“Learning, Knowing, and Serving: The MacArthur Foundation in Africa,” Remarks by Jonathan Fanton at the African Studies Association Annual Meeting
November 13, 2008 | Speech

It is a great honor for me to address this occasion celebrating your half-century of intellectual engagement with Africa.

Since becoming president of MacArthur almost a decade ago, I have been privileged to visit Africa many times. On each trip, I absorbed more “knowledge of Africa” and grew more firmly committed to the continent, its people, and their future. And MacArthur’s work has increased steadily in scope and depth.

When Aliko Songolo and his colleagues asked an American historian to address your meeting – I was surprised. What I know about Africa I learned late in life. But Africa is now the part of the world in which I am most interested. I also knew that, next March, the MacArthur Board would be considering a recommendation to place more emphasis on Africa. So I saw this as an opportunity to think more about Africa and how a Foundation can contribute. I feel that I am among kindred spirits here, and look forward to your advice.

Fifty years ago, the ASA began with fewer than 200 members. Today, you are the pre-eminent forum for African studies in North America.

Your scholarship has helped illuminate Africa’s importance, secured the place of African studies in America’s universities, and equipped Africans to make significant contributions across the continent.

This anniversary finds you back in Chicago, appropriate not only because it was the place of your first meeting, but also because this city is a vibrant center of African-American life and culture with a growing African diaspora. And we are the proud home of the first African-American president of the United States.

Barack Obama’s victory reminds us how much the world has changed since 1958. That year, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission began operations, the NAACP Youth Council held the first sit-ins at Oklahoma City lunch counters, and Dr. King published Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. The Space Race was escalating Cold War tensions and Castro’s army attacking Havana.

In Africa, the “winds of change” were blowing away the European empires. While Hendrik Verwoerd, architect of apartheid, became South Africa’s prime minister, Guinea, Sudan, Chad, Congo, Gabon, and the Central African Republic followed Ghana into independence.

In the 1960s, Africa was the future, full of hope and promise. And the ASA responded, building an intellectual framework to comprehend Africa’s immense complexity and new nation states. Alas, several decades of disappointment followed, marked by civil wars, corruption, poverty, famine, and epidemic disease.

But we are in a new day. Aili Tripp captures its essence: “Africa is at a watershed. It is on the cusp of major changes in its economics, politics, technology, culture, and engagement with the rest of the world. This moment, like all moments of transition, is full of exciting possibilities but also some daunting challenges.”

Those words come from “Africa at a Crossroads” – next year’s conference statement. But they sum up the case I will make to MacArthur’s Board.

Despite Darfur or Zimbabwe, AIDS and drought, a renewed scramble for its resources, even the global economic downturn, Africa has stronger prospects today than for many years. Major conflicts – in South Africa, Angola, Liberia, and elsewhere – have been resolved. Fresh, less authoritarian, political impulses are emerging. Economic growth, at almost 6 percent of GDP across the continent, has been the most rapid since the end of colonialism. The African Union is increasing in confidence and effectiveness. And technology, from cell phones to agricultural bio-engineering, offers broader horizons and new opportunities.

Such moments of transition are often when Foundations can add their greatest value. But how to do so? As we prepared to expand our work in Africa, we realized that, even though MacArthur had worked in Africa for 24 years, we had not stepped back, assessed what we had learned, and articulated our core goals and assumptions.

That process is now underway. We have worked in 20 countries, supporting 33 universities, 156 civil society organizations – and on occasion, government agencies. But our footprint reflected our fields of interest, not a coherent strategy for Africa.

Interested in population and reproductive health, we saw Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, as place where we could make a contribution. Our program to conserve areas of high biodiversity at risk brought us to the threatened ecosystem of the Albertine Rift (where Uganda, Rwanda, Congo, Burundi, and Tanzania meet) and also to Madagascar. A commitment to human rights and international justice led us to address police reform in Nigeria, conflict resolution in Uganda, and the need for regional human rights commissions and courts for Africa. Our longstanding programs in research and education made investment in African universities a natural extension of our work. We have a long-term commitment to each activity, but how might we expand our emphasis on Africa guided by a comprehensive framework?

Stimulated by the subject of this conference, I want to explore knowledge as a unifying theme.

I think of four types of knowledge – for, in, from, and about Africa – that reflect our goals. To gather, increase, interpret, and exchange information is central to all our grantmaking.

Let me elaborate:

  • First, money alone cannot create self-sustaining change. Our goal is, in Foundation-speak, to “build capacity.” In other words, we use our own strengths as an organization to make knowledge work for Africa, enabling African people to address African problems in African ways.
  • Second, we are committed to building knowledge in Africa, especially through higher education – critical to economic development, effective leadership, a robust civil society, good governance and respect for human rights.
  • Third, we see a growing importance for responsible media coverage of neglected topics and the emergence of independent local voices — knowledge from Africa.
  • Fourth, we encourage academic research and international conversations and connections– knowledge about Africa.

Let me comment on each in turn, share what we have learned, and reflect on the challenges ahead:

Knowledge for Africa.

MacArthur is well aware of the dismal record of foreign aid in Africa. All too often, philanthropy has made similar mistakes, misunderstanding how societies work, pressing inappropriate programs or technology.

I said earlier that MacArthur’s interest in Africa had come about piece-meal, through grants made by individual programs. In some ways, this has worked to our advantage. Rather than embarking on a large-scale, top-down strategy, MacArthur has built specific programs from the ground up.

Our fields – reproductive health, human rights, conservation – are woven into the fabric of communities. Our offices abroad are led and staffed by citizens of those countries, sensitive to indigenous cultures, traditions, and realities. And everywhere we work, we rely on local NGOs with local knowledge.

Such local knowledge is especially important in an area of great delicacy, such as population and reproductive health. This was the first MacArthur program in Nigeria – where we are work in six states to reduce maternal mortality, improve reproductive health services, and educate young people.

Educating young Nigerians about sexual and reproductive health is a challenge, given widely diverse cultures, delicate religious sensibilities, and traditional family structures.

But there are imaginative ways forward. One of our grantees, Dr. Tor Iorapuu, used his expertise in theater. With a 1995 grant from MacArthur’s Fund for Leadership Development, he developed a play called Had I Known that dealt with self-destructive adolescent behavior and misinformation about sex. The play had a tremendous impact among young people, teachers, and religious leaders. It led to the establishment of the Youth Adolescent Reflection and Action Center (YARAC) in 2000. The Center uses drama, training, and counseling to educate teenagers, and has wide support from the community, schools, and government agencies.

The success of this modest initiative, amplified by the efforts of other individual leaders and NGOs, helped persuade Nigeria’s National Council on Education to adopt a national sexuality curriculum in 2001. YARAC has helped implement in this in almost 200 schools in Plateau state. And our grantee Action Health International is implementing the curriculum in all junior secondary schools in Lagos State. Early research shows that students in the course for three years understood the issues better than their uninstructed peers and that those exposed to the family life curriculum were far less likely to be sexually active. And that has encouraged twenty other states to adopt the curriculum. Perhaps most important, the Federal Ministry of Education is requiring colleges of education to include Family Life and HIV Education in pre-service teacher training programs.

The theme of providing good information on sensitive topics carries over to the conservation field. MacArthur aims to protect areas of high biodiversity in eight “hot spots” in the developing world, two in Africa. But a conflict arises when national parks are created in places where local people have lived, farmed, fished, and hunted for centuries. A MacArthur research network on Advancing Conservation in a Social Context is proposing ways to protect endangered species while respecting the rights and needs of local people.

For example, in the highlands of Uganda, Rwanda, and the DRC, our grantee the International Gorilla Conservation Program has been collaborating with the people who live around Bwindi National Park on ways to keep mountain gorillas out of cultivated fields. IGCP purchased an agreed twelve-mile-long strip of land to be a buffer zone. Acceptable methods of gathering firewood and water from the Park are negotiated and monitored. And a game lodge for eco-tourism has been built in the park, with local people receiving 7.5 percent of its profits and 20 percent of gate and lodging fees.

MacArthur is encouraging, advising, and funding, but local people and local organizations, are making the decisions, doing the work, and making a difference.

That does not mean that we cannot introduce new ideas or methods. Innovative technologies, often very simple, can be transformative. Let me cite two examples from our population and conservation work.

Nigeria has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the world, with a third of the deaths caused by postpartum hemorrhage. A simple package of interventions holds the promise to reduce those rates significantly. The centerpiece is an Anti-Shock Garment, made of neoprene with Velcro fasteners. By applying pressure to the patient’s lower extremities, the Garment reduces bleeding and maintains the flow of blood to vital organs.

The ASG can buy time (up to 36 hours) for hemorrhaging women, many of whom must be transported long distances to reach a health facility and competent care. It is inexpensive, and can be used effectively with very little training.

Pilot tests of the Anti Shock Garment in Nigeria at the University of Ibadan showed a reduction in deaths of 60 percent. Last year, the Foundation invested $11 million to expand use of the ASG in India and in Nigeria, which together account for a third of all maternal deaths worldwide. Our grantee, Pathfinder International, is collaborating with the Nigerian Federal Ministry of Health to integrate the ASG and the drug misoprostol, which helps to prevent hemorrhage when administered before labor, into local health systems. We hope that this therapy will be become the standard protocol of care for postpartum hemorrhage in developing countries; we expect soon to support the use of misoprostol against hemorrhage in Ghana and Ethiopia.

In Madagascar, our grantee Tany Meva is the first foundation in that country dedicated to conservation. It is helping reduce deforestation, raise living standards, and improve access to credit. Almost all families in Madagascar use firewood and charcoal to cook and to heat their homes, putting the island’s forests under extreme pressure. Tany Meva has helped hundreds of families acquire solar, ethanol, and fuel-efficient wood stoves, and hydroelectric battery chargers for lighting. These kits save trees, reduce fuel costs, and improve the quality of air within houses.

It is lessons such as these that helped us see the need to change how development professionals are trained. We funded an International Commission on the Training of Development Professionals, chaired by Columbia’s Jeffrey Sachs, to examine that training and suggest how it could be improved.

The Commission Report, released last month, recommended that more science, engineering, and technology be included, along with a deep clinical experience. It designed a new Masters in Development Practice and MacArthur has provided funds for a dozen universities, several in Africa, to pilot the new degree. An online, interactive Global Classroom will allow students around the world to join. Its curriculum will be open-source, and we hope as many as 35 universities worldwide will participate.

Secondly, Knowledge in Africa

Improving universities is perhaps the most effective way of lifting an economy, preparing leaders, and expanding democratic participation in Africa, as elsewhere. But I do not need to persuade you: I admire ASA’s work with the Association of African Universities and the African Higher Education Resource Directory.

In 2000, MacArthur joined the Carnegie, Ford, and Rockefeller foundations to create the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa, since joined by the Hewlett, Mellon, and Kresge foundations. The Partnership has so far invested more than $320 million in 50 universities in nine African countries, benefiting more than 300,000 students.

MacArthur’s principal commitment is in Nigeria, where our partner institutions include the University of Ibadan, Bayero University, Ahmadu Bello University, and the University of Port Harcourt.

We listened to what the universities said they most needed: a new computer center and a department of agriculture at Bayero, a petroleum engineering institute at Port Harcourt, undergraduate science labs at Ahmadu Bello, a distance learning program at Ibadan.

Common to all was the need for faculty development, library resources, science equipment, and internet connectivity.

We are organizing a “buyers club” for volume discounts on sophisticated equipment like nuclear magnetic resonance spectrophotometers, gas chromatographs, and amino acid analyzers, working with the International Foundation for Science in Sweden.

Altogether, 250 faculty members from Nigeria have received assistance to complete masters and doctoral degrees. Many went overseas. Others joined intra-African academic exchange programs, such that run by the African Economic Research Consortium. AERC has built a network of universities that offer collaborative higher degrees and share resources and course materials – a way to make the most of scarce resources.

MacArthur is supporting efforts such as the Bandwidth Consortium. The Consortium enabled twelve universities in six countries to increase bandwidth by 800 percent between 2004 and 2006 and reduced the costs by two-thirds. Today, the Consortium is one of the largest internet service providers in Africa, serving 19 universities and 39 other sites.

Libraries at Nigeria’s universities were in dire need of modernization in 2000 when MacArthur began its initiative. With outdated materials, few journals, little access to computers, and hard-to-use catalogs, some were used principally as study halls. MacArthur has greatly improved infrastructure, organization, and resources. A grant to JSTOR makes its archive of 600 scholarly journals available to all libraries in Nigeria, many of which cannot afford hard copies.

We helped Ibadan to establish an Office of International Programs, and 35 international research collaborations with institutions such as the Universities of Pennsylvania, of Illinois, and Alabama.

We have seen encouraging results: Bayero has the highest proportion of fully accredited programs in the nation. Ibadan and Port Harcourt have each risen to the top of Nigeria’s National Universities Commission rankings over the last five years.

With strong universities, Africa can unleash the potential of its people, make its own way forward in development, and grow more stable and inclusive societies.

Third: Knowledge from Africa

I need hardly remind you of the common Western perceptions about Africa — still the “Dark Continent,” worthy of intermittent attention only because of its persistent conflict, killing, and crises.

But this is a legacy of centuries in which Africa has been cast in the role of “other” to Europe, a mine for resources, or opportunity for expansion.

In 2003, speaking at the “New Era for Africa” conference in Paris, then President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa acutely summarized this paradigm:

  • The Continent has no place in the world economy except as a supplier of raw materials;
  • There is no requirement that the Continent should have access to modern technology and contemporary human skills;
  • Such socio-economic problems as the Continent faces should be contained within Africa and addressed as welfare problems;
  • No contribution to human civilization can be expected from Africa except in the fields of the performing and plastic arts and its natural habitat;
  • The Continent has no major role to play in the global system of governance.

The mainstream media too often recycles these preconceptions, relegating Africa to wildlife documentaries or National Geographic specials.

The world needs to hear what journalist Charlene Hunter Gault has called “the new news of Africa” 1 — its vast diversity, hopes, successes, and opportunities as well as its challenges, struggles, and hardships.

The number of violent conflicts on the continent has halved since 1999 — what was the history of negotiation, compromise, and reconciliation behind the peace-making? HIV/AIDS rates are reported to be stabilizing or falling over much of the continent — does this reflect a genuinely positive trend, and, if so, what explains it? How has adult literacy in Tanzania, up 69 percent over the last ten years, changed that society? Africa now has 300 million cellphone subscribers, a number projected to double over ten years. How is this technology helping monitor human rights abuses in Darfur or exposing rigged electoral returns in Zimbabwe?

MacArthur, through its support for high-quality documentaries, has made a modest contribution to telling some of these stories.

Milking the Rhino, about community-based conservation efforts in Africa, has just been completed by Kartemquin Films. Our support for FRONTLINE/World produced South Africa: The Play Pump, about getting water to rural areas; In the Tall Grass, about the gacaca reconciliation processes in Rwanda; Long Night’s Journey Into Day, about the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission; and Liberia, America’s Stepchild, about the long and fraught relationship between the two nations.

Of course, not all the news is good. But technology helps bring news that people want to hear, rather than what governments allow or traditional news organizations decide to cover. Our grantee Global Voices uses the internet to provide videos, pictures, and eye-witness accounts from Africa. In July, Global Voices carried a series of posts giving African reactions to the proposed indictment of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir by the International Criminal Court. The site gave in-depth coverage of the Kenyan and Zimbabwean post-election crises, chronicled a devastating cyclone in Madagascar in February, and broke the story of a Moroccan Facebook user arrested for impersonating a prince.

And technology helps share important information in a nuanced way. Another of our grantees, the OneWorld International Foundation, launched the first internet portal dedicated to global justice in 1995. OneWorld now has 13 participating centers around the world, one in Zambia, and has helped spread information about successful development projects led by women’s groups, exposed electoral abuses and child labor practices, and shared ways of combating HIV/AIDS across Africa and the world.

There is another aspect to knowledge that is coming out of Africa – the brain drain, part of a larger trend of the mass movement of people around the world.

There are now more Africans coming to the United States from Africa than at any time in our history.2 And they are exceptionally well qualified. Half hold college degrees, 20 percent a graduate degree — making them more educated than any other ethnic group.3 African immigrants to Britain and Canada are similarly high achieving.4 And there are clear benefits: The UN estimates that the diaspora sends back to Africa at least $40 billion each year, perhaps as much as $150 billion.

But the loss of talent and expertise to Africa is a chronic concern.

Ten percent of sub-Saharan African university graduates emigrate — a loss in educational investment of more than 1.5 billion each year.5 Almost 15 percent of Ghana’s 20 million citizens live abroad.6 Zimbabwe has lost perhaps a quarter of its 12 million citizens, including the most educated segment.

MacArthur’s recent initiative on Human Migration and Mobility is examining the implications of such trends. Data is scarce. We are funding projects such as a study of why and how people move from Ghana, Morocco, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Nigeria by the International Migration Institute at Oxford. Better information is the basis for better scholarship and policy.

Africa is losing large numbers of nurses and doctors to the developed world, where salaries and conditions are better. Migration is a right, but it can harm fragile health systems in developing nations.

MacArthur is supporting the development of recruitment codes for health workers aimed at stopping the exploitation of immigrants and also returning benefits to their home countries through exchange and education programs. The U.S. Code — a voluntary, private-sector initiative — has already been endorsed by more than thirty hospitals, recruiters, and healthcare professional associations.

I am pleased to learn of a connection between the ASA and the Association of African Universities to encourage diaspora academics to work with universities in their home countries. That program could include incentives for academics to return home for periods of time, offer courses electronically, supervise graduate students, host exchange students at western universities, and more.

While the movement of people is a modern reality, it need not be a zero-sum game. Professionals who leave Africa to work in rich nations can be a resource, reservoirs of expertise, and conduits for others to gain experience abroad.

Fourth: Knowledge about Africa

In talking about knowledge from Africa, I spoke about how the rest of the world learns about the contemporary realities on the ground.

I close with knowledge about Africa, by which I mean a deeper understanding of the history and culture of Africa and how that history will inform Africa’s integration with a global, social, political, and economic order.

This is a critical time for scholarship about Africa, and I encourage universities everywhere to invest more in African Studies programs.

But the future of study about Africa will be different. While the best scholars always collaborated with African counterparts, the new era will see a seamless bond of intellectual inquiry as the rule.

Building knowledge in Africa — strengthening universities — is an integral element in a global network of scholarship about Africa.

Exchange programs have never been more important. Both ways. Diaspora links can help. But we need more than individual scholarships and bi-lateral agreements between the universities. A good idea, proposed by Paul Zeleza, is to choose themes around which to organize significant exchanges. These might include leadership and governance, science and technology, democracy and development, human rights and civil society, Pan-Africanism and globalization, environmentalism and energy.

The modes of engagement need not be limited to old-fashioned, one-way, year-long visits. Technology allows for continuous collaboration, supplemented by conferences at home and abroad.

And the raw material for research projects need not be heavily weighted to publications coming from developed countries. We need to strengthen scholarly publishing in Africa, including electronic publishing and online data bases. I applaud the Africana Librarians Council for its efforts to disseminate books and journals from African sources.

One of the most important tasks of African Studies has been to trace the historical evolution of damaging stereotypes about Africa, offer empirical evidence that challenges their conclusions, and to frame a new perception of the future. Central to that paradigm is that Africans can seize hold of their destiny and earn a respectful partnership from the rest of the world.

So let us recommit to making the search for knowledge about Africa a global partnership, led by the ASA.

For its part, MacArthur will increase its commitment to bringing knowledge to Africa for local adaptation, building knowledge in Africa through strengthening universities, enabling accurate and nuanced information to come from Africa, and strengthening knowledge about Africa.

All four knowledges speak to an inflection point in history: African institutions are ready to use knowledge to confront poverty and disease, advance democracy, reduce civil conflict and promote human rights. To help realize the possibilities of this moment, the world needs a deep understanding of Africa’s complex history and traditions, a clear-eyed appreciation of the challenges, and a practical assessment of roads forward for a more just, prosperous and peaceful continent. Only then can we help in a truly collaborative and effective way.

The ASA is central to realizing that vision. MacArthur has a lot to learn from you and I am grateful for this opportunity to open a conversation that will enable us to make common cause in the years ahead.

1 Hunter-Gault, Charlayne: New News of Africa: Uncovering Africa's Renaissance, Oxford University Press, 2006.

2 Roberts, Sam; More Africans Enter U.S. Than in Days of Slavery. New York Times. February 21, 2005.

3 The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, No. 26 (Winter, 1999-2000). African Immigrants in the United States are the Nation's Most Highly Educated Group. pp. 60-61.

4 Dustmann, C, Theodoropoulos, N (2006): Ethnic Minority Immigrants and their Children in Britain. Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration, Department of Economics, University College London; Boyd, M. (2002). Educational Attainments of Immigrant Offspring: Success or Segmented Assimilation? International Migration Review 36 (Winter): 1037-1060.

5 http://www.arp.harvard.edu/AfricaHigherEducation/Factoids.html, accessed 08/24/2008.

6 Owusu-Ankomah 2006. Emigration from Ghana: A Motor or Brake for Development. Keynote Address at the 39th Session of the Commission on Population and Development, New York, USA.

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