The Chronicle of Higher Education
Thursday, May 31, 2001
African Academic Leaders Worldwide Strategize on Improving the Continent's Colleges
By BURTON BOLLAG
Thirty-three prominent African scholars and leaders gathered in Ghana this week to promote efforts to revitalize the continent's
feeble higher-education and research system -- in part by promoting links between African academics who live there and those
who now work elsewhere.
Atieno E. Odhiambo, a professor of African history at Rice University, was one of the participants. "The conference marks a
new beginning" for African higher education, he said by telephone from Accra. "We have a critical mass of Africans in diaspora
who can be mobilized for an African renaissance."
Mr. Odhiambo, originally from Kenya, has been on Rice's faculty for 14 years. He links improved prospects for education and
research with the rise of democratic governments across the continent in the last few years.
Estimates vary, but there are thought to be something in the area of 100,000 Africans with specialized skills who have taken
jobs in the West because of a lack of opportunities at home. "They work in universities, research institutions, and industry" said
Uzo Mokwunye, a professor of soil science and director of the Accra-based United Nations University Institute for Natural
Resources in Africa, which organized the conference. "We're not talking about taxi drivers."
Recommendations of the gathering, to be published shortly, will deal with two areas: promoting links between African
institutions and African scholars working abroad, and promoting fields of research and study that can provide particular benefits
for African countries.
The latter will include using indigenous knowledge to ensure a secure supply of food and adding value to Africa's primary
commodity exports -- crops, fish, forest products, and minerals -- by developing modern techniques of processing them.
Albert Tevoedjre, a former professor at the National University of Benin and a Beninese government minister and United
Nations official, said the exodus of trained people and chronic lack of funds has left Africa with very few institutions capable of
meaningful research and training.
The way forward, he said, is to support "Centers of Excellence" that could attract talented academics and help raise the general
level of scholarship and research in a region. Such centers "would help change the brain drain into brain gain by fostering
linkages with counterpart centers of learning in the developed world."
The U.N. University Institute for Natural Resources in Africa is involved in promoting several such centers: in plant-tissue
culture technology at the University of Ghana, in Accra; in the application of computer technology at the University of Yaoundé
I, in Cameroon; and in environmental management and policy analysis at the University of Science and Technology, in Kumasi,
Mr. Mokwunye, of the U.N. University Institute, said that the general level of higher education and research on the continent
has deteriorated over the last decade because of Africa's desperate economic situation.
He is urging the establishment of a database of African academics working in the West, who would be willing to contribute their
particular expertise to assisting African institutions.
Academics working at African institutions often feel isolated, he said. Many have not had access to new periodicals for years.
In a sort of vicious cycle, the private sector has been largely uninvolved in supporting African higher education, because "new
ideas that could be of use to private companies are not being generated at the universities."
Copyright © 2001 by The Chronicle of Higher Education