Q&A: The higher education equation in Africa's development

When it comes to educating the future leaders of Africa, the answer quickly becomes international.

Danna Harman just completed a two-and-a-half year tour as the Monitor's Africa correspondent. She discussed the role of higher education in the development of Africa with csmonitor.com's Jim Bencivenga.

What are the top three universities in Africa and where are they located? Why are they considered the top three? Can you compare these universities to top-tier schools in the US and give a hint as to why Africans want to study in the west so badly.

I would say the best universities on the continent are in South Africa - one can't really compare the infrastructure and money poured into the programs at, say the University of Joberg (Witswaterand) or the University of Cape Town, to what goes on elsewhere on the continent - and several of these South African universities can indeed be compared to schools in the US in terms of the level of teaching and students.

Elsewhere on the continent, I would say the two top schools might be Makerere in Kampala, Uganda and the University of Ghana at Legon outside Accra. Both of these universities have received enormous financial and institutional support from outside foundations, universities and foreign donor countries, and have many strong departments. They have applicant pools from around the continent and outside it and their graduates are found in top positions all over Africa.

But, even so, many Africans who are able to do so, would still apply to go study at top-tier schools in the US, either for undergraduate work, or more likely, for graduate work. This is partly because the US schools (especially when compared to Makere and the University of Ghana) have better facilities, labs, teachers, etc., but mostly because of the exposure and entrée to a larger world that the US universities promise to afford.

Which country in Africa has the highest literacy rates? Which has the lowest?

The sad thing is that many countries tie for the lowest literacy rate on the continent. Mozambique has the absolute lowest - with Angola, Burundi, and Ethiopia right behind it. Botswana probably has the highest rate, with the government paying for all education, including university level.

What role do Western corporations play in educating native Africans to run and staff their African affiliates?

Western corporations working in Africa are often accused of making money off the continent without putting enough back in. Critics argue that big corporations like Chevron, for example, which makes many millions of dollars from oil from the continent, should use their clout (which is often greater than the clout of foreign governments or non-governmental organizations) to influence local governments to behave better. That's a good point.

But, at the same time, I have found many big corporations give back to the community by helping train and educate Africans to run their concerns. Each company has its own quota systems, and many work to ensure that a certain percent of their top staff positions are filled with Africans, not expats - which is of course doubly helpful to the economies of these countries.

Would you say that Western companies, rather than Western universities, are the best hope for the transfer of skills to lift African nations out of poverty while building an indigenous middle class?

No. not really. Both western companies and universities - as well as, and together with homegrown African universities and companies - can transfer these skills. As I tried pointing out in my articles, however, just teaching certain skills is not enough to elevate a society. Rather, attention also must be given to building the frameworks and institutions so that those with skills have the right environment to operate in.

To play devils advocate, aren't NGOs the economic equivalent of missionaries? Don't NGOs siphon off the best and brightest into non-economic sectors at a time when African nations don't generate enough wealth to feed themselves?

On the one hand, observers usually think NGOs are all about doing good works: they feed the hungry, care for the sick, build shelters, clean the slums, etc. - so how can they be doing anything wrong? In addition, and contrary to what the question suggests, NGOs can, and do, stimulate the economy by creating jobs, bringing in investment, and training locals. There are endless examples of good international and local NGOs working on sustainable, local needs driven programs.

But, on the other hand, there is a question about whether or not, in the long run, these NGOs are, in general, really doing Africa any favors. Some critics argue that by taking up the slack of the governments the NGOs are in effect giving these bad governments unspoken permission to keep siphoning off funds meant for the people - to themselves, or to finance wars. These critics ask whether the governments of resource rich countries (of which there are many) would be forced to figure out a way to tend to their own people if NGOs were not forever taking care of the population's basic needs. In response to this criticism, NGOs often say that, as humanitarian workers, they cannot afford to wait and see. So its hard to say really - but a question worth keeping in mind, and one NGOs grapple with all the time.

Do you find Muslim countries or Christian countries to be more likely to have a rising standard of living, or is religion not a factor?

That's an interesting question but I'm not sure its possible to point to religion as the main factor in terms of rising, or falling standards of living in Africa. It's a mixed bag. Egypt and Morocco (Muslim) have relatively higher standards of living. Mauritania and Somalia (Muslim) have some of the lowest ones. Botswana has one of the highest standards of living (Christian), as does South Africa (Christian but increasingly mixed); but Ethiopia (Christian) and Sierra Leone (Christian) have among the lowest. Tanzania's (Christian and Muslim mixed) standard of living is rising and the same, I believe, for Nigeria (Christian and Muslim mixed). It seems other factors - geographic location, presence or absence conflict, the sort of government - are more important than religion in influencing standard of living.

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