Africa: Bringing African Universities into the U.S.-Africa Partnership

Group photo of leaders at the concluding afternoon of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, DC

In the aftermath of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington DC, what are the university perspectives in what is emerging as an institutional framework for U.S.-Africa relations? One thing is incontestable. Scholars and researchers at universities have their work cut out given the many ground-breaking pledges and commitments that have been made.

The Biden-Harris administration's commitment of $55 billion from the U.S. government to the African Union and African governments is the most consequential. Those who have downplayed the figure as too small for a 55-nation continent do not consider the fact that even just $1 billion per each of the 55 African nations would go a long way given squeezed budgetary deficits across the continent.

Already media coverage shows this figure being read in geopolitical competition terms – that the U.S. is looking to counter China. Most Africa-U.S. scholars will be keenly following this development. We can expect a couple of journal papers and masters and PhD theses in the next couple of months and years based on the Summit.

The "university community" will also be analysing the implications of key agreements and action plans. The establishment of the President's Advisory Council on African Diaspora Engagement (PAC-ADE) is, for instance, good raw material for scholars in the fields of race relations, history, black studies, and international relations.

The launch of the Digital Transformation with Africa Initiative will draw interest from scholars from the fields of information and technology scholars (how do the technologies align in technical terms), economics and finance (what are the business models and impacts), and international politics (what does this mean for China's huge ICT infrastructure investments?).

The announcement of the African Democratic and Political Transitions (ADAPT) initiative will attract political scientists. The other pledges and developments will equally fire up acknowledge production in universities.

The higher education aspects of the ramped-up Africa-U.S. partnership are conspicuously absent.

While the statecraft involved in the structuring and shaping the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit is a resource for the academia, it is clear that more could be done. If you observe the schedules and pledges, you realise that the missing link is that higher education aspects of the ramped-up Africa-U.S. partnership were the mixing link and are conspicuously absent. African and American universities can, however, not overly begrudge governments for not getting onto the agenda.

First, it appears universities did not lobby enough, as did other interest groups, for inclusion in the schedule of activities. (For this reason, there is no single action point expressly directed toward university partnerships.)

Secondly, it may be assumed that in their teaching and research roles and responsibilities, universities already feature in the work that governments, civil society, and businesses do, albeit indirectly. It might not therefore have occurred to the planners of the Summit that higher education needs specialized treatment even as it is part of the whole.

Thirdly, university-based scholars often follow developments from other sectors of society given that they need the fodder from which they can undertake research and teaching projects. The implication is that professors and students at universities would be relevant to the Summit anyway!

The Summit should serve as the launch pad for inclusion of higher education perspectives in what is emerging as a formalized U.S.-Africa Partnerships.

For these reasons, the Summit should serve as the launch pad for inclusion of higher education perspectives in what is emerging as a formalized U.S.-Africa Partnerships. The approach towards this is to consolidate the university partnerships already in place. Thus, the creation of an Africa-US universities network as a matter of urgency is a critical starting point. However, the creation of such a network does not need to start from scratch for at four reasons.

First, well over 40 universities in the U.S. have African studies centres which have long histories of association with their African counterparts. Second, the U.S. government and various foundations have been engaged with African universities over the years through scholarships and exchanges, of which the Fulbright scholarship and the University Partnerships Initiative are exemplars. Third, in the U.S., there hundreds of Historically Black Colleges and Universities which have a natural affinity to and with Africa. Fourth, American studies centres are being launch in Africa.

Since the establishment of the African Centre for the Study of the U.S. at Wits University in South Africa in 2018, the universities of Pretoria and Nairobi have since launched similar centres with at least eight other universities set to follow suit in 2023 and beyond.

If there is a strategic approach that can be gleaned from the above factors, it is that the building blocks for the inclusion of universities in the emerging partnership are in place. What is left is for key actors within the universities to put their heads together and present their ideas to the relevant U.S. and African authorities and agencies. This further suggests that the universities would have to speak with one voice, even though academia by its very nature is a site for scholarly contestations, disciplinary rivalries, and institutional competitions.  

An Africa-U.S. universities network would be a critical component of the broader partnership.

An Africa-U.S. universities network would be a critical component of the broader partnership in terms of research, teaching, knowledge sharing, public engagements, and exchanges across disciplines. First, some of the best ideas for tackling pressing challenges such as climate change and poverty, can be generated from collaborative research. Stakeholders would have to invest in the resources for university-based research to ramp up.

Second, we may assume that students who constitute the future of the partnership understand both regions, but the reality is that there are huge knowledge gaps on either side. Third, it is evident, and let's be clear, many African universities face serious financial problems that have hampered their contribution to society. American universities would have to be magnanimous to share their intellectual resources with African counterparts. But American universities too have their own problems to grapple with. Ultimately governments have to step in if universities are to be involved in the partnership(s).

In seeking to be part of what might be a historic turning point in U.S.-Africa relations, university leaders would have to tap contacts within the U.S. and African governments. On the U.S. front, a key ally would be Ambassador Johnnie Carson who has been appointed as Special Presidential Representative for U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit Implementation.

Dr Wekesa is Deputy Director at the African Centre for the Study of the US, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa.   

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