• The World View

    A blog from the Center for International Higher Education


Shifting Grounds in Higher Education Partnerships

Historically, Northern institutions are manifestly dominant in North-South partnerships— with limited input from Southern partners.

June 19, 2016

I had the privilege of speaking at the recent Norad-organized conference “Knowledge for Development” which prompted me to reflect on some of the emerging qualities of the NORHED program and others in South-North partnership. In so doing, I will single out three emerging—and “progressive”—trends with some implications for African higher education, ironically in a time when many in the Global North seem to be disinclined towards development cooperation.

Long term commitment

The literature on development cooperation, including university cooperation, is replete with challenges of forging successful, productive and truly equal partnerships between institutions in the North and the South. One of the persistent concerns of such programs and partnership schemes have been the brevity of their lifetime. Many development partners typically support higher education projects for three years. This practice has been often criticized for its lackluster impact on institution and capacity building.

The Paris Declaration (2005) and Accra Agenda for Action (2008) on international development cooperation were promulgated to curtail this deeply rooted practice guided by five principles including ownership, alignment, harmonisation, results and mutual accountability. Increasingly the partnership trend is moving from short- to long-term cooperation, in a number of cases to five years, evident in recent NORHED and DAAD cases. This is not to state that cases of long periods of partnerships did not already exist: for instance, the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) funded a major university project in Ethiopia for nearly 30 years though that might not have been the initial intent.

South in the Driver’s Seat

The Northern institutions are manifestly dominant in the partnerships—leading, managing, and coordinating the partnerships—often exclusively. This has been one of the most chronicled and criticized aspects of academic partnerships attributed to the North’s proximity and implicit entitlement to the resources.

Måns Fellesson and his colleague Paula Mählck, in the study “Modes and Premises of Transnational Mobility and Collaboration at the Intersection of International Development Aid and Global Science Regimes – The Case of Mozambique and Tanzania”, have analyzed the North-South partnership dynamics in the context of SIDA support.

In this study, that will be published soon in the International Journal of African Higher Education, they observed the frequently unclear and inferior role of participation in international collaboration and “token presence” of Africans in Global North research projects. Access to and knowledge of funding opportunities became an early determinant in the “pecking order” of the partners involved in the collaboration. They concluded that the African researchers lack of insight and access to funding opportunities in the Global North which significantly reduced their ability to influence and shape collaborative research projects.

It is refreshing that Norway has made a decision that explicitly and directly encourages Southern institutions to lead and manage joint international projects. According to the recent African proposals submitted to NORAD for NORHED program support, the majority of them have taken the new approach. Furthermore, the program is intent on more resources and expenditures for the institutions in the South. It also encourages multi-institutional and multi-country partnerships, South-South-North.

This indeed is a progressive policy in the North-South partnerships in which the South is encouraged to lead the partnerships as well as utilize the majority of the joint resources. It may be speculative, but this approach may play a positive role in the search for sustainability—a common recent thread among development agencies in the North.

Africa now attracts considerable—economic, political and cultural—interest from around the world. It is thus important that the continent insists on the ground rules for meaningful and productive conversation and the determination of desired outcome in its engagement with the new and old crop of partners, unencumbered by the uneven power dynamics.

Diaspora mobilization

The recruitment and deployment of the (intellectual) diaspora has been on the radar for some time now. In early 2000, the French government supported the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement a major global study to document and analyze the state, role and implications of the intellectual diaspora, including Africans. That study generated a rich body of knowledge on this emerging—and important—trend.

Recently, the European Union sponsored a similar study which chronicled the issues—opportunities and challenges—of deploying the African intellectual diaspora. The Carnegie Corporation of New York has also recently committed funding to deploy the intellectual diaspora targeting a number of African countries. The African Union has also officially declared its diaspora as the sixth sub-region, which it hopes to actively draw in the transformation of the continent.

To be sure, recruiting and deploying the African intellectual diaspora is beset with multiple social, cultural, academic, economic and political challenges as the forces that trigger the movement of human capital are numerous, diverse, complex, and dynamic. This intricate reality calls for robust, multifaceted and multidimensional approaches—including the emerging practice noted here—to effectively harness it. A while back, I argued that deploying the intellectual diaspora is mutually beneficial both for the North and the South—and thus the strategy is as “good for the goose as it is for the gander”.


Since the last decade, Africa has generated considerable economic, political, cultural and strategic interest globally. Accordingly, the continent attracts numerous players in different fronts—including partnerships in higher education development. Though interest in development cooperation (otherwise known as aid) is largely waning, some progressive trends are emerging in a few corners. These trends include a long-term commitment to joint academic and research cooperation, the shifting of the Southern partners to the driver seats to lead and manage cooperation, as well as the deployment of the intellectual diaspora.  

These are commendable—and progressive—policy developments and practices which took decades of intellectual debates, political maneuvering and lessons of experience to materialize. Their success and impact however depend on 1) moderating existing power dynamics 2) changing the entrenched discourse and culture and 3) establishing a new norm and protocol of engagement and implementation—subjects for future (higher education) research and analysis.


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