Nurturing local capacity builders

29 October 2010

The future of local capacity building in Africa lies in higher education. After years of neglect, the need to strengthen universities is at last moving up the policy agenda.

Doctors, engineers, lecturers, economists, agriculturists, veterinarians, planners and policy makers have all been trained in higher education institutes. To bring about meaningful development, the training of large numbers of people in these and other professions is urgently needed. Yet, Africa has the lowest enrolment rates in tertiary institutions worldwide.

Whereas developed countries can claim that as many as half of a given age group are in higher education, in Africa the figure is just five percent. In many sub-Saharan countries, the figure hovers around two percent. Clearly, massive financial, human, technical and logistical resources, as well as political will, are needed if poorer countries are to catch up with the rest of the world.

Why is this so important? The 21st century has been described as the ‘knowledge era’ or ‘ information age’ because the global economy depends heavily on knowledge produced, organised and disseminated around the world. Knowledge is a powerful currency over which nations compete, often aggressively. Countries want to build institutions of knowledge producers, brokers and incubators in order to increase their global competitiveness.

What is happening in Africa? In the last decade or so, enrolment rates in higher education have increased dramatically. Compared with the rest of the world, however, the figures are still very low, and the obstacles alarming, for several reasons:

  • the post-colonial origins of higher education systems in Africa

  • flawed World Bank polices, including aggressive structural adjustment programmes and forced cuts in spending on higher education

  • economic mismanagement by national governments, political repression and internal conflicts

  • the ‘brain drain’ or the massive flow of highly skilled personnel out of Africa and the fact that they remain abroad after completing their studies.


Driven by the knowledge economy and changing macroeconomic conditions, such as trade liberalisation, higher education in Africa, is once again recognised as a means of building local capacity to help nations build their economies and become meaningful economic players. It is also acknowledged that even accessing and using knowledge developed and produced elsewhere requires some level of capacity – to interpret and adapt it to make it relevant for national and local realities.

Knowledge brokers who can understand and make sense of the knowledge and information produced elsewhere require local capacity. In order to share knowledge and keep up with change, universities need to conduct research and generate and circulate knowledge. These central knowledge hubs need to be sustained with resources, support and strong policies.

The brain drain

The brain drain is depriving many African countries of the core group needed to bring about social, economic and cultural transformation. There are now more Nigerian, Ethiopian and Ghanaian medical doctors working in the United States and Europe than in their own countries. There are also more than 270 South African family physicians and nearly 100 medical specialists practising in just one Canadian province.

The situation in Africa is also exacerbated by the fact that many young people are leaving their countries of origin to study elsewhere. Many postgraduate students do not return after completing their studies, and this has been instrumental in reducing the scholarship opportunities in the region.

It is therefore ironic that foreign consultants are flocking in the other direction. According to the World Bank, consultants cost the region as much as US$4 billion a year, money that could otherwise have been earned by African nationals. The widespread practice of hiring external consultants has seriously hindered capacity building efforts. In some cases, relying on highly paid consultants has stunted whatever capacity existed and has demoralised local people.

The inability to maintain existing local capacity is another constraint. For many reasons, graduates often remain unemployed or underemployed due to the limited capacity of nations to absorb them.

A new challenge is emerging as professors and other staff reach retirement age. Some countries have raised the retirement age as it is hard to find equally well qualified replacements. Higher education institutions are no longer as prestigious or as attractive to prospective university teachers as they once were.

National governments, bilateral and multilateral organisations, and other international philanthropic institutions are now engaged in helping revitalise the higher education system. Good management is essential, as are funding, well-qualified and motivated staff, well-articulated research agendas, and education policies tailored to national needs.

The critical challenge is to find adequate funding. Numerous pledges, at national, regional and international levels, have been made to increase funding for research and development. But virtually no country in sub-Saharan Africa has fulfilled its pledges. Tanzania, however, recently increased its contribution to research from 0.3 percent to 1 percent of GDP. It is hoped this 300 percent increase will have a real impact in nurturing the nation’s knowledge systems.

Strategic choices

So what can governments, aid organisations and policy makers do to revitalise higher education in Africa? There are several strategic choices they could make, as follows.

Develop and use local expertise

With few highly trained personnel, Africa needs to double its efforts to increase these figures. The improvements in university enrolment rates recorded over the last decade must continue, but with an additional focus on quality. Numbers alone will not raise capacity levels.

Yet there is often a discrepancy between what a nation needs and what its institutions provide in terms of training and education. Increased capacities in sectors such as healthcare, construction and information technology, for example, are desperately needed, but many institutions produce graduates in areas where demand is low and declining. Education policies must ensure that countries build and develop programmes to enhance their national competitiveness at a global level.

Better use needs to be made of human capital. Graduates in Africa are often either unemployed or underemployed. Consultants are hired at exorbitant rates, while local professionals, as well as nationals working abroad, are refused similar compensation.

Increase resources

Capacity building requires financial, human and institutional resources. It is impossible to envisage strong capacity building capabilities without long-term financial and logistical support from governments, development agencies and philanthropic organisations, as well as private learning institutions. Now that higher education has been declared vital for national development, there are signs that bidding for resources is becoming easier, although the global economic crisis may be having a detrimental effect. The challenge is to use limited resources wisely and effectively.

Seize technological opportunities

The unprecedented developments in information and communication technologies have taken distance education to new levels. The wealth of information available on the Internet requires keen ‘ hunter-gatherer’ skills to tap into it. Where do you start? Some leading universities, such as the US Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have put their curricula online so that everyone can access and use them.

Stop the brain drain

The brain drain seems to be slowing, as more African nationals opt to look for work in Africa. But the problem remains critical, especially in the healthcare sector. The challenge is to tap into expatriate networks around the world and provide trained professionals with opportunities to work in their own countries. The intellectual diaspora could play pivotal roles as researchers, consultants, practitioners, etc., in local capacity building efforts.

It is also important to ensure that highly trained people do not leave Africa in the first place, since it is far more difficult to entice them back once they have left. One approach would be to encourage them to stay in Africa as part of the capacity building effort. But for such a strategy to succeed, appropriate working environments, attractive salaries and benefits, as well as systems to safeguard intellectual freedom, are essential.

Strengthen regional cooperation

Capacity building efforts should refrain from futile attempts to offer comprehensive programmes at all institutions at the national, or even regional level. This is particularly beyond the reach of small countries or those with nascent national knowledge systems. Small countries need to form partnerships at a regional level, taking into account the relative advantages of each country and institution involved. It is encouraging that many African countries are pursuing regional partnerships to build and strengthen their capacity by deploying new technologies.

Build an enabling environment

Even with unlimited resources, efforts to build national knowledge capacity can only go so far. The intellectual environment that cultivates and brokers knowledge needs to be free from suppression, fear and intolerance. The academic freedom to write, speak and teach, and the autonomy of institutions, are vital for creativity to flourish.

Building local capacity requires cohesive policies, a nurturing environment, considerable financial support and sustained political will. Africa has been beset by problems in the past, but with the proliferation of knowledge and increasing global competitiveness, Africa must build its own capacities and relevant knowledge systems if it is to join the 21st century on an equal footing with the rest of the world.



Damtew Teferra Coordinator, International Network for Higher Education in Africa, Boston College Centre for International Higher Education, USA
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