Building Research Capacity in Ethiopian Universities: The Realities and the Challenges
Damtew Teferra, Ph. D.
Speech prepared for a
Conference on Higher Education in
15-16 December 2007
Nations Economic Commission for
The tripartite—and universal—mission of a university is to pursue teaching, research and service. While the three entities are inextricably woven, the focus of this presentation is on research. Before starting to talk about the “how” of building research capacity, I took the liberty of considering “the why” we need to do so.
Research is a power house of knowledge
creation. At a time when the world is transformed into what is widely dubbed as
the knowledge society, the importance of knowledge creation has become ever
more critical and ever more crucial, consequently placing universities at the
center of national development. Even prominent international development
partners, such as the World Bank, have now accepted that reality after having
neglected higher education in
So countries are striving to raise their
global competitiveness through research and innovation by revamping their
higher education system. The Europeans are hard at work establishing the
European Higher Education Area through what is now generally known as the
Bologna Process. The Chinese are determined to establish 100 world class
universities. The Japanese are pushing for further consolidation of their
university system with a target to build three dozen world class universities.
Even the leader of the pack the
In terms of expenditure, US companies were to
spend about $219 billion USD on research and development (R&D) in 2007, a
3.4% increase from the $212 billion spent in 2006.
With those highlights, I now focus on
Creating a Premium Research Zone: Revitalizing Mother Institutions
We recognize that all institutions are not
born equal. As
On the other hand, in cases where certain research enclaves and programs are already well developed across several universities, research institutions and NGOs, a much stronger national research and innovation synergy could be generated by systematically and strategically identifying the sites and the programs and coordinating them around their strength.
Fostering National Competitiveness
The point here is that as a nation we need to identify areas of our national competitiveness and capitalize on our assets—natural resources or otherwise. While it is important (and may even be at times inevitable) to engage development partners in matters of national interest, the nation however has to take the driver’s seat in setting its own policies and determine its own strategies to raise its national competitiveness. On the same breath, it is important to underscore that these national strategies should not be compromised for political gains or left to neophytes.
While it is not my intention to put the Bank
on the spot, I remember writing a critique on the higher education policy paper
it produced for
I earlier used a catchy phrase “national
competitiveness” without much elaboration. What does this term mean as
discussed here? Increasingly, developing countries have become casualties of
scientific and technological advances as they have also benefited from them
tremendously. One such casualty is the replacement of natural products—which
With the way and speed in which the trend in biotechnology is moving fast, it may not be too long for us to loose our main competitive edge we have with coffee and leather—the country’s major foreign exchange staples. I know that Starbucks has agreed to recognize and also pay for the unique Ethiopian coffee brands which it earlier contested; but at a time when genetic engineering has surpassed all our imaginations, this celebration may be short lived. The science of cloning, which first gave us Dolly the Sheep, needs to be a constant reminder that the country’s competitive edge that abundantly depends on natural products is under threat.
Strong Graduate Programs—Enhancing Research Capability
Knowledge creating capabilities go hand in hand with knowledge utilizing, knowledge adopting, and knowledge mining abilities. I would like to emphasize, in light of what I read on the brief report on the conference and also other comments by high-placed officials, a nation without appropriate infrastructure and human resources can also not be able to capitalize on knowledge generated and harvested elsewhere. Capitalizing on knowledge generated elsewhere requires some basic caliber, capacity and infrastructure on the ground.
The research and innovative capabilities of the nation’s universities could be enhanced dramatically through graduate education if they are directed by competent and accomplished leadership, guided by concerted strategic mission, and genuinely endorsed by the academic community. A healthy relationship between these dynamics and others is a prerequisite to any meaningful results.
The mission of building research capacity in Ethiopia however is much grandeur than the mandates of respective universities, and for that matter the Ministry of Education itself; and thus this needs to closely engage other national stakeholders including (local and federal) government ministries such as Ministries of Health, Agriculture, Telecommunications, Environment, Construction, Mining, private universities, companies/corporations, regional and international organizations, NGOs and development partners.
Capitalizing on Success—Tapping Developed Resources
of strong research sites already exist in the country that need to be further
nurtured and promoted. For instance, the Ethiopian Flora Project, based at
Kenyans, Ugandans, and Tanzanians used to
While talking about publicity, I must say
that we as a nation are poor at “marketing” ourselves, our intellectuals and
our institutions. For instance, the web sites of virtually all
Dipping in the Brain Trust—Stemming Brain Drain
We now know that
Needless to say, doing so is far from easy and is complicated by social, economic, personal, and political realities. I will not spend much time on the need to stem brain drain—that it is a well-recognized issue—but will simply note that it needs a great political goodwill and serious national commitment to ensure that the best do not leave home in the first place. The recent actions around faculty compensations and others promised in the future are commendable actions that should help stem the tide.
While efforts to address the underlying issues of talent exodus continue, it is also important to consider mobilizing the intellectual diaspora seriously. Ethiopia has great many intellectual diaspora in universities, research centers, think tanks, NGOs, businesses, international organizations, and governments with great potential to be deployed in joint research and publication initiative; advising, mentoring and hosting graduate students; sponsoring programs, departments, and events; help establish endowments; contribute in editing journals and other scholarly works; providing highly sought, but expensive, journals, books and other resources; and raise the profile of home institutions in the knowledge capital.
As noted above the effective mobilization of
the intellectual diaspora could be frustrated by several factors. In the case
I would however like to stress that without competent and high caliber faculty and research community based at home, building research capability in a nation will remain a serious challenge. Individuals build institutions—and these individuals need to attain a critical mass on the ground to make a visible impact. With that in mind, building a critical mass however no more depends on the presence of competence in one particular site or institution—or even nation, as long as these are effectively organized and mobilized from wherever they are.
Even great dedication and commitment of the
intellectual community go only so far to build stable and strong institutions.
For example, it may come as a surprise to some of you that
It needs to be strongly stated that raising the comfort level of researchers, scientists and thinkers, by way of either minimizing their level of engagement in secondary matters (such as tedious preoccupation with routine administrative and bureaucratic monotony), or providing them a modest living and working environment, is a forward looking approach of national interest. Time lost to Professor Abebe is time lost to his institution—and his nation. I remember a conversation I had with a senior SIDA (Swedish) staff sometime back who as he praised the good books of AAU’s accounting system he lamented the under utilization of the resources they put to the disposal of the institution (probably due to the excessive and stringent accounting system). As another expatriate in frustration put it “you cannot get a penny out of that institution”. The point here is that creating conducive working and living environment for researchers and intellectuals, in my view, is not a favor a country is doing to these citizens—but rather a smart strategy to effectively tap their potential to the nation building and development process.
Tapping Expatriates: The Potential at the Home Front
Engaging National Talent—Prospecting Global Perspectives
It is distressing to a national scholarly and intellectual community when it is deliberately or inadvertently ignored on matters of significant national interest. It is even more demoralizing when the local intelligentsia and human resources are sweepingly displaced by expatriate consultants and advisors whose caliber and knowledge are often no more, if not less, than the nationals. To be sure, generally external entities would not act with the same interest, zeal and devotion as nationals.
I would like to however quickly underscore
that a country needs to be as outward looking as it is inward and a fair
balance between nationals and expatriates views and roles needs to be struck.
Cross fertilization of ideas is critical in the global world we live in and
there is a great need to work closely with global knowledge networks to enhance
national research capability. The views, perspectives, and input of expatriates
come in handy especially in a small intellectual environment like
Endowment: Mobilizing Private Philanthropy
universities and research centers are common in the Western world, especially
Of course, the incentives and the realities for endowment differ from country to country and every country needs to work its own way of approaching the ideal. Ethiopian institutions need to work hard in establishing such endowments. For instance, with generous funding the Getachew Bolodia Foundation could establish research chairs in critical areas of national interest.
On the same breath,
Funding and Resources
to say, without massive financial resources building strong research capability
will simply remain a dream. Research demands not just a one-off major input but
a long-term commitment consistent with the larger mission of building such
Universities should be equipped with a dedicated office and trained personnel who track funding opportunities around the world and advise and direct researchers, help prepare and organize grant proposals, publicize research potentials and outcomes to appropriate funders, and so forth.
Scholarly Publication and Associations
and other periodicals are a central part of the research enterprise and yet in
In terms of access to scholarly journals and
periodicals, several institutional, regional and international initiatives are
underway to provide free access to African institutions. I hope
There were over 60 professional associations in the country several years ago. These include Biological Society of Ethiopia, Chemical Society of Ethiopia, Mathematical Association of Ethiopia, Statistical Association of Ethiopia, Ethiopian Medical Association, Ethiopian Veterinary Association, Ethiopian Pharmaceutical Association, Ethiopian Association of Engineers and Architects, Ethiopian Economic Association, Ethiopian IT Professionals Association, Ethiopian Inventors Association, and Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society. These are national intellectual treasures which need to be actively nurtured and purposefully engaged in the nation’s resolve to build its research and innovative capacity.
Scholarly associations and societies serve as important avenues of scholarly dialog, research communication and information dissemination. These bodies serve as advocates of their scholarly and professional interest, monitor and shape the rules of the fields, as well as frame the scholarly etiquette in a national context.
The Nature of Research: Internal Needs and External Demands
has always been tension between research for its own sake (basic/fundamental
research) and research for targeted outcome (applied research). In countries
where resources are limited, preferences almost always focus on applied
research that purports to address social and economic challenges. Of course as
the major funders of research in
Countries are thus left with a choice of
committing own resources on “unpopular” research areas which demands the
creation of synergies around areas of their national interest not benefiting
from external sources.
I would like however to note that even when a particular research is fully funded by international development partners, other resources—money or human—flow towards that direction directly or indirectly competing with the efforts not funded by them.
In my view the research focus of a country should not simply be dictated by immediate and obvious needs of that nation. Instead, these should be grounded in the context of a strategic plan which takes into account national competitiveness well into the future. What do I mean in simple terms? Do we need to focus on issues of self-sufficiency in food production? Yes. This is an obvious and immediate need. Do we need a technology-led development? Yes, but this may not be felt as obvious or immediate need (that attracts external funding) but one that guarantees socioeconomic development and raise the level of national competitiveness. The point here could be summed up, using an Ethiopian saying, as ende guaya neqay yefit yefitachnn bcha anmelket which somewhat translates as “let us not simply be blinded by our immediate needs”.
As a matter of relevance, the shelf life of knowledge and information is fast becoming short-lived rendering the process of knowledge acquisition and knowledge consumption somewhat out of sync with what we are used to. As a consequence, higher education thinkers are now pushing to focus more on cultivating critical thinkers than producing individuals who are soaked with facts—facts whose life cycle are getting increasingly ephemeral in character.
Honoring Accomplished Intellectuals: Recognizing their Rights and Freedom
Sometime back I ran into a senior manager of
One other example that comes to mind is the late Dr. Teklehaimanot Retta, the great Ethiopian Mathematician who passed away with neither the appropriate title nor a proper shelter commensurate to his person. And many of us who knew him grieve his situation to this day.
Indeed, many great intellectual Ethiopians fall in the cracks simply because they are considered “disengaged”, “misfits”, “subversives”, or “threats”.
In my view, if a country is seriously concerned about its research and knowledge capabilities, its resources are just never too small to honor its accomplished intellectuals neither its tolerance level too low to readily dismiss or systematically undermine them. Academic freedom is central to the nation’s higher education system and research development—and there is simply no way around it.
When I am talking about academic freedom, I am not actually confined to the most common culprit, governments, but also students, colleagues and even society. An intellectual should simply be free to think, free to write, and free to speak—wherever and whenever—without fear of government crackdown, collegial pressure, societal backlash or student uproar. The commitment of a government to nurture research and innovation should not simply be measured by the public money it puts at the institutions disposal—but equally by its tolerance to accept and its dedication to protect its intellectual capital—not only from its own forces, but possibly from other internal and external threats. To put it in a global socio-political context, as a wind of democratization is blowing around the world, countries are now awash with numerous effective and weak oppositions as well as bold critics for incumbents to worry about the “non-conforming subversives” sheltered in intellectual institutions.
Nurturing the New Generation
As much as one forcefully argues in favor of senior intellectuals honored, respected and recognized, a concurrent effort must be in place to nurture a new generation of emerging researchers, scientists and intellectuals. Academic feudalism is a common phenomenon in a small intellectual environment like the one in Ethiopia and it is not that easy for many to grow “under a shadow of a large tree”—especially when this tree is neither productive—as they call it in the business “dead wood”—or “esoteric”.
It is thus imperative that as serious efforts to honor national talent and pay tribute to senior intellectuals are made, the new generation of scientists and scholars also nurtured by instituting special provisions targeting them such as for instance competitive research grants.
Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology: Time for a New Organ
am raising this issue for a third time in such a gathering in
Institutions, departments, and expertise are
reorganized, reshuffled and streamlined to capitalize on their collective
strength, quality and vigor. The repositioning and reconstitution of
organizations represent steps in the realization and enhancement of these
underlying objectives. Nearly a third of the African continent, many countries
About two decades have elapsed since the
Commission for Higher Education got disbanded and replaced with the current
organizational arrangement of higher education system which is also more than a
decade old. And yet, major national and global transformations have taken place
around higher education since then which prompts us to seriously consider the
idea of restructuring the national system of knowledge institutions in
Countries all over the world are striving to
overhaul their knowledge institutions to deploy them as engines of development
and, it is my position that,
is a very expensive enterprise. Building such an enterprise for a poor country
We realize that the country faces too many challenges to build strong national research capabilities. While the challenges may appear to be formidable, the potentials and the opportunities are thrilling. If we are to tap the potentials and reap the fruits of this national effort, we need to think out of the box and even take a calculated risk in doing things we have not done before.
I cannot emphasize enough that our future well being and our progress heavily depend on the state and quality of our knowledge institutions and our capability to produce, consume and adapt knowledge.
*Due to time constraints the whole speech could not be delivered fully.
About the Author
Dr. Damtew Teferra is Director for
Damtew is the Founding
Editor-in-Chief (former) of the Journal
of Higher Education in Africa and the Founder and Director of the
International Network for Higher Education in
Damtew holds a Bachelors Degree
(in Biology/Chemistry) from
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