Why mere knowl­edge trans­fer fails

States and aca­demics must col­lab­o­rate or risk for­eign ex­perts tak­ing over pol­i­cy­mak­ing

Mail & Guardian - - Education - Mark Pater­son

The ap­par­ent re­luc­tance of Pres­i­dent Jacob Zuma to re­veal the find­ings of the He­her com­mis­sion on the fea­si­bil­ity of free higher ed­u­ca­tion has been widely crit­i­cised for leav­ing planning for the sec­tor in dis­ar­ray at a cru­cial time, par­tic­u­larly be­cause un­cer­tainty at the top has been ex­ac­er­bated with the ap­point­ment of the new higher ed­u­ca­tion and train­ing min­is­ter, Hlengiwe Mkhize.

The pres­i­dent’s ma­noeu­vring has also been de­scribed as symp­to­matic of a larger po­lit­i­cal fail­ure by the govern­ment to forge agree­ment on the role of higher ed­u­ca­tion within South African so­ci­ety and the econ­omy at large.

In the ab­sence of such a pact, the role that uni­ver­si­ties can play in le­git­i­mat­ing the govern­ment and sup­port­ing its so­cioe­co­nomic pro­grammes is se­verely weak­ened. In­deed, as a new study pub­lished by African Minds has re­vealed, bro­ken, in­ad­e­quate re­la­tion­ships be­tween na­tional gov­ern­ments and their lo­cal aca­demic com­mu­ni­ties can un­der­mine in­de­pen­dent, demo­cratic pol­i­cy­mak­ing, leav­ing states prey to the agen­das of for­eign pow­ers.

In worst-case sce­nar­ios, for­eign donors — de­spite their pro­claimed in­ten­tions — can ef­fec­tively take over na­tional pol­i­cy­mak­ing in young democ­ra­cies such as South Africa and Tan­za­nia, say Ger­man so­cial sci­en­tists Su­sanne Koch and Peter Wein­gart. In their ex­plo­ration of how the tech­nocrats who are tied to for­eign aid pack­ages can in­flu­ence govern­ment plans, they found that, with­out suf­fi­cient fi­nan­cial clout, ad­min­is­tra­tive ca­pac­ity and the sup­port of a strong lo­cal aca­demic com­mu­nity, gov­ern­ments can be ren­dered quite help­less in the face of im­ported pol­icy pre­scrip­tions, with dis­as­trous re­sults.

For ex­am­ple, the sud­den World Bank-in­spired in­tro­duc­tion of univer­sal free pri­mary ed­u­ca­tion in Tan­za­nia at the turn of the mil­len­nium led to a mas­sive drop in ed­u­ca­tional stan­dards, be­cause the sec­tor’s teach­ing and struc­tural ca­pac­ity was ill equipped to man­age such mas­si­fi­ca­tion. Al­though for­eign ex­perts had pro­vided the “facts” that led to the ill-fated de­ci­sion, it was the govern­ment, not the donors, that was left to shoul­der the po­lit­i­cal blame for the fail­ure, say the au­thors of The Delu­sion of Knowl­edge Trans­fer: The Im­pact of For­eign Aid Ex­perts on Pol­icy-mak­ing in South Africa and Tan­za­nia.

The im­por­tance of home-grown re­search in en­abling re­cip­i­ent gov­ern­ments to be­come more than mere con­sumers of knowl­edge and im­ple­menters of ad­vice is cru­cial, par­tic­u­larly within the con­text of a con­ti­nent in which na­tional sci­ence sys­tems have of­ten been de­in­sti­tu­tion­alised and are gen­er­ally op­er­at­ing in sub­sis­tence mode, strug­gling to re­pro­duce them­selves.

By con­trast with the rest of the con­ti­nent, in­clud­ing Tan­za­nia, South Africa’s do­mes­tic sci­en­tific com­mu­nity is rel­a­tively ro­bust, en­abling the knowl­edge-based aid on of­fer to be tai­lored more closely to the host coun­try’s def­i­ni­tion of its own needs. It scores well in terms of its over­all par­tic­i­pa­tion in sci­ence glob­ally, ac­cord­ing to mea­sures in­clud­ing fund­ing, the num­ber of re­searchers and the num­ber of re­search pa­pers it pro­duces. It is also only one of the three coun­tries on the con­ti­nent — with Malawi and Uganda — that have met the African Union’s tar­get of spend­ing at least 1% of its GDP on re­search and de­vel­op­ment.

How­ever, even in South Africa, lo­cal aca­demics are dis­ad­van­taged by the in­her­ent prej­u­dice of the in­ter­na­tional de­vel­op­ment com­mu­nity, which gen­er­ally prizes in­ter­na­tional, or North­ern, knowl­edge as more cred­i­ble and dis­in­ter­ested than lo­cal, or South­ern knowl­edge — and adopts pro­cure­ment prac­tices that marginalise ex­pert com­mu­ni­ties in aid-re­ceiv­ing coun­tries as a re­sult.

In ad­di­tion, al­though South African higher ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions and paras­tatals de­liver high-level re­search, they face the same kinds of struc­tural con­straints as sci­ence sys­tems in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries, such as too few hu­man re­sources and de­pen­dency on ex­ter­nal fi­nanc­ing. For ex­am­ple, more than 70% of fund­ing for HIV and Aids and tu­ber­cu­lo­sis re­search was re­ported as com­ing from out­side the coun­try in 2013. The re­sult can be a form of aca­demic har­lotry, as a se­nior med­i­cal scholar at the Univer­sity of Cape Town re­vealed: “We’ve be­come sci­en­tific pros­ti­tutes in the sense that we are giv­ing in to the high­est bid­ders.”

A further fac­tor that af­fects the im­pact of the sci­ence com­mu­nity in strength­en­ing of­fi­cial pol­i­cy­mak­ing ca­pac­ity is the govern­ment’s will­ing­ness to en­gage with the lo­cal knowl­edge base. For ex­am­ple, ties be­tween the na­tional health depart­ment and the sci­ence com­mu­nity broke down un­der the ad­min­is­tra­tion of for­mer pres­i­dent Thabo Mbeki as a re­sult of its pol­icy on an­tiretro­vi­ral treat­ment for Aids. Sub­se­quently, a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of the West­ern Cape noted the shift from “a kind of vac­uum at the cen­tre” to “the re-emer­gence of a lead­er­ship that is will­ing to en­gage in a much more ex­plicit way”.

Sim­i­larly, in the area of ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy re­search, de­spite con­straints in terms of fund­ing and hu­man re­sources, a rel­a­tively small cadre of ed­u­ca­tional schol­ars form a solid knowl­edge base, which the govern­ment reg­u­larly ex­ploits to in­form its pol­icy-mak­ing.

Decades of “tech­ni­cal as­sis­tance” from for­eign donors have gen­er­ally failed to help re­cip­i­ent gov­ern­ments world­wide to be­come in­de­pen­dent. In­deed, some for­eign ex­perts can refuse to share knowl­edge for fear of mak­ing them­selves re­dun­dant.

In this con­text, the au­thors of The Delu­sion of Knowl­edge Trans­fer rec­om­mend that donors should rather seek to sup­port the knowl­edge com­mu­ni­ties in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries to pro­duce a crit­i­cal mass of lo­cal ex­perts to pro­duce and scru­ti­nise ex­per­tise. This sup­port could take the form of investment to fa­cil­i­tate co-op­er­a­tion be­tween re­search cen­tres, within or out­side the univer­sity sys­tem; fund­ing for ed­u­ca­tional schol­ar­ships; and fund­ing for new univer­sity pro­grammes aimed at ad­dress­ing coun­try-spe­cific chal­lenges.

Na­tional gov­ern­ments in Africa are in­creas­ingly re­al­is­ing the im­por­tance of pro­vid­ing ad­e­quate fund­ing to their higher ed­u­ca­tion sec­tors to pro­duce the hu­man cap­i­tal re­quired for de­vel­op­ment. They are in­ten­si­fy­ing their ef­forts to pro­duce up-to-date, rel­e­vant data on do­mes­tic sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy sys­tems in or­der to strengthen them and fos­ter lo­cal knowl­edge economies. Al­though the au­thors of the new study note a lack of lon­gi­tu­di­nal large-scale stud­ies in the field of ed­u­ca­tional re­search, the Cen­tre for Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Trust based in Cape Town and schol­ars at the DST-NRF Cen­tre of Excellence in Scien­to­met­rics and Sci­ence, Tech­nol­ogy and In­no­va­tion Pol­icy at Stel­len­bosch Univer­sity have pro­duced im­por­tant data on re­search ca­pac­ity at flag­ship uni­ver­si­ties in South Africa and across the rest of the con­ti­nent with this goal in mind.

Against a back­ground of for­eign gov­ern­ments seek­ing to ex­port their pol­icy pre­scrip­tions to coun­tries in South­ern Africa and the rest of the con­ti­nent, the fail­ure by gov­ern­ments to at­tend to and fos­ter the lo­cal knowl­edge base (their higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tems) leaves un­tapped an im­por­tant re­source for strength­en­ing sovereignty in young democ­ra­cies — a re­source that is in­dis­pens­able if na­tional de­ci­sion-mak­ers want to forge and im­ple­ment their own pol­icy vi­sions.

To be­come more than mere con­sumers of knowl­edge and im­ple­menters of ad­vice is cru­cial

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