Harnessing the potential of Africa’s global academic diaspora

Africa has produced some incredible academics who are based elsewhere but want to contribute to their home continent. From www.shutterstock.com

There is a rich crop of African-born academics in North America. In both Canada and the US, those born in Africa enjoy higher levels of education than locals or those from elsewhere in the world.

In 2008, 297 African-born academics were employed as full-time faculty in Canada’s 124 universities and colleges. In the US, the same research shows, there are between 20 000 and 25 000 African-born academics employed as faculty in colleges and universities.

The numbers alone suggest that African academics play an important role in North America’s academy. Many want to share their skills and knowledge with universities on their home continent.

The evolution of African diasporas

African diasporas have played a major role in the continent’s affairs since the development of Pan-Africanism. At first Pan-Africanism focused largely on decolonisation and fighting for civil rights in the diaspora.

The Pan-Africanist project shifted from the turn of the 21st century. It is no longer solely about the politics of independence and inclusion. Instead it seeks to incorporate social, economic and intellectual empowerment.

African diasporas located in the north are potential assets for developing and democratising their home countries. They can be a powerful force for globalisation. The migration of skilled labour used to be decried as a brain drain. Then it became a brain gain. Now it’s known as brain circulation. There has been extensive research into the role of diasporas in economic development.

The existing exchange system

There are a number of programmes at North American universities that offer diaspora academics the chance to engage with Africa. To understand whether these programmes are working or not, we interviewed 105 African-born academics who now live and work in North America. Many said that they wanted to work with African institutions but struggled with issues like weak institutional infrastructure in both regions, incompatible academic systems and practical problems of citizenship which can make travel difficult.

They also have to operate on their own institution’s terms and in its context. This is challenging because Africa remains at the bottom of the pile when it comes to most North American universities’ internationalisation strategies and priorities.

North American universities are under increasing financial pressure. Their internationalisation efforts will increasingly be driven by economic considerations. African countries also tend not to produce as many foreign fee-paying students as Asian countries like China, Japan and India.

Some diaspora academics consider their relationships with African universities a national service. They enjoy a sense of well-being when working with institutions on their home continent. Others find it very rewarding to teach African students whom, they say, are far more interested in learning than many of their North American counterparts.

Could a different model ease the path?

We found that existing exchange programmes tend to place North American universities in the driver’s seat. In this system, a faculty member submits a proposal for a project to be conducted at the receiving institution in Africa. The recipient institution may have some input but often, it is not considered an equal partner in the process.

This body of research led to the creation of the Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship (ADF) Programme in early 2014. It is a model that seeks to correct the power balance. Accredited institutions in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda approach the foundation seeking diaspora scholars for research collaboration, curriculum co-development or graduate student teaching and mentoring.

The relevant academics are then paired with institutions. One hundred and ten African-born scholars have been funded for exchanges since the programme started and the model has been replicated by the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa.

There is a huge demand for collaboration from host institutions and diaspora academics alike and the model is evolving. In March this year recommendations by African academics living in North America were discussed at the African Higher Education Summit in Dakar, Senegal.

These discussions led to the creation of the 10/10 programme. In the next ten years it aims to send 1 000 African diaspora scholars a year from all academic disciplines to universities and colleges on the continent. They will collaborate on research, curriculum development, graduate student teaching and mentoring and also be involved in leadership development.

The positive response to this project by governments and university networks suggests the model could be a catalyst for engagement on a significantly larger scale. That can only be good news for both North American and African academies.

Authors’ note: This article was made possible in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the authors’ responsibility.