Jon Harle reports on the recent library consortia meeting in Addis Ababa about building strong foundations for research to deliver African Union’s ‘Agenda 2063’
Last week’s workshop in Ethiopia wasn’t about libraries. It was about taking a vision of research and higher education – a vision of enabling development, tackling critical problems, improving the delivery of basic and much-needed services, preparing Africa for a changing world – and pulling that down to the detail of skills, of organizational processes and structures, of defining and addressing priorities through the incremental, day-to-day steps through which capacity is developed, services improved and progress made. One of my frustrations after the Senegal African Higher Education Summit in March was that we weren’t discussing the ‘how’ – and realising these ambitions for research and higher education will depend on taking high-level goals and translating them to real and sustained improvements in myriad areas, so that each part of the research and knowledge system is working well. Much of that comes down to everyday detail, which is many links down a long chain from better education, health and livelihoods.
After three days of discussion and problem solving in Addis last week, we took some time out to visit the African Union’s headquarters. It seemed a particularly appropriate place for a visit, when our time last week had been spent trying to improve a critical part of Africa’s research and higher education systems, and when the AU’s new “Agenda 2063 – The Africa We Want” awards specific recognition to research and higher education.
Flicking through the document – which sets out an ambitious continental vision for the next 48 years (the date references the AU’s founding in 1963), ordered into seven aspirations and offering a ‘roadmap’ towards this vision of a prosperous and connected continent – I was struck by the need to connect our conversations about the detail with high-level continental – and national –strategies for African development.
The argument that few development goals will be met without higher education (HE) and research has been well made in recent years. More productive agriculture, better infrastructure, improved sanitation and building climate-resilient economies – these will all need high-level skills and new knowledge. But, in Agenda 2063, research and higher education get a specific mention – and several mentions at that.
“Africa’s human capital will be fully developed as its most precious resource” argues the document and, building on basic education, declares that the continent will ensure “sustained investments in higher education, science, technology, research and innovation”. Postgraduate education – the foundation for research and research skills – will be expanded and strengthened “to ensure world-class infrastructure for learning and research and support scientific reforms that underpin the transformation of the continent”.
Whether the African HE Summit in March, which ended with a speech from the African Union Commission (AUC) Chair endorsing a critical role for HE – had anything to do with that isn’t clear (no doubt the agenda has been long in the drafting, and the AU has been investing already through NEPAD), but the AUC seems to be committed to a vision of African development underpinned and enabled by research and HE.
A commitment – and a challenge
This serves not only as a commitment to push for greater investment in research and HE, but challenges universities and research institutions to deliver on that potential. To do so they’ll of course need sustained public investment (although it’s clear that universities can no longer rely on public funding and need to find new funding models) and the right policy and regulatory mechanisms to both enable and reward institutions to do this.
Judging by the closing comments from our partners who joined us in Addis last week, they share this ambition, and they want to realize their and their institutions’ potential. It’s rare to reach the fifth day of a workshop and find participants still engaged, still energetic, heads down in groups, wrestling with ideas and developing concrete action plans.
Agenda 2063 speaks of “deliberate efforts to nurture a transformative leadership”, and these same sentiments were echoed in some final remarks from our Kenyan co-facilitator, Jacinta Were: “We can do it” she declared, “but it starts with you as a person” she said. Our group last week were leaders of national library consortia – who share a vision of enabling high-quality research and teaching by ensuring that academics, students, professionals and researchers have access to the latest, best information that they need, and that their own work is captured and made visible for the rest of the world. “But don’t lock yourself in libraries,” Jacinta implored. “Involve yourself in university management. Speak their language. Understand what they’re trying to achieve,” she urged.
Of course the success of last week will only be fully evident over the next few months – and over the next couple of years. Has it helped clarify priorities and suggest ways forward? Has it helped to strengthen a network of consortia leaders in the region, who are committed to work together, to collaborate and achieve national capacity through regional peer support? And will we see better access to information, improved services to researchers and others, and the skills and structures to sustain this?
It’s early days, but last week has left me feeling optimistic about what we’ll achieve together over the next couple of years.