Dispelling the Notion of Misunderstanding: Confronting the Entrenched Norms*
Damtew Teferra**
First of all, I would like to express my great appreciation to Dr William Saint for responding to my commentary. I read his response with great care and utmost attention and am responding here below to his comments and observations. For the sake of clarity and follow up I will respond to his comments as outlined in his response. 


Dispelling Misunderstanding One

For all we know, at least, for many of us both academicians and researchers in higher education and (Third World) development workers, the World Bank prescriptions and positions take precedence over not just those developed by nations but other international and multinational organizations and institutions. A true and living memory of relevance is the World Bank’s “rate of return” study which has been highly criticized for its devastating impact on the development of higher education in Africa. When the World Bank dropped higher education as a poor investment (based on its own faulty study--which is belatedly admitted as such by the Bank) and consequently declined loans to higher education development, not only did other bilateral and multilateral agencies followed suit but also the poor developing countries reoriented their loan schemes to fit the framework and discourse of the World Bank loan schemes.

Why do I bring this “painful” example from the Bank’s past portfolio in dispelling the “first misunderstanding” so labeled? Poor developing countries often gauge the Bank’s position and follow its lending pattern and cue. They are simply powerless and fearful of straying from “prescribed” policies and positions sanctioned by the Bank. While it is the case that the government approached the Bank--as the ultimate funding powerhouse--after the fact, it is naïve to think that the Bank would not have any say on the scope, direction, and magnitude of reform and “vision” of higher education development in the country. I would like to pose back a question: How willing would the Bank be in providing a loan for a national higher education development based on a policy document that is not in line with, if not directly contrary to, its policies and current loaning trend? What happens in a case where the wishes and visions of countries--as reflected in policies--come in conflict with the Bank’s stipulated and assumed policy and mission? I guess the response is obvious.

The fact remains that the Bank, as one of the most powerful global development institutions, continue to dictate policies both directly and indirectly--domineering both in its presence as well as in its absence. Thus, I personally do not wish to accept the notion that the Bank is a passive player.


Dispelling Misunderstanding Two

I guess my earlier point on the rate-of-return study would dispel any illusion that a report by the Bank does not enjoy utmost attention--and hence has limited consequence. In countries, such as Ethiopia, where the research and policy environment leaves a lot to be desired, it is our common knowledge that major think tank institutions, such as the World Bank, enjoy a wider space and scope on policy issues, among others. Furthermore, it is vital to underscore and reminisce that, it is in the company of counter-reflections and counter positions of many institutions and organizations that the Bank’s faulty position on higher education development prevailed for two decades. In fact, the World Bank is now often termed as “Knowledge Bank” to indicate and affirm its growing importance in formulating policies.

It may not, or even should not, be labeled as “great consequence” by the Bank or its constituent staff, but the fact that the document carries a World Bank insignia--with or without a technical disclaimer--positions it to dominate other opinions and analytical space. To accentuate my point: while counter-studies by many development partners existed, the Bank’s position and thinking dominates and persists; and to say that this document is not and will not be influential is, in my humble opinion, simply wrong.


Dispelling Misunderstanding Three

That the World Bank is at liberty in dictating the composition of the counterpart team is not my position. As it was pointed earlier, I am against it and by no means--and under no guise--should be allowed to happen. I wish this was true, though.

Let me state a couple of positions first: I personally do not subscribe to what is termed as “uninformed by the reality of development practice in these circumstances.” Without appearing argumentative, I am wondering whose “reality of development practice” was it referred? A “reality of development practice” which is drawn by an institution that imposes it and withdraws it at will? For all I know, and as the rich literature clearly attests, many erroneous policies that have been developed on our behalf--by pursuing the “reality of [existing] development practice [and norms]” have turned out to be a disaster.  If accepting this “reality” turns me to an “informed” citizen, I feel the need to renounce awareness and opt for ignorance.

My position on this is unambiguous. The World Bank, in my opinion, is equally at fault for marginalizing--during the course of developing the policy document--the highly competent and well-informed experts most of whom based in the major institution (and that the Bank itself recognizes it as flagship institution). If the World Bank was contacted to provide “technical suggestions” to the government as pointed in the “first misunderstanding”, why didn’t the Bank experts “suggest” to engage these experts--after they got involved? I can only speculate here that the government would not prevent the Bank from talking and engaging the marginalized experts--if it wishes to do so. I guess I had to use the word “suggested” instead of “requested” in my earlier commentary, which I feel, however, is more an issue of semantics rather than substance. In all honesty, this exercise would have turned the “heavy-handedness” in which the institution has often been singled out into “commendable commonsense practice”. While contemplating to define obscenity, a US Court Judge in 1964 simply said “I know it when I see it”. We are capable of deciphering the “ridiculous from the sublime”, the “wheat” from the “chaff”, and the dictate from the goodwill.


Dispelling Misunderstanding Four

I should once again counter the so-called “final misunderstanding” from derailing my earlier position--as it is simply a clear misunderstanding and inadvertent misrepresentation. First of all, as any higher education student (or practitioner) knows, research is an integral part--at least theoretically--of a university mission. The tripartite components--teaching, research, and service--decorate the mission of virtually all universities and I decline the notion that I fail to realize this as a major higher education mission. Having said that, I disagree with the position that research does not exist in isolation from graduate programs.  IT DOES. So many research institutions exist without a single graduate program. We can debate on this. But the point I would like to make clear here is that I am NOT advocating for research without strong graduate programs. (Needless to say, when Ethiopia launched graduate studies in the 1980s, one of the major reasons was to enhance it research capacity.) 

With that as a background, I am emphatically adamant that a non-committal phrase or two in such a policy document to direct Ethiopian research capacity--in the knowledge era--is simply not to our best interest. This is the central point of departure that prompted me to write this piece so I will dwell on it at length.

I would like to reiterate once again that the report, as much as it is comprehensive in its coverage, it is simply sloppy on the development of research and even graduate programs. The statements on graduate programs themselves are only the point of focus within the context of training more instructors for teaching (in the growing higher education institutions) rather than setting a clear tone for national research development. It may appear naïve or even uninformed, but we as a country must make research our top priority to foster our national development and enhance our global competitiveness. And we know that this can only emanate from developing and overhauling our national knowledge creating, knowledge utilization, knowledge dissemination and knowledge packaging capabilities. It is my firm position, even at the expense of appearing unrealistic, particularly to those in the development work--that we, as a nation, must, with great determination, build our research capacity within--and without--the confines of a university campus. This may be a difficult proposition--or even “unchartered” position--for the Bank folks to “suggest” to the government. But I, as an Ethiopian and a professional, take the liberty and the privilege, to urge both the government and its policy advisors to reconsider the proposal on research development.

In the paper I referred to in the first commentary, I indicated that many African--and also Asian countries--are consciously orienting their resources, organizational structures, and policies to develop research capacities to foster national development. Close to a third of African countries--which include Algeria, Egypt, Mozambique, Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe--have ministries specifically dedicated to higher education and/or, science and technology. Some countries have also consciously established new institutions to catalyze their economic development.

Mauritius has embarked on a process of reform with a view to liberalizing the information and communication technologies (ICT) sector and accelerating the transformation of the country into a knowledge-based economy. One of the ministries is in fact aptly named as the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunications, which clearly indicates where the country plans to head. In its aim to play a key role in the development of Mauritius as a knowledge-based society and a regional information technology (IT) hub in the Indian Ocean, the government established the University of Technology in 2000.

The Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Kenya is a relevant example from next door. Another example from West Africa is Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. The Government of Uganda was also establishing Kyambogo University that will focus on technology. Uganda already has Mbarara University of Science and Technology that entirely focuses on science and technology.

With due respect to the Bank, its representatives and technical advisors, the recommendation, with respect to research development in Ethiopia does not represent, thus not serve, our national interest and our national vision. I feel that the recommendation is weak even in the face of the seminal and well received document published by the Bank—(Constructing Knowledge Societies, World Bank, 2002)--and a much more deliberative, thorough and focused policy on national research development is urgently needed.


Academic Discourse and Development Practice: Warring Factions?

I agree on the observation that the understanding between the two schools of thought--academic discourse and development practice--has considerable gaps. Having said that, I must promptly point that great gaps in thinking and practice among development practitioners themselves are commonplace--and the only way to narrow these gaps is in engaging in a genuine collaboration and debates unconstrained by power relation, resource command, and established pecking order. While at it, may I remind here that the World Bank as a leading, if not popular, “development partner” has so many detractors and critiques from the same development “school”.

It is my wish that the “real contribution” of this endeavor not be confined to only creating an engaging and constructive debate--as kindly observed.  But, moreover, to go beyond that in affirming unequivocally where the Bank has, in its “technical” suggestions, either refrained or constrained--or even failed--by the dictates of its guiding “practice” and operational routines. Such entrenched technicalities and established rites should never be allowed to compromise our national agenda and aspirations--for our aspirations and agenda need not follow or prescribe to the established status quo groomed elsewhere. Unconstrained by such “practice” or institutional “etiquette”, academicians and researchers should be encouraged to voice their “unbiased” and “unadulterated” opinion for the good of our nation and its people.


In Conclusion

Before I bring this response to a conclusion, I feel a great need to underscore the following. A country of about 70 million people--the second largest in Sub-Saharan Africa--Ethiopia must jump on the knowledge bandwagon immediately to extricate itself from its eternal social and economic woes. In the knowledge era in which we live in, it is imperative that we develop a clear and determined long-term strategy to build and sustain solid knowledge institutions to shape our strategic position in the increasingly competitive global environment. This may mean making some painful short term reorientations and unpopular compromises that may induce reluctance of “advisors” (World Bank) in prescribing and supporting, and “advisees” (the government), in administering and sustaining tough prescriptions.

Entertaining far reaching strategic policies, like this one, entails great vision, committed leadership, and a courageous and informed mindset capable of mobilizing the nation behind it. As a matter of great national importance, such strategic choice ought to be jealously guarded against political manipulation, nepotism, narrow self-interest, and incompetence. I cannot emphasize enough that our future well being and our progress simply depend on the state and quality of our knowledge institutions.


Continuing the Debate

               Last but not least, I would like to, once again, commend Dr Saint for engaging in this debate and his professional opinion. I have great respect for his courage and confidence and hope that he will continue to engage in the debate--with me and other interested parties. I would like to reiterate his line that “enhanced understanding can be gained from pluralistic debate” and thus encourage others to partake in this important debate. I very much look forward to hearing constructive comments and critical reflections from the government and its policy makers.


*This article is in reaction to a response by Dr William Saint entitled “Prescriptions and Antidotes, Good Intentions and Misunderstandings” to my commentary “The World Bank Prescription for Ethiopian Higher Education: The Missing Antidote in “Pursuing the Vision”.


**Dr. Damtew Teferra is research assistant professor and founding editor-in-chief of the Journal of Higher Education in Africa at the Center for International Higher Education, Boston College. His recent major publications include African Higher Education: An International Reference Handbook (Indiana University Press, 2003) and Scientific Communication in African Universities: External Assistance and National Needs (RoutledgeFalmer, 2003). Professional comments and criticisms on this piece may be sent to teferra@bc.edu.