The Africa-EU Policy Dialogue Workshop on Academic Cooperation and Research Collaboration took place in October 2012 where the Addis Ababa declaration was enunciated in the company of university leaders, policy makers and development agencies. At this forum a number of issues including the role of multinational corporations in academic and research cooperation in Africa were raised and prompted this editorial.
Social Responsibility: A Sense of Doubt and Cynicism
To be sure, in much of Africa the credibility of multinational corporations as responsible entities has often stood on shaky grounds. The recent economic and financial calamities triggered by flawed capitalist economic discourse have exacerbated that stance even more. When I proposed that African-based multinationals execute their “corporate social responsibility”, as most do at home, the reaction of the audience was pretty cynical—and visibly adverse.
Despite chronic financial hardships African universities and academics perennially face, many have resisted the temptation of succumbing to potential rewards from entities of questionable standing that might compromise institutional integrity and independence. It is only unique institutions such as universities that can freely and openly discuss, debate, accept and/or reject ideas and proposals. In contrast, a large majority of institutions—development agencies, research centers, think tanks—maintain, and serve, veiled and/or unveiled interests. In the United States, for instance, entities allied to the Democratic and Republican Parties, vigorously advance partisan ideologies, policies and interests.
Major and prominent multinational organizations tasked with advancing human progress, sustainable development and social justice often lack the unique independence of universities. The recent fiasco at UNESCO that established the highly controversial Equatorial Guinea International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences  amidst an avalanche of criticism from around the world is a poignant, reminder of this.
To be sure, African universities have gone through a lot too. Like most modern day institutions in the world their credibility and public image have steadily declined. Mass expansion that resulted in poor quality education and rampant unemployment for graduates, waning academic etiquette and soaring plagiarism, declining social status and professionalism have inflicted considerable damage to institutional reputations. The performance of some dubious academics who ventured into politics has not helped either.
It is true that “democratization” has created more space for critical voices in the region. Issues that universities articulated in the past, often confronting governments, are now taken up by opposition parties, NGOs and civil society organizations. Indeed several think tanks in the region pursue “critical inquiry”. Most of these institutions however are perennially dependent on external sources which directly or indirectly shape their research trajectory, intellectual discourse and, often, the extent of their critiques. New players in African higher education landscape, managed by regional political bodies and supported by regional political regimes have also emerged. The African Union Commission’s higher education initiatives, in partnerships with other similar entities, are main examples.
“Champagne Glass Civilization”: Untenable Paradigm
With due consideration and appreciation to all players in the knowledge and discourse domain, universities remain the sole credible bastions of critical inquiry, though they remain largely overlooked and their potential poorly tapped. To be more direct, knowledge, innovation and discourse generated and developed by African universities, albeit meager, remain largely underutilized, and worse, often ignored.
In the absence of a critical mass of strong, reputable and independent think tanks, research centers and knowledge hubs on the continent, the region continues to consume and pursue policies that reflect, what the late Nicaraguan economist, Xavier Gorostiaga, called the “champagne glass civilization” which pushed the world to the brink of economic, financial and social collapse. The numerous national, regional and global challenges that confront the continent are such that universities—the prime pillars of critical inquiry—should be full partners in complicated development agendas. As the least “co-opted” institutions endowed with academic freedom, they are in a better position to pursue truth wherever it may lead, dare to walk the unbeaten path, challenge the status quo and, advance avant garde perspectives, ideas and paradigms.
“Ivory Towers” and Utopian “Nuisances”: Uncontested Defamation
For too long, African universities have been criticized as irrelevant ivory towers and their academics as utopian “nuisances” that are to be dismissed or ignored. This has resulted in marginalization from a meaningful role in setting, implementing and addressing development agendas. It is a common (mal)practice that many African countries hire external consultants rather than using experts in their own backyards. (A few countries even refuse to hire their own citizens who have become international experts but live abroad.) Even when academics are involved in such endeavors, the main actors often tend to isolate those critical voices or manipulate their contributions without impunity.
It is important to stress that the capacity of universities as research, knowledge and innovation hubs has been constantly eroded due to a host of reasons. Many African academics tend to be preoccupied with “moonlighting” activities including consultancy services in order to earn a reasonable living. Unfortunately, the contribution of many academics involved in consultancy has been heavily restricted by the regimes governing these undertakings, often a tendency towards subservience to the interests of commissioning entities that subsequently diminishes contributions further. African academics (and institutions) are loudly criticized for their lack of relevance in the struggle against the rampant poverty in the region. It is not uncommon to hear that African academics have failed the continent. Unfortunately these views often go unchallenged and are often tolerated by the academy itself.
African universities must be fully involved in setting and implementing development agendas along with other major regional and international players. In the world where maintaining a status quo has simply become untenable—and even dangerous—deploying universities, the powerhouse of critical, free and independent inquiry—for sustainable and equitable development has never been more important and nor more timely.
Articulating a new global social, economic and cultural contract without institutions capable of critical inquiry, insight and discourse, is simply disastrous. Universities, as “honest brokers” of knowledge need to be responsibly deployed, engaged, and nurtured so that they can play a prominent role in articulating and realizing the kind of development the region desperately needs. The onus rests on national governments, regional bodies, development partners and multilateral agencies. African universities, their regional and continental associations must proactively engage, consciously strive, stridently insist, and strategically act to take a central position in developing and advancing new and emerging global development paradigms.