that we generate more internal, consistent, reliable funds for the advancement of Africa.”

“External funds are not necessarily manipulative or self-serving, it is up to us to negotiate the terms that serve all stakeholders.

“De-colonising and emancipating our higher education domain has to do with asserting good practices and asserting good governance along with holding our institutions, our countries and regions accountable,” Schreiber pointed out.

“The AU can play this role more assertively,” she emphasised.

Atta-ur-Rahman also suggested that the AU should draft an innovation policy for states to transition to become more technology driven.

This demands human resource development in areas such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the internet of things, energy storage systems, next generation genomics or gene editing technologies, mineral extraction and processing technologies along with advanced agriculture.

Atta-ur-Rahman would like to see funding agencies focus more on these “emerging and disruptive” areas.

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