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Harmonization of Development Agencies in Higher Education
November 22, 2011 - 8:24pm

In early October 2011 the seminar, “Network for Organizations Managing Higher Education, Research and Capacity Building Programs for Developing Countries” was held in Norway to discuss issues of harmonization under the theme of “Coordination and Harmonization of International Aid Programs.” The network is a group of European organizations committed to developing higher education and capacity building in developing countries with the aim of harmonizing and coordinating the programs they implement. 

The seminar, organized by NUFFIC and SIU, 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.

The Common Attractions

Areas for future efficiencies include joint planning, coordination, reporting and evaluation processes. Mutual learning, pursuing best practices, developing common resources, and tapping each other’s technical and human capacities would provide opportunities to enhance impact.

Economy of Scale

Many development activities are common across the board and considerable resources—time, energy, and money—could be saved or re-directed. 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. By streamlining reporting and evaluation references and formats, and establishing similar reporting and evaluation 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 digress from accepted and agreed norms, such as the Paris Declaration and Accra Accord, for instance, collective voices may have clout and impact to help them back onto the “right” track.

Reality Check

A forum such as Harmonization Network creates an opportunity for sharing experience and collectively prospecting policy directions and also spotlights some egregious cooperation tracks and practices. At the seminar, it was disclosed that India was identified as a “beneficiary” country of a 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. Outmoded, approaches to development cooperation, often guided by international politics could be “moderated” through a forum such as this one.  

The Missing Players: Is Pragmatism Pitting Necessity?

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

There is a need to attract important new players in Africa—such as Brazil, China, and India. Given the intense interest, inevitable tensions, and massive input of these new players in Africa, criteria for membership to this body need to be reconsidered.

Development Cooperation: Entering a New Zone

Wealthy countries currently face difficult financial and economic times. As a result, the scope, volume and dynamics of development cooperation will be tempered by current reality. The emergence of a new crop of political leadership in donor countries is expected to redefine development cooperation that may not be particularly favorable to the scheme as in the past.

The Harmonization Network may help to better utilize diminishing resources and also help counter anticipated unfavorable measures.

Icing the Cake or Lifting Heavy Weight?

The contribution of development agencies to African higher education is considerable. International support to higher education, according to the World Bank, amounts to an average of US$600 million annually. 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, 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 can be pretty insignificant. It was at the October meeting that we learned that one European country has committed only US$5 million dollars for a three year period—which includes expenses for staff salary and benefits.


It would be naïve to expect development agencies to be interested 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.


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