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Universities in Africa: the forgotten link?

The following post is by Moussa P. Blimpo, who just received his Ph.D. in Economics from NYU, and has recently returned from conducting fieldwork in Benin and The Gambia. He is from Togo.

The working conditions are very poor in many African universities. I had a chance a few days ago to attend a class at The University of Lome, in Togo. My high school buddy, Zakari, is an assistant professor of mathematics there. With a meager salary, he has a daunting task to accomplish every semester. When he started teaching over a year ago, he was assigned to share an office with three tenured professors and another assistant professor. There is one computer and one printer to share, no copier, and no internet.

Zakari teaches four classes this term, with about 18 instructional hours per week. This year, he says, he has graded over 7000 exams already, and the academic year is yet to finish.

I attended one of his classes. It was a lab session with third year biology students. I could count over 120 students in the classroom. As you can see from the picture here, some students in the back of the room were kneeling down to take notes and many others were standing. The room was fairly large, but there were not enough seats to accommodate all the students.

I am not complaining for Zakari. Two of Zakari’s officemates left last year for Europe and they have no intention of returning.

My concern was for these students who are so eager to learn. As I stood there, I asked myself a few questions: Why is it that so little attention and funding is given to universities?  With practical training, wouldn’t these young men and women be the one who will create jobs tomorrow? Shouldn’t African universities be strengthened to enable Africans to think about African problems?

Andrew Mwenda suggested, at the Best and Worst of Aid conference, that aid might be more effective if it is more often targeted to reinforce the strengths of a country rather than focusing on weaknesses all the time. He made a similar point here on TED.

I believe that universities may be one place where aid, coupled with a smart higher education reform, could be very productive.

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  1. Robert Tulip wrote:

    ‘To reinforce strengths’ is called the Matthew Principle – “to those who have will be given”. This Biblical idea (Matthew 25:29) is rejected by the theory of poverty reduction that says help should go only to those who have least. Universities in poor countries do not get much help, partly because despite their dire state of collapse they usually get more local funding per student than basic education does, so they are seen by donors as relatively rich. As well, there is a prevalent theory that basic education does more than tertiary education to spur growth. This zero-sum focus on basic education ignores the role of elites in national policy development in favour of a charity theory of compassion that says the role of aid is only to provide direct help to the poorest. Aid would be more effective if it built the capacity of universities in poor countries. Unfortunately this seems counter-intuitive to many aid workers.

    Posted June 8, 2010 at 3:03 am | Permalink
  2. geckonomist wrote:

    Why don’t you worry first about primary education for all?
    That would add a lot more value to a dirt poor nation. Development econ 101.

    Why would aid money be used pamper the lucky few who were rich enough to get secondary education and can even afford university fees…?
    And the aid sector gives many scholarships to local students – hence it is not really true that the university education is “neglected”.

    But, if Moussa Blimpo cares so much about a decent university, why doesn’t he start a private university where he sets the high quality standards himself?

    Then he could put his NYU economics PhD to some practical use.
    After all, he already identified a ready market for his product – yet he doesn’t seem to realise that fact himself.

    Posted June 8, 2010 at 3:16 am | Permalink
  3. geckonomist wrote:

    To say it in Prof. Easterly’s terms: Why is Moussa Blimpo thinking of grand plans (top down “aid” for african universities), while he could search and arrive at a much better market based solution himself.

    Posted June 8, 2010 at 3:19 am | Permalink
  4. terence wrote:

    Hi Moussa,

    Thanks – that’s an excellent post.

    FWIW – in my neck of the woods at least, aid agencies do support universities. I’m sorry to hear this isn’t the case in Togo.

    Posted June 8, 2010 at 5:00 am | Permalink
  5. Haruka Tanabe wrote:

    I see the same situation everyday in a primary school I work at. Children here sit on the ground and take notes.

    Not to say I don’t empathize with this article – I loved studying at university and being able to listen to the lecturers in the seat without any disturbance.

    I wonder if more money was spent on uniersity education here in Mozambique, how it would help this country prosper. I’m not saying it won’t change anything, but to me it seems university education is for rich people (I’ve heard some young people say that, and friends here who recieve it are generally much better off than people in the surburb). And although I have seen some very passionate young people trying to help the community, generally rich people here care so much about poverty. But maybe that’s just people around me.

    My point is, I’m not sure if people with university education would want to stay in the country and use that knowledge for the good of their people. We need to think about how to make incentives for those people to stay in the country as well.

    Posted June 8, 2010 at 10:12 am | Permalink
  6. Ari wrote:

    Aid to universities would help universities, but not clear what it would do for the country. If you have really good universities but a really crappy economy/work environment to enter once you graduate, the only thing you’re going to have gained is better ability to emigrate.

    This is exactly what happens with many medical schools in East Africa, where they train competent doctors and nurses, who then go to Western Europe to practice their trade. The country invests a lot in the students, and then loses that investment when they leave the country. Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t invest in universities, but it does mean that can’t be the center of the picture. Good graduates need to be able to do something they find rewarding once they graduate.

    Posted June 8, 2010 at 10:32 am | Permalink
  7. Moussa P Blimpo wrote:

    I believe that you are making a point that is based on an inaccurate premise. The idea that the university students in developing countries are those who are rich enough to get higher education is not accurate. Zakari (in the post) and myself are actually good examples.

    More importantly, that is beside the point. The process of a sustained wealth creation require innovation. Universal primary education (at the expense of quality by the way), as important as it is, might not effective if the higher education is left in limbo.

    Regarding your second comment, I am indeed searching and I intend to be searching. I just hope that the aid industry would be searching too and be keen to change its directions in the face of evidences of ineffectiveness.

    Posted June 8, 2010 at 10:54 am | Permalink
  8. Tucker wrote:

    There have also been times and places where the government creates useless public sector jobs to prevent them from organizing any opposition. The private sector is not automatically equipped to handle university grads.

    Posted June 8, 2010 at 11:03 am | Permalink
  9. Raj Melville wrote:

    and the work they are doing to help bring lab tech to African universities

    Posted June 8, 2010 at 11:50 am | Permalink
  10. Moussa P Blimpo wrote:

    @Haruka Tanabe, Ari, Tucker
    These are all very important points that are worth looking at seriously. That is actually why I am talking about smart reforms in my last sentence. There are many other challenges to deal with including curriculum reforms. There is a need to equip graduates so that they can create jobs rather than always look for jobs.

    However, I believe that these are not good enough reasons to abandon higher education in poor countries. Instead, these challenges can be addressed and should be.

    Posted June 8, 2010 at 11:53 am | Permalink
  11. Matt Richmond wrote:

    I wonder what the percentage of university educated students who stay in the country is? Focusing on secondary education may be more cost effective than educating people who are just going to leave anyway.

    Posted June 8, 2010 at 4:47 pm | Permalink
  12. Following the ideas of Andrew Mwenda at the TED conference, I believe that professors at African universities need to focus on providing job skills and training that facilitate their graduates ability to create wealth in their home country. This does not appear to be happening at the moment. How should the course work at African universities be changed?

    Posted June 8, 2010 at 4:53 pm | Permalink
  13. Lesley A wrote:

    Moussa an investment in universities would make a difference but aren’t the jobs created by the donor/aid industry for western graduates? Isn’t the huge investment focus on basic education and agriculture in Africa keeping us underdeveloped?

    Posted June 8, 2010 at 5:00 pm | Permalink
  14. Robert Tulip wrote:

    In many poor countries, improving the economic competence of graduates who enter ministries of finance has higher economic rate of return than investment in primary education. Enabling sound governance through formation of national elites provides a platform for economic growth. Investment lost by emigration returns as remittances, making much tertiary education a good export industry.

    Posted June 8, 2010 at 8:10 pm | Permalink
  15. Michael wrote:

    It is wrong to think that African university students are all part of some ‘elite.’ In Liberia, where aid agencies have done little for the national university, which has open, low tuition enrollment, the situation is dire. No books, no labs, no qualified teachers. How can a country be expected to manage itself when the institutions devoted to creating the managerial class are in such pathetic shape. The World Bank, USAID and the EU all need to reevaluate their education policies to take account of the dreadful conditions facing most African university students….these are not the elites but they are the future generation of leadership. Right now they are being wasted.

    Posted June 8, 2010 at 8:19 pm | Permalink
  16. Aki wrote:

    I think the believe that those who gain higher education will invariably emigrate is not base on real statistics. the number of law skilled workers or those who have basic skills that live the country is bigger. You can notice from the patterns in Europe. The Moroccans that emigrate to work in agriculture in Spain are not exactly university graduate. also the large wave of emigration from East and partially central Europe that work in law skilled jobs. It is true there is a number of people with high education that emigrate but this is not putting necessary the economy in danger.

    Most of the people I know they did live their countries basically because university are badly equipped. I do have a friend from Mozambique who is planing to return and open a business after he graduate an MBA. If he manage that might create several jobs and it doesn’t matter if he is better off or not.

    Why not think like this? Imagine you train in college 100 doctors never mind if they are the poorest or not. Maybe 50 will leave for other country. from the ones that stay maybe 45 will work in some clinic and 5 open their own small clinic somewhere in their villages or cities. they will serve lets say first 200 or so people. For this they will hire also 1 or 2 nurses. After a while maybe they will be able to hire 2, 3 more and serve 400 people. That mean i lost the money for 50 doctors that left, but gain hundreds of more healthy people plus maybe I create several jobs.
    the other option: I come with doctors from outside I pay them with the amount of money I could build an university, they stay temporary and need to look for replacements, i might pay for their family also, I did not create no stable jobs for locals and I don’t know how long i can provide the services. then I finance only primary education in village in a very law quality, at the end they barely can read and write their names and count till ten and they will keep practicing subsistence agriculture same as those illiterate as a matter of fact.

    What exactly aid hope to achieve? To make people survive another day by giving them the basics or to make them live by giving them the tools to do it by themselves in the end?

    Posted June 8, 2010 at 11:21 pm | Permalink
  17. David J wrote:

    I unfortunately don’t follow the logic here. How is it possible to think about dumping buckets of dollars over the heads of universities if there are no jobs to be gained at graduation? If your economy isn’t able to absorb these fresh, post-graduate minds, subsidized or not, the poor students will remain poor.

    Perhaps, an effective argument that focuses on capacity building would be to teach a farmer how to upgrade their position in a value chain, increase their yields, and provide consistent forward linkage to a market. With 397 mm Africans dependent on agriculture, I’d bet the knock on effects would be tremendous.

    Posted June 9, 2010 at 3:53 am | Permalink
  18. Moussa P Blimpo wrote:

    These arguments have been made for decades. You are thinking about graduates out there looking for jobs, always. You don’t think about start-ups and job creation for the same students or graduates.

    How about teaching students to become successful farmers? I have so many former classmates who have graduated in agronomy. They never find a support or a big enough loan to start their farms. Many are now teaching in high schools.

    Now you are going to teach and upgrade their parents instead? By the way, the expression “teach them” is easy said than done. But assume that you are able to teach them all the managerial and production skills needed, now, would the market give them a loan that it didn’t give to the young dynamic and skilled men and women? No, I don’t think so. At best, it would be another microcredit scheme that will follow and here, micro inputs equals micro output. I am not talking about poverty alleviation. I am talking about prosperity.
    The paradigm need to change!

    Posted June 9, 2010 at 10:23 am | Permalink
  19. E Aboyeji wrote:

    Some of the arguments people have made above against investing in quality higher education for young Africans are rather worrisome (especially coming from geckonomist).

    I doubt they derive from anything that resembles an informed position on the issue or a proper understanding of what Universities do (or are supposed to be doing).

    I’ll explain why increasing resources at the disposal of African Universities is the first line of a real offensive on economic underdevelopment in Africa.

    The first thing is that it increases the capacity of African Universities to look at Africa’s development problems with a more critical eyes. Too much of the research is done at places like DRI in NewYork and this is annoying, disrespectful and not very helpful to many Africans like myself.

    Second, it lowers costs associated with development research. When randomized control trials have to costs $40,000 a piece, we have a problem with development research. Besides, if Bill tells you his travel budget for last year, you will likely be enraged. If he had Professor Nyarko working from a comfortable well equipped African base, NYU might save some money, no? Needless to say, properly managed research funding goes so much farther in African countries (because of obvious currency issues).

    The third reason is a bit ironic considering some of the simple minded comments. The data shows a growing amount of the “brain drain” (an idea I don’t subscribe to by the way because I love Bill and Yaw’s more apt term “brain circulation”) is coming from African academics. The only way African academics will be encouraged back home is if there are comparable work and living standards at African Universities. So all this talk about educating people into brain drain is irrelevant. Come to think of it, how much trouble do graduates of African University go through to find jobs elsewhere? Who will be encouraged into brain drain with chances like that? Puh-lease.

    The last reason is probably the most important. Africa’s future is dependent on it. This year, some 6,000 kids will leave for Canada for University. There are 6.2 million kids in African universities. Think of how much more impact we are talking about. The same people who say like geckonomist, think about primary education first are the same people who award unbelievable amounts to fund scholarships for ONE ‘smart’ kid to go abroad. Its not cost effective and it also promotes what you people think is a brain drain problem.

    Let’s not even talk about what the track record with investment in higher education in Developing countries is, from China to India to the UAE to Saudi Arabia. The same results, higher education= higher productivity=economic growth. There are few regressions you will do that will be closer to one believe me.

    White African (founder of Ushaidi) said something , on his twitter feed yesterday about the now whole “design for development” fad trucking through the development community right now. It really stuck with me.

    He said: Design for development by outsiders is useless. If you must do something, enable people to design for themselves.

    I agree.

    Development research by outsiders (sorry Bill, but you know I love your work) is useless. If you must do something enable people to do their own development research by themselves.

    African Universities are that oppurtunity.

    I wrote this piece that might throw more light on my feelings on this subject :

    Finally I should thank Moussa for giving this issue the kind of exposure it has gotten. We should keep pushing for critical thought like this. This time for Africa!

    Posted June 9, 2010 at 10:25 am | Permalink
  20. In 1998 USAID introduced the Supermoneymaker pump in Africa. I never saw a report from an African university of whether these pumps allowed Africans to make “super” amounts of money. What happened?

    Posted June 9, 2010 at 3:49 pm | Permalink
  21. David J wrote:


    I sincerely appreciate your commentary but your response defeats your point you began with. If you have friends who have become agronomists and cannot find ways to finance their business ideas, then the answer is not to subsidize the education of more agronomists. The simple answer would be to find a way to finance their business, right? This reinforces the necessity of an enabling business environment, as well as the spurring of innovation through higher education.

    I work in SME finance (in agriculture no less) and am trying to answer many of the same questions you pose. Take it for what it’s worth.

    Posted June 9, 2010 at 4:29 pm | Permalink
  22. francis wrote:

    I think this issue is more prominent amoung French speaking African countries. I can attest to that, we tend to be less pragmatic in our research and spend all our time philosophying which does not make us attractive for practical research which is the source of funding.

    Posted June 9, 2010 at 5:21 pm | Permalink
  23. Robert Tulip wrote:

    The main constraint to improvement of business enabling environment is weak capacity within governments to reform investment regulation. The best way to improve regulation is to improve the economic understanding of the regulators. The best way to improve understanding is to expose the regulators to new ideas. The best place to circulate new ideas in poor countries is local universities. Universities should be the dynamos of economic growth and the champions of civil society. Neglect of universities stymies the emergence of champions of reform and makes it much harder for Africa to reduce poverty.

    Posted June 9, 2010 at 10:05 pm | Permalink
  24. Moussa P Blimpo wrote:

    Thanks for your comment and your interest in these questions. I would agree with you that there are other issues including the business environment. However, some of these issues are more important than others and many more are just symptoms of others. I don’t see a contradiction in my argument.
    What you didn’t take into account is the conditions under which they studied in 5 years to become agronomists. What laboratories they had? What books? And as a result, how qualified they are compared to a similar agronomist trained in an average US school. I am not asking for more of the same agronomists.

    All I am saying is that it may be more productive to look at improving universities.

    Posted June 9, 2010 at 10:52 pm | Permalink
  25. I have a friend who teaches economics at a major university in Washington DC and is a member of the Arab Economics Council. He and I feel that more Egyptians should study business process reengineering (BPR) (my field) and less should study economics (his field). He and I feel that economics is the only field that most World Bank and aid officials know so if you are interested in foreign aid it is a good field to go into. On the other hand, businessmen know more about BPR. They use the BPR ideas to make their businesses more profitable and their organizations more efficient. BPR also facilitates job creation. I cannot remember encountering any university student from Africa that knew much about BPR although my contacts have been limited. See my website at to understand how I am using BPR techniques to improve agriculture in Colombia, Morocco, Afghanistan, Egypt, Eritrea, Russia, India, etc. In general, I work with relatives of high Government officials living in Washington rather than universities, AID officials, or World Bank officials. They are the ones who are interested in making money.

    Posted June 10, 2010 at 9:44 am | Permalink
  26. Ehui wrote:

    Little wonder that professors in many universities in Africa have no room for professional development with work loads like these.

    Largely, policy on education in Africa has focused on primary and secondary education to the detriment of the tertiary sector.

    Moussa, what are your thoughts on converting public universities in SSA to fee-paying insituitions?

    Posted June 10, 2010 at 11:59 am | Permalink
  27. Moussa P Blimpo wrote:

    This is an important point, and I believe that such reform is inevitable.

    However that change will be slow and gradual. It is politically very unpopular because it is often branded as an attempt to deny higher education to the poor.

    I am not in favor of mediocrity for the everyone, I am rather for excellence even if it is going to for some only for a while. Therefore, cost recovery should be part of the reforms needed.
    I believe that many country are moving in that direction.

    Posted June 10, 2010 at 2:15 pm | Permalink
  28. Go Togo wrote:

    Let us just build up University of Lome! One thing that I have learned….you can never go wrong with a strong educational system.
    If some students get the chance to work abroad…great…revenue will be created in endeavors abroad which could potentially result in funding to the university.
    Let’s get real…most will not travel, so it is ridiculous to not invest in University level development for the fear some will travel? Give me a break…it is hard to get a visa.
    I pray for the future of Togo, a country full of hard working, smart people, who deserve improvement of their university.
    I am interested in comments which inspire what we could do as an individual to improve the educational atmosphere at University of Lome.

    Posted June 15, 2010 at 10:36 am | Permalink
  29. We as a charity are trying to combat poverty. While we might not be able to provide lecturers or bigger venues for universities, we are helping in the ways we can. Computers 4 Africa donates up to date ICT equipment, which is no longer used in the UK, to educational facilities across the whole age spectrum, including Universities and Adult Education. Even gaining basic computing skills can secure a student a job earning sometimes twice the wage they were earning. A common response from teachers and tutors is about the time and stress it saves them when they have a computer to write test papers on or as a resource. No, we’re not able to solve all the educational problems, but if we can help, even in the simplest things, we will. We believe there is value in making things run smoother and ICT can help with that.

    Posted June 16, 2010 at 5:43 am | Permalink
  30. Go Togo wrote:

    I am anticipating improvements in internet access in Togo soon!
    It was announced that a contract was signed with Avatel, of France, to bring 3G internet to “2 million Togolese and remote villages”.
    Improvement is inevitable if the ‘system’ allows it.
    I am still confused as to why there is a block in ease of communications (TogoCell costs an arm and a leg, and hence communication is expensive).
    I am positive that increased ease of communication, like in Ghana and Benin, will need to happen in Togo.
    I believe the addition of internet access could be a great first step…maybe the government is working on this with the contract with Avatel.
    Time will tell.

    Posted June 16, 2010 at 8:27 am | Permalink

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    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

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