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Past Editorial : December 2011

December 2011

1443651948496Harmonization of Development Agencies in Higher Education: The Plausible and the Improbable

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
teferra@ukzn.ac.za and teferra@bc.edu.

On the initiative of NUFFIC, Netherlands Organization for International Cooperation in Higher Education, and SIU, Norwegian Center for International Co-operation in Higher Education, a seminar was organized in Bergen, Norway in early October 2011 where I had an opportunity to speak on “Higher Education Cooperation for Development: Challenges and Opportunities”. This second seminar, since the inception of a body called, “Network for Organizations Managing Higher Education, Research and Capacity Building Programs for Developing Countries” was held to discuss issues of harmonization under the theme of “Coordination and Harmonization of International Aid Programs.” The network is a group of European program administering organizations of higher education and capacity building in developing countries with the aim of harmonizing and coordinating the programs they implement.

The seminar attracted 35 participants from 20 countries predominantly from around Europe. The list included participants from heavy weight multilateral institutions, such as the World Bank and the European Union Commission, prominent bilateral organizations, such as NORAD and DAAD, as well as smaller and emerging players such as the Austrian and Spanish Development Cooperation—in the African context.


Harmonization: The Imperatives

The opportunities for promoting common interest through harmonization and coordination of development cooperation agencies or their “satellites” are considerable. Here are some of them.

The Common Attractions

Joint planning, coordination, reporting and evaluation processes and mechanisms are common interests for partnerships. Mutual learning, pursuing best practices, developing common resources, and tapping each other’s technical and human capacities include some of the other reasons for partnerships.

Economy of Scale

Many development activities are common across the board and by harmonizing them, considerable resources—time, energy, and money—could be saved or re-directed. When I was working for a fellowship program in Africa, we used to regularly receive thousands of applications for only 20 positions. By harmonizing, for instance, the outreach and recruitment regimes of scholarship programs, quite considerable resources could be redirected to raise the number of fellowships.

Unburden the System

Excessive, cumbersome and burdensome reporting and evaluation regimes remain some of the most common criticisms of development cooperation. Especially in the “donor darling” countries, the opportunity for cooperation and harmonization of development agencies to address these issues are considerable. For instance, by streamlining reporting and evaluation frames of reference and formats, and by establishing similar reporting and evaluation time schedules, resources could be redirected to more productive activities.

Boosting Clout

Strength lies in numbers. It is thus not inconceivable that when governments and agencies are digressing from accepted and agreed norms of development regimes, such as the Paris Declaration and Accra Accord, for instance, collective voices of such bodies may have some clout and impact in helping them back on the “right” track.

Reality Check

A forum such as Harmonization Network creates an opportunity not only for sharing experience and collectively prospecting policy directions but also helps put some egregious cooperation tracks and practices on a spotlight. At the seminar, it was disclosed that India was identified as a “beneficiary” country of a certain development cooperation agency. And yet, India has recently committed close to US$6 billion to the development of higher education and research capacity in Africa. Such an outmoded, if not totally unrealistic, approach to development cooperation, often guided by political motives, could be “moderated” at forums such as this one.


The Missing Players: Is Pragmatism Trumping Necessity?

Harmonization Network is meticulous about its membership. Currently, it is not the intention to turn into yet another mega association where effective communications are difficult to achieve and impact hard to gauge. It appears that the Network is intent on making its membership nimble, active, manageable, and interactive.

While that approach hinges on pragmatism, attracting an increasingly important players in Africa—such as Brazil, China, and India—is also an equally, if not more, persuasive motivation. Given the intense interest, inherent tensions, and massive input of the new players in Africa, assumptions of interest in membership to this body need to be reconsidered.


Development Cooperation: Entering a New Zone

Wealthy countries currently face one of the most difficult financial and economic times in their recent history. As a result, it is expected that the scope, volume and dynamics of development cooperation would be tempered by this reality. Concurrently, the emergence of a new crop of political leadership in many of these countries is expected to usher development cooperation into a new era—an era that may not be particularly favorable to it.

We are already witnessing some contrary reactions to earlier pledges governing “aid” effectiveness, especially in ownership of development agenda. This network may not only help to utilize diminishing resources effectively but also help counter anticipated unfavorable measures.


Icing the Cake or Lifting Heavy Weight?

The contribution of development cooperation agencies to build African higher education capacity is considerable. International support to higher education, according to the World Bank, amounts to an average of US$600 million annually, or one-quarter of all international support to the education sector in Sub-Saharan Africa. However, chronic issues of ownership, efficacy, predictability and sustainability still loom large, even after several declarations on “aid” effectiveness.

In many African countries a third of the national budget goes to education, of which up to 20 percent is committed to higher education. Thus a typical country with US$10 billion dollar national budget commits US$600 million to higher education. Despite their considerable visibility, if not impact, resources from development cooperation to higher education in Africa are simply miniscule in comparison to what respective nations invest in the sector. For that matter, the contributions of some countries to higher education cooperation are simply insignificant. It was at this event that we learned a certain European country committing only US$5 million dollars for three years—which includes expenses for staff salary and benefits.


It would be naïve to expect development agencies to be interested or willing in being “harmonized” fully any time soon. Strategic interests will continue to dictate priorities hampering the spirit of cooperation and full harmonization. Still it is encouraging that considerable good will and excitement were observed at this event. But the question remains: “Is it in the best interest of the ‘primary’ beneficiaries in the South, if development cooperation is actually harmonized and integrated fully in the North?”

Furthermore, it would be wise to engage “primary” beneficiaries, in some form, to ensure the success of this effort. The organizational strength and visibility of “secondary” beneficiaries, as represented by such a consortium, mounted on the political capital of the “primary” beneficiaries, as represented by relevant entities such as the Association of African Universities (AAU), African Union Commission (AUC), and the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA), may have considerable impact in shaping the course of development cooperation in higher education in Africa.

This effort of harmonization in higher education carries important potential for innovation for development cooperation. Considerable lessons have already been learned, experiences have been shared, best practices have been exchanged, and common interests have been identified. On the other hand, the willingness and interest to extend the extent and scope of harmonization remain.

This editorial is a longer essay building on a blog post by the same author available at The World View.



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