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Chemistry In Africa's Least Developed Countries
An Overview of Capacity Building and Research Support
Report prepared by C. F. Garbers (1998)

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Education in Africa, generally, and higher education, in particular, have been the subjects of extensive analysis and review. (ref. 1,4,5,6,7) Science was singled out for detailed analysis.(ref. 8,9,10) With regard to universities the period of the 1960s was described as one of euphoria, hope and romanticism. By the 1970s expectations were somewhat dampened, stung by the wave of military coups and the growing politicization of higher education. By the 1980s, disillusionment and decline were the norm. Overcrowding became an increasingly vexing problem and the quality of colleges and universities in most parts of Africa continued to fall, leading to a period of growing pessimism. (ref.1) However, the mid-1990s have seen new hope for successful change and transformation of higher education. There is growing belief in an African renaissance, further stimulated by improving economic prospects.

    3.1. Revitalization of African Universities

In a 1996 report to the President of the World Bank, the African Ministers of Finance listed the revitalization of African universities among the continent's critical developmental needs.(ref. 11) The World Bank leadership was requested to marshal donor community participation in a fully joint undertaking with African governments to address this and other regional shortcomings in institutional and human resource development.

As a response to the initiative of the African Ministers of Finance a First Draft (20 March 1997): "Revitalizing Universities in Africa. A Strategy and Guidelines for Action" was formulated. (ref. 11)

This First Draft stresses that the weight of available evidence indicates that the process of renewal within African universities can only begin when universities themselves seize the initiative - an initiative which should provide for a strategic planning process as an effective management tool. The strategic plan should emerge from wide internal consultation and consensus building and should address issues such as:

  • expansion of access without further sacrifices to quality;
  • the financing of higher education;
  • the improvement of quality and relevance of university education;
  • improved management of the resources of higher education;
  • keeping pace with rapid global changes in scientific information and technology; and,
  • the rekindling of university research activity.

Important is the recommendation that all funds contributed to a university by government and donor agencies be demonstrably linked to that university's stated mission and development goals.

This first draft was followed by a document produced by the World Bank and the Association of African Universities (AAU) in consultation with a wide range of other institutions devoted to higher education in Africa. (ref. 11) The document " represents a rather extraordinary degree of consensus among a range of representative from universities , associated organizations, governments, and donors on a topic on which there had previously been little agreement: how to revitalize universities in Africa". It provides guidelines on what universities, governments, donor agencies and The World Bank should do. In the case of the latter institution it is emphasized that it should make greater use of existing capacities within African universities and use USD 5-10 million per year of its estimated USD 50 million in annual project-related training expenditure to program training for strategic planning within African universities.

Any planned new initiative in chemistry should take cognizance of these and further developments.

    3.2. Africa Education: Rising Enrollment and Stagnating Budgets

Africa currently has more than 3.224 million students enrolled for tertiary study. Of these 2.64 million are enrolled in only seven countries (Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Nigeria, South Africa and Tunisia), each with more than 72 000 students. Hence, some 580 000 students are enrolled in the remaining Sub-Saharan countries, with 27 countries having less than 10 000 enrolled students! (See Table 1) (ref. 12)

The dramatic growth in demand for education, particularly tertiary education, and the stagnation of budgets in Sub-Saharan Africa, may be gleaned from Table 2. For Sub-Saharan Africa the education budget grew from USD 15.8 billion in 1980 to only USD 16.3 billion by 1994. However, the student index number for tertiary study rose from 100 (1980) to 339 (1994)! During the same period primary and secondary education enrollment grew respectively by 46% and 104%. (ref. 12)

These developments severely impacted on universities in Africa.

Per student expenditures declined from USD 6300 in 1970 to an average of USD 1500 in 1988.(ref. 1) Faculty and staff salaries fell significantly in the 1980s and 1990s with the consequence that large numbers of faculty members became part timers, affecting their performance in the classroom and relegating research to a peripheral activity of university staff. (ref. 13) Improving the quality of education was hampered by a huge brain drain, the decline of institutions themselves, their libraries, laboratories, and working conditions. Frequently, lack of laboratory space, equipment and supplies, poorly qualified demonstrators and laboratory technicians, and lack of adequate supervision in consequence of the large size classes have adverse consequences for the students. (ref. 13)

Despite the dramatic rise in enrolled student numbers, participation rates in higher education for the 20 - 24 age group (as used by UNESCO) remains very low for Sub-Saharan Africa and is predominantly arts based. The output of graduates in science (including chemistry) and technology is low (see Table 1). The pressure for access remains high! Certain countries appear to be on the verge of huge expansion of their universities. In Kenya, out of the 150 000 students, who recently sat for the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education, only about 10 000 will be admitted at public universities,(ref. 14) and is bound to remain a major political issue for years to come. It is not surprising that the institutional emphasis is on the all-important undergraduate training. Generally, there is no institutional drive for research.

    3.3. Research in African Universities

Individual universities in Africa generally play a larger and more influential role in national development than do universities in other parts of the world. African universities frequently hold a near monopoly on the production of skilled managers and technical specialists for the public and private sectors, generation of new local knowledge through research, linkage of the country to the scientific world at large, and the inculcation of professional values. (ref. 11)

In 1991, it was reported that the research output at African universities has declined drastically by 35% since the mid-1960s. During these decades, research money throughout the continent has been drying up largely because of chronic economic crises. What emerged was that much of African research became supported by foreign governments and philanthropic groups. (ref. 15)

Through the much appreciated collaboration of Dr W. Val Metanomski, Chemical Abstracts Services, USA, an analysis was made of the abstracts in Chemical Abstracts "originating" from the countries in Africa for 1987 and 1996. The results are summarized in Table 1. (ref. 16) The number of abstracts includes journal articles, conference papers, and technical reports.

However, a note of caution should be sounded: "Abstracts of papers by country" are based on the assumption that the address of the first author corresponds to the place of work. This is not always true. Be that as it may, this analysis presents the best available data and clearly underlines:

  • the predominance in chemical research of the North African countries, South Africa and Nigeria;
  • some 15 Sub-Saharan countries with sustained and strengthening chemical research contributions;
  • the low or lacking research activity in chemistry in many Sub-Saharan countries.

In analyzing Africa's contribution to the world's chemistry literature, it should be noted that the world's journal articles, conference papers and technical reports, abstracted by Chemical Abstracts rose from 386 466 (1987) to 579 251 (1996) - an increase of 50%. Africa's contribution rose from 3917 (1987) to 5369 (1996) - an increase of 37%. Africa's contribution to the world's chemical literature is 0.93%.

Mrs. A. Pouris, Foundation for Research Development, Pretoria, also processed data from the Institute for Scientific Information, USA, for 1995. In addition, she also assessed the extent of international collaboration. The results are summarized in Table 3, which reflects wide intercontinental collaboration, but limited collaborative ventures between African countries.

Various chemists from Africa emphasized that chemical publication output of Africa is not fully represented in the existing abstracting databases. This is not necessarily due to lack of quality of the contributions, but to the selection of journals for abstraction. However, there is no international database that specializes in the output of scientific institutions in Africa. (ref. 17)

3.4. Official Development Assistance in Africa: The Position of Chemistry

During the period 1986-1994, the total Official Development Assistance (ODA) by the OECD countries to developing countries remained in the range USD 54 - 61 billion per annum. The ODA provides for bilateral grants, bilateral loans, and contributions to multilateral institutions.(ref. 18)

Of the USD 59.156 billion available in 1994 for ODA, the largest amount, USD 11.28 billion, went to Africa, with the major contributors France (27.7%), USA (16.1%), Germany (10.5%), and Japan (10.1%). (ref. 19)

ODA and Official Aid constitute an essential source of funding in many Sub-Saharan countries, where 16 countries in 1994 received ODA and Official Aid varying between 20% and 103% of their respective Gross National Products. Others receive less. (ref. 20) The proportion of ODA and Official Aid allotted to Higher Education is not known, but according to W. Saint, a 1992 survey of 17 countries from Latin America, Asia and Africa showed that 1%-2% of total aid was earmarked for Higher Education. (ref. 21)

Japan is now the largest contributor to ODA with a contribution of USD 14.489 billion in 1995 of which USD 1.616 billion went to educational projects.(ref. 18) In analyzing the type and number (in decreasing order) of projects supported in Africa by Japan, one notices a large number of grassroots projects followed by projects for increased food production, establishment of infrastructure (e.g. water availability, sewage systems, electricity, roads, ports, bridges), food aid, and less frequently a variety of further projects.(ref. 19) During the past few years only two specific chemistry projects were supported, at the University of Cape Coast, Ghana (1996),(ref. 22) and at the University of Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe (1993). (ref. 23)

Recent years have seen the onset of "aid fatigue" in some industrialized nations, and some of these nations are even contemplating reducing their budgets. Contributing reasons for the threatened cuts are the strained finances of industrialized countries and the doubts about the effectiveness of their assistance, especially because African development has not been very successful. Donor countries use various agencies to address higher education projects. Due to their unique assistance philosophies and backgrounds, donor countries and international organizations each have their specialties in terms of regional expertise, aid, categories, and schemes. To become more effective, it is vital for donor countries to co-ordinate with each other in their aid programmes.(ref. 19) The Association for the Development of African Education fulfils this requirement in part.

    3.5. Donor Agencies and the African Research Effort

External resources are critically important to African educational development. In the early 1980s public international development assistance from OECD and OPEC sources, the Eastern Bloc countries, from private non-governmental organizations and non-concessional loans from the multilateral banks came to nearly USD 1.6 annually. (ref. 4) During 1981-83, higher education received 34 percent of direct education aid from external sources, but this declined towards the end of the decade. International development assistance will play a prominent role in efforts to stabilize and revitalize African universities. This is because severe financial constraints at the national level have, in many cases, reduced government funding for higher education to salary support and essential operating costs. (ref. 5) The African Ministers of Finance in their report to the World Bank proposed a cluster of interventions, inter alia, for increased World Bank and other donor investment support for institutions of higher learning and for the cultivation of regional centers of excellence. (ref.11)

Regional or sub-regional cooperation may be pursued through several models. The "Centre of Excellence" model often requires heavy investment to acquire "state of the art" equipment and facilities and is usually donor driven. Although the host country often provides substantial support, contributions from other countries in the region are either marginal or totally absent. (ref. 7) The alternative model is the "Division of Labour" approach, which is advocated by CASTAFRICA II. (ref. 7,24) The main feature of this approach is the co-involvement of the participating institutions in the offering of the training program.

The first approach runs a major risk if donor interest wanes, whereas the second approach, if truly based on need, has a greater chance of sustainability even when donor interest declines.

Donor agencies have contributed in substantial ways to the growth and development of African universities over the past three decades. The support is recognized and appreciated by the institutions.

Relationships between Higher Education institutions and specific donor countries were established over extended periods. One of the truly successful outcomes, is the corps of African professionals trained in the best institutions the world has to offer; e.g. the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation provided the author with an address list of its 127 fellows from Africa! (ref. 25) These trained professionals provide a sound and impressive basis on which to build. However, donor actions have also helped to exacerbate the current university crisis in Africa and this was critically reviewed by W. Saint, (ref. 5) who indicated that the composition of external support changed over the years. Donor projects focused increasingly on specific problems and became more results oriented. The following trends were observed:

  • "A broad human resource development approach at country level.
  • Long term program support rather than incremental project support.
  • Building institutional self-reliance and sustainability.
  • Strengthening local self-directing capacities.
  • Improving appropriateness of projects and project-related training for the world of work.
  • Promoting quality of education and training while trying to meeting expanding needs."

    Indeed, African universities operate with core funds and additional grants. Many universities depend on external, usually foreign, support for their basic core functions e.g. the major universities in Mozambique and Tanzania depend on foreign funds for more than 50% of their total expenditures, of which only a small part concerns research. Some universities depend entirely on foreign funding for the execution of research. As a whole, research aid for development represents approximately 5% of the overall development assistance.(ref. 26) A lack of balance between core resources and special projects stands out. The institutions are often weak and lack both the academic and administrative base required to make full use of external offers for support or cooperation. Criteria for accepting grants are not set, overheads are rarely charged. (ref. 27)

    To depend on outside funding is debilitating. It is reasoned that development cannot be brought about from "outside", but must have roots "within" each country. Consequently, support from international agencies must be met by confirmed commitments from local academic and political leaders.(ref. 7) However, a frequent lack of strategic planning at institutional and governmental level frustrates longer term planning.

    In the cases of weak institutions, assistance may be a necessary stage to reach a situation where they can engage in proper co-operation. (ref. 27) Donor support frequently assumes an institutional capacity within universities that is not always there. (ref. 5)

    The most strategic need is to strengthen the institutional basis for research. This includes: (ref. 28)

    • capacity for research administration;
    • minimum of research facilities;
    • capacity for maintenance of scientific equipment;
    • libraries; and,
    • qualified academic staff.

Without such a basis, research activities cannot be sustained beyond the lifetime of a project.

The second important part of the strategy is to establish university research, where scientific contacts and a critical group of colleagues are necessary to create a research environment. A quantum leap usually occurs when post graduate studies and research training is undertaken. African universities may identify strengths, invest in some selected areas, and co-operate on a regional level for research training. The notion of "regional centers of excellence" has been very popular among aid agencies. (ref. 27)

The significance accorded to human resource development saw the launch of a number of initiatives. International donor interest endeavored to improve their effectiveness through collaborative relationships and addressed the question on how to ensure that donor support is consistent with the universities' principal institutional objectives. (ref. 5)

In addition to the need for long-term financing, most donor agencies underline the need for joint interest, joint application, joint participation, publishing etc. (ref. 27)

Excellent overviews and analysis of existing research support programs were drafted by Manor and de Kadt (1990), (ref. 29) Gaillard and Thulstrup (1994) (ref. 30) and Gaillard (1995) (ref. 26). According to the Ford Foundation, the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA) is compiling information on education grants from all member donors of ADEA to African countries since 1995. The information will be categorized by education sector. (ref. 31) Donors have an important role to play in the revitalization of African universities. That role should be based on dialogue, consensus, and partnership.

    3.6. Information Technology and Libraries

The increasing cost of books and journals with decreasing government support reduced many libraries to "museum-like repositories of outdated books", which no longer receive journals regularly. Hence, most universities are no longer capable of supporting scholarly research and training. Moves are afoot to bridge this gap and if these moves could be complemented by efficient systems of document delivery, new opportunities will be opened up. Some of these initiatives are: (ref. 7)

  • The American Association of the Advancement of Science (AAAS), funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Ford Foundation and USAID, provides subscriptions and scholarly journals in 35 countries of Sub-Saharan Africa;
  • Increasingly libraries are becoming involved in CD-ROM technology. The African Academy of Sciences, in association with AAAS, supplies bibliographic and full-text databases on compact disc to research libraries in 38 Sub-Saharan countries.

    3.7. Networking

    B. Abegaz, in his contribution on "Universities in Africa" (1994) (ref. 7) reviews the challenge to African universities to optimize their interdependence and summarizes the networks in Africa established out of need on the basis of the "Bottom-up" principle. Particular attention is devoted to regional cooperation with a summary of centers, networks, and associations offering and promoting regional post-graduate teaching and research. The following are examples from the large number of bodies: (ref. 7)

    • African Network of Scientific and Technological Institutions (ANSTI);
    • African Bio-sciences Network (ABN);
    • Association of African Universities (AAU);
    • Consortium of African Schools of Information Sciences (CASIS);
    • Institute of Natural Resources in Africa (INRA);
    • African Academy of Sciences (AAS);
    • Pan-African Union of Science and Technology (PUST);
    • Natural Products Research Network for Eastern and Central Africa (NAPRECA); etc.

By way of example some detail is provided on this last-mentioned multidisciplinary Network established in 1984. It mobilizes natural products scientists within Eastern and Central Africa to contribute to research and development of natural products from plants and other generic resources in the sub-region for socio-economic development. The non-political, non-governmental NAPRECA gets financial support from time to time, for implementing its programs. Membership fees are derived from member scientists, nine member countries, and donor organisations. (ref. 32) NAPRECA's survival into the foreseeable future will largely depend on the continued strength and goodwill of its membership support. (ref. 28)

3.8. Salaries and Subvention

Many staff members in African universities have performed under conditions never experienced by their colleagues in First World countries. (ref. 9) They need to be provided with an enabling environment and incentives (e.g. income, working and learning environment, rewards for merit, matching grants from abroad, etc.). Generally, donors are sympathetic to some or other form of financial incentive. Problems arise when the contracts ends and the subvention (incentive) cannot be sustained. This results in researchers losing interest and motivation. There is agreement that the incentive should be performance linked and that in promotion research achievement should carry greater weight. To highlight the extent of the problem the following could be quoted from the literature:

  • In the late 1960's at a particular institution, senior staff earned the equivalent of USD 200 per month. By the late 1980s this was eroded for senior professors to USD 75 and to "make ends meet they have divided their time between the university and their informal paymasters: the pigs and the chickens they have to raise, the passengers in their taxis, and of course foreign consultation donors"; (ref. 33)
  • In the 1970s and 1980s, staff salaries were abysmally low with examples of salaries equivalent to USD 20 per month. The situation is still serious in many institutions, but some countries have more recently introduced improvements in university staff salaries; (ref. 9)
  • Within universities, consultations became the thing to do, which reduced the role of many academics into serving short range narrow objectives. To check the above deficiency, increasing numbers of institutions insist that their academic staff should combine both consultation jobs and independent research before they can hope to be promoted. (ref. 33)


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