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Past Editorial : November 2009

November 2009

Building Capacity in Africa: The Need for Coherent Policy and Informed Action

Damtew Teferra Ph.D.
Dr. Damtew Teferra is a professor of higher education, the leader of Higher Education and Training Development, and founding director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He is also the Editor-in-chief of the International Journal of African Higher Education. He may be reached at and


The power of knowledge in the globalized economy has been unequivocally recognized, and with this realization efforts to revitalize higher education and other knowledge systems around the world have been stepped up. This trend is clearly evident in Africa.

There have been different approaches by a variety of players to build capacity in Africa. Some have focused on select disciplines or fields (such as reproductive health or engineering), others on institutional units or sub-units (such as faculties of teacher education or departments of botany), and still others on whole institutions (centers or universities). In the last decade or so, the emphasis has been placed largely on full institutional approaches, guided by the recognition that only a coherent and comprehensive institutional and sectoral orientation provides a meaningful impact.

Currently, initiatives to selectively and preferentially nurture certain fields and disciplines deemed necessary to build capacity in the region—as largely determined by the specific interests of the respective “major” stakeholders—are now growing in importance. Among these fields and disciplines, business management and economics appear to attract more attention. There is a growing interest in training more African business managers and economists to address purported shortages in these fields in order to foster economic development in the region. Indeed, the restructuring plan of one particular philanthropic organization operating in Africa stresses the importance of staffing the institution with “MBA-type” staff.

This editorial fully endorses capacity building in the region in all its forms, to the extent that this effort is consciously guided by integrated and comprehensive policies to foster national and regional competitiveness. However, I remain somewhat doubtful that the effort to preferentially treat economics, business management or any other field or discipline without a comprehensive national policy can bring about the needed changes—even though I am also cognizant of the inherent challenges in developing such comprehensive national policies. Furthermore, as I attempt to show here, it is my view that the perception of shortages of such expertise in the region is not fully supported by facts and figures on the ground.


Economists and Business Managers: Are They in Short Supply?

Is there really a relative shortage of economists to design, develop, and shape economic policies in the region? In order to answer this question, I drew the following data from several publications produced by the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa, a consortium of seven US-based foundations, as well as African Higher Education: An International Reference Handbook (Teferra and Altbach, 2003).

  • Uganda: In 2000, the Faculty of Social Sciences at Makerere University enrolled 194 Master’s students. Of these, nearly 50 percent studied economic policy planning (which was the largest major, with 66 students), and sector planning and management. In addition, public administration and management, as well as social sector planning management majors, each accounted for around 18 percent of the graduate students in the faculty in 2000 (Musisi and Muwanga, 2003; p. 90).
  • Tanzania: According to projected student enrollment figures in 2003, the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Dar es Salaam had the second highest enrollment figures (Mkude et al, 2003, p. 65).
  • Namibia: Students enrolled in economics and management science departments accounted for the highest number at the University of Namibia (Otaala, 2003, p. 480).
  • Mozambique: According to Mario and his colleagues (2003), enrollment data from the University of Eduardo Mondlane indicate that economics and management departments enrolled the largest number of students, followed by law and medicine, which tied with social sciences (p. 20).
  • French-Speaking Africa: According to Bagayoko and Diawara (2003, p. 426), the Faculty of Law and Economics had the largest student population at the University of Mali. In Congo (Brazzaville), the Faculté des Sciences Economiques at the Université Marien Ngouabi had the institution’s second largest student population (Mbemba, 2003, p. 258). Law and economics were also the second most popular fields of study in terms of enrollment in Mauritania (Kharchi, 2003, p. 434) and Niger (Souley, 2003, p. 489).

These examples clearly demonstrate that there are appreciable enrollment levels in social sciences in the region. This is consistent with the concern expressed by university leaders, higher education scholars, development workers, and stakeholders about the disproportionately large numbers of social science and arts graduates produced annually. This is attributable to serious problems of underemployment, unemployment, and “misemployment”—employment in an area other than one’s field of qualification. To break this pattern, several policy communiqués have openly urged changes to encourage higher enrollment levels in science and technology fields.


Promoting Regional Endeavors: Consolidating the Effort

Already a few excellent examples of capacity building efforts in these fields and disciplines exist in the region. One relevant, and successful, effort that attracts the support of many major stakeholders is the African Economic Research Consortium (AERC). The principal objective of AERC, established 20 years ago, is “to strengthen local capacity for conducting independent, rigorous inquiry into problems pertinent to the management of economies in sub-Saharan Africa.”

As the need to expand and consolidate certain fields and disciplines arises, it is important—and sensible—to leverage already existing efforts that have good track records in the region. The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) and the African Development Bank, for example, are vital forces of economic development discourse that the current dialogue needs to include. Furthermore, the variety of economic think tanks in the region is such that, of the 24 institutions in 11 African countries that recently received major grants, most of them have economic policy interests.

The UNESCO International Institute for Capacity Building in Africa, established in 1999, has a broader mandate to help foster capacity building in the region. The institution occupies a key position in addressing the educational, technical and professional needs of nations and the region. Another relevant institution based in the region is the African Capacity Building Foundation.


Curbing the Waste: Shared Responsibility

Often, there is a gap between production of capacity and its utilization. It is one thing to produce top-notch experts; and it is another to engage them fully in a relevant task. In many African countries, highly competent experts sit idle while high-powered “expatriate” consultants—sometimes not as competent, and certainly not as well-versed in local realities—roam around developing and shaping regional and national policies.

This often happens unbeknownst to the local cadre of experts, despite the fact that they grapple everyday with academic and professional challenges in-country. It is notable that, while many countries have numerous professional associations, they are infrequently consulted and rarely engaged substantively in major national policy dialogues and development.

It is mostly donors who have been criticized for lack of “inclusiveness” and failure to engage local expertise. And yet, the inadvertent and also deliberate actions of national governments to ignore their home grown experts—motivated by political, ethnic, religious, or some other partisan reasons—are often overlooked.


Breeding versus Nurturing: Inherent Disconnect

Hundreds and thousands of highly trained Africans move to— or stay after studies in—other parts of the world where better working and living conditions are available. We know too well the chronic problem of brain drain in Africa. The intellectual capital necessary for the development of the region has been continuously depleted through this phenomenon. Although training has been a serious problem, the chronic challenge remains of how to nurture and retain this capacity. The training of high-level expertise, as part of building capacity in the region, needs to be effectively complemented by processes and mechanisms that foster and maintain it.

In order to curb the desperate challenge of healthcare problems in Tanzania, for instance, the Clinton Foundation works jointly with the Mkapa Foundation, a local philanthropic organization established by former President Benjamin W. Mkapa of Tanzania. This initiative encourages medical doctors, through material and logistical support, to live and work with communities that normally have difficulties attracting such expertise. Other than such incentive-based strategies to maintain talent where it is sorely needed, models that carefully select and nurture experts who are considered to have “low flight-risk” are also gaining traction.


Listening to “the Base:” Scattered Voices

It has been well documented that funders often change policy without regard to the needs of their beneficiaries. Under a persistent barrage of critique, that trend is changing, albeit slowly, in favor of close consultation (Teferra, 2009). The effort to pay attention to the voices of the region, what I call “the base,” is commendable. The central question now is: who should be the contact point (or spokesperson for the base) for such consultations? The danger of gaps in “institutional memory” within higher education has already been addressed in an earlier editorial in this series, and has direct relevance to this discussion.

The concern here is the swaying power of certain inexpert voices professing to speak on behalf of the base without the benefit of extensive experience, knowledge, or understanding of the complexity of current and evolving issues. The lack of congruity in the realm of interaction and consultation—between and among funders and recipients—ultimately results in poor consultation. This remains the central challenge to successful partnerships in particular, and to attaining meaningful development as a whole.

What also needs to be clear is that the base is not a monolithic entity. What works for the South may not work for the North, and what works in the West may not work in the East. For instance, the only available concrete figures on the shortage of economists (that I am aware of) comes from a 1997 data set from a twenty-year projection in Nigeria (Pereira, 2007; p. 98). In point of fact, Nigeria—as the most populous, least integrated, and largest education system in the region—may not fairly represent the continent. For all of their strong institutions, neither Mauritius nor Botswana is anything like Nigeria. South Africa, for sure, is in a league of its own.


Nobel in Economics: A Lesson for Non-Economists?

This year’s Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded to two social scientists in the United States for their work on concealed elements that shape market behavior. The award surprised the community of economists by recognizing an interdisciplinary approach in a traditionally purist field.

This unprecedented case makes an even stronger argument for the need in (development) economics for experts and professionals from a wide spectrum of diverse disciplinary terrains. Therefore, the idea that number-crunching, hardcore economists or self-serving business managers alone—or even more so the mere presence of experts at home—will bring about the requisite socio-economic transformation has limited traction.



The Partnership for Higher Education in Africa, one of the most visible African higher education initiatives, was established to help revitalize tertiary institutions of select countries in a more or less holistic manner. As the program winds down, at least in its current form, old ways of cultivating select fields are re-emerging. For instance, the Gates Foundation only focuses on agriculture and health issues in the region. The Open Society Institute is also moving into the region with a focus on human rights and democracy.

Sustained growth and development of capacity building and national knowledge systems cannot be achieved by cherry picking certain fields for development, especially without regard to plethora of factors that hinder this work. The effort to raise numbers of doctors without nurses, economists without mathematicians, entrepreneurs without lawyers, agronomists without biologists, and planners without sociologists will not bring about effective social and economic transformation—at least at the pace we seek them. Therefore, capacity building efforts in the region need to be pursued through the deployment and channeling of internal as well as external resources in congruence with overall national priorities.



Bagayoko, Diola and Diawara, Moussa M. (2003). Mali. In African Higher Education: An International Reference Handbook.Bloomington, IN: Indiana University. 423-430.

Kharchi, Ahmed (2003). Mauritania. In African Higher Education. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University. 431-439.

Mario, Mouzinho, Fry, Peter, and Chilundo, Arlindo (2003). Higher Education in Mozambique. Partnership for Higher Education in Africa. Oxford: James Currey.

Mbemba, Gaspard (2003). Congo. In African Higher Education. 252-264.

Mkude, Daniel, Cooksey, Brian, and Lisbeth, L. (2003). Higher Education in Tanzania. Partnership for Higher Education in Africa. Oxford: James Currey.

Musisi, Nakanyike B. and Muwanga, Nansozi K. (2003). Makerere University in Transition 1993-2000. Partnership for Higher Education in Africa. Oxford: James Currey.

Otaala, Barnabas (2003). Namibia. In African Higher Education. 476-486.

Pereira, Charmaine (2007). Gender in the Making of the Nigerian University System. Partnership for Higher Education in Africa. Oxford: James Currey.

Souley, Abdoulaye Niandou (2003). Niger. In African Higher Education. 487-491.

Teferra, Damtew (2009). Higher Education in Africa: The Dynamics of International Partnerships and Interventions. 155-173.In International Organizations and Higher Education Policy: Thinking Globally, Acting Locally? New York: Routledge.

Teferra, Damtew and Altbach, Philip G. (2003). African Higher Education: An International Reference Handbook. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University.



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