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Past Editorial : October 2009

October 2009

The Sino-African Frontiers of Aid and Partnership in Higher Education

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 September 21, 2009, the New York Times ran a long and extensive article on the expanding interest of China in Africa, with a focus on aid. This article, China Spreads Aid in Africa, With a Catch (LaFraniere and Grobler, 2009), prompted me to focus this editorial on the issue of partnership and aid in the context of higher education between Africa and new players in the region, especially China.

In a recent posting in this editorial series (Higher Education in Africa post-WCHE: Liberation, Affirmation, and Consolidation, August 2009), I drew attention to the new and old players now lining up to help support the development of higher education in Africa. As the old players pledge more support for the struggling higher education system in the region, a host of new actors—including Brazil, China, India and Korea—are moving in to this arena.

This article explores the scope, opportunities, and limitations of the emerging frontiers of aid and partnership between Africa and the new players in higher education development, with special emphasis on China.


Partnership, Yes—Support, No

At the 2009 UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education in Paris, I spoke briefly with a high-ranking Chinese government official following China’s official pledge of assistance to Africa, and asked him, “So, how is China actually wanting to support African Higher Education?” The prompt response was, “We are not saying support; what we are saying is collaboration. We want to have strong collaboration and partnership with African institutions.”

It is possible that China, in emphasizing collaboration, wanted to stay away from the stigmatized word “aid.” It may also have wanted to avoid the appearance of a classic “donor” entity, with all of the attendant negative history and “baggage,” opting instead for the comfortable, euphemistic, and politically correct term of “partnership and collaboration”. It is also not inconceivable that China is simply not ready—or even willing, at least not yet—to fully engage with the sector. It remains for the Chinese to clarify the extent and magnitude of their preferred “partnership” with African higher education.

According to the September New York Times article, from Pakistan to Angola to Kyrgyzstan, China is using its enormous pool of foreign currency savings to cement diplomatic alliances, secure access to natural resources, and drum up business for its flagship companies. Foreign aid is central to this effort and the article quotes from a book entitled The Dragon’s Gift by Deborah Brautigam (2009) to the effect that “Beijing is hesitant to hobble its companies with Western-style restraints before they have become world-class competitors.” This approach goes against another emerging practice of rich donor nations as noted in the Times article:

“Until recently, wealthy nations could hardly hold themselves out as an example of how to run foreign aid, either. Many projects turned out to be tainted by corruption or geared to enrich the donor nation’s contractors, not the impoverished borrowers. But over the past 10 or 15 years, some 30 developed nations under the umbrella of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (O.E.C.D.) have made a concerted effort to clean up their assistance programs.”

In their effort to catch up with the rest of the world, the Chinese may be tempted to pursue some of the more deleterious aid practices that the world is moving largely away from—albeit slowly. If China chooses this route, it will be yet another bad deal for Africa, which is increasingly engaging with China in extensive economic, social, political, educational, and cultural exchange. Furthermore, acting out of flagrant self-interest may also fail to serve the long-term objectives of China itself.


The Prelude: The Ground Work

Already a host of African institutions are now offering Chinese language courses or are developing programs in Chinese studies. These include Botswana, Liberia, Ghana, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. For sure, with escalating partnerships between China and the region, this trend is certain to expand.

China has moved into Africa with enormous momentum in such fields as construction, business and investment, telecommunications, and natural resource exploration and extraction. Its involvement with the region’s universities in particular and their knowledge system as a whole, however, has been lagging.

With its economic success and transformation—along with the full recognition of the critical role its universities are playing—China has poured massive resources into higher education. Already home to the largest education system in the world, the country is in a massive internal growth phase, both in terms of expansion and consolidation.

These developments in China have been recent and swift. It was only in 1998, that the Chinese government launched “Project 985” to build a number of first-rate universities of international caliber. Currently, under “Project 211,” the government’s newest postsecondary initiative is “aimed at strengthening about 100 institutions of higher education and key disciplinary areas as a national priority for the 21st century” (http://www.chinaeducenter.com/en/).

Therefore, the scope, magnitude, and capability of partnership and collaboration opportunities that currently exist in other parts of the Western world are yet to emerge in China. Given the similarity of issues, challenges, and problems facing both China—itself a developing country—and Africa, the potential for research, academic and innovative partnership with China’s 1,400 universities is however, at least in theory, tremendous.


Lessons of Experience

The 2005 Hague Conference on effective ways of supporting higher education and research in developing countries reached several conclusions. First, donors need to align their programs more closely with national strategies for higher education and research—and, where possible, strengthen them. Second, donors themselves need to coordinate their policies and programs more effectively (Boeren, 2005). One would hope, despite chronic resistance, that all players—both the old and the new—would observe these preferred approaches to partnerships.

China itself has worked remarkably well with a breadth of international organizations. Since the 1980s, projects supported by international organizations such as the World Bank, have greatly influenced China’s higher education reform and development. China’s relatively successful experience reveals more about the effectiveness of its own strategies than the appropriateness of the approaches employed by the international partners (Yang, 2009). Considerable lessons could be drawn for Africa from this rich experience.

While this article focuses on China, the reality remains the same for other emerging partners, such as Brazil, India, Korea, as well as the old partners. A recent book, International Organizations and Higher Education Policy: Thinking Globally, Acting Locally?(Bassett and Maldonado, 2009)—which extensively analyzes the role, scope, and impact of partnerships on higher education globally—would be a good read for Chinese and other new players, as well as African counterparts.


Strategy for Engagement

In China, there is heavy government involvement in university management; and university leadership is highly centralized. It may therefore be most effective for African countries to adopt a collective position in higher education partnerships and collaboration activities involving China. Such forums as highly touted Africa-China Conference are vital venues to communicate strategic positions.

African countries (and the region as whole) must engage China and the other new active players of higher education collectively and strategically. This is critically important both in terms of setting the agenda as well as its effective and collaborative implementation over time. It is simply commonsense—and fair—to expect, and even demand, that the international engagement in higher education development should be comparable to the levels of interest and activity seen in other sectors (such as construction and natural resource extraction). Both the new and the old players need to be persuaded to help build and sustain major research and innovation capabilities (including infrastructure, equipment, and resources) in line with what Africans have already staked out as priority areas for the region.

Proactive, persistent, and serious engagement is needed to guide the new players towards the already identified policies and agenda of the region. Many countries may have neither the capacity nor the political will to press on these policies. Therefore, the role, intervention, and leadership of regional and sub-regional organizations—such as the Association of African Universities (AAU), the Southern African Regional Universities Association (SARUA) and the Inter-University Council for Eastern Africa (IUCEA)—is paramount.



Strong Sino-African relations on higher education and research development have yet to emerge. In its effort to build world-class universities, China may not find African institutions to be the most attractive partners. However, there is a great need to complement existing economic and cultural ties with educational and research cooperation. Over time, this may bode well for collaborative action in higher education. At this early stage in Sino-African partnerships, African institutions need to shape the dialogue and the manner of engagement. For its part, China would be wise to learn from past experiences of educational partnerships in Africa as it moves to engage with the region.

As Africa strengthens its economic, political, and diplomatic ties around the world, Asian countries such as China and India are becoming players in the realm of African higher education. There are already some signs of competition between China and India in this new sphere of influence, as well as with the dominant historical clienteles connected to Africa either by colonial history (as in Britain and France), strategic significance (as in the case of the United States), or more altruistic missions (as characterized by the Nordic countries).

Africa has once again emerged as “a vital region of strategic significance” where both the “developed North” and the “emerging South” are positioning themselves for more partnership—and influence. The continent is best advised to capitalize on these expanding—and competing—global interests in effective and strategic ways; and in so doing deploy higher education as a central force that engages, shapes, and sustains Africa’s emerging global partnerships (Teferra, 2009).



Bassett, Roberta Malee and Maldonado-Maldonado, Alma (2009). International Organizations and Higher Education Policy: Thinking Globally, Acting Locally? New York: Routledge.

Boeren, Ad (2005). Mechanisms to Support Higher Education and Research in Developing Countries: The Perspective of Donors and Programme Administrators. 61-93. In A Changing Landscape: Making Support to Higher Education and Research in Developing Countries More Effective: Proceedings and Contributions, edited by Ad Boeren and Gerrit Holtland. The Hague, Netherlands: Nuffic.

China Education Center, Ltd., http://www.chinaeducenter.com/en/

LaFraniere, Sharon, and Grobler, John (September 21, 2009). The New York Times. China Spreads Aid in Africa, With a Catch.http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/22/world/africa/22namibia.html

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 (August 2009). Higher Education in Africa post-WCHE: Liberation, Affirmation, and Consolidation.http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/soe/cihe/inhea/editorial/Editorial04_Teferra.htm

Yang, Rui (2009). International Organizations and Asian Higher Education: The Case of China. 174-191. In International Organizations and Higher Education Policy: Thinking Globally, Acting Locally? New York: Routledge




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