Q&A with Hanne Kirstine Adriansen, co-editor of "Higher Education and Capacity Building in Africa"

Hanne Kirstine Adriansen, co-editor of Higher Education and Capacity Building in Africa, discusses his experience writing the book.

What experience led you to write this book?

After having participated in capacity building projects in Africa ourselves, we became increasing interested in understanding the power and politics of scientific knowledge, how this is negotiated through such capacity building projects, and not least we became interested in understanding whether such projects were in fact a type of neo-colonialism.

While many researchers are involved in capacity building projects of universities in the Global South, we are usually involved just as practitioners. Only rarely does capacity building of higher education become a research field. With this book, we wanted to change this, because we found there was a need for a book focusing on capacity building as a research field.

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

We have three main messages, we want to highlight. Firstly, that capacity building projects are embedded in all sorts of power relations and that these projects are never neutral. This is not a problem as long as the participants are aware of the inherent power relations. Secondly and following from this, there are a number of dilemmas and paradoxes related to capacity building of African higher education. We have described these in the conclusion. Finally, we want to highlight the benefits of our approach – geographies of scientific knowledge. By focusing on the geographies of knowledge production, we have managed to illustrate the uneven spatial relations in a different way than the one found in post-colonial research.

What findings in writing/researching the book surprised you?

The book consists of nine case studies written by different researchers both young and established, from different disciplinary backgrounds, and from both the Global South and the Global North. Being a co-editor and author of the book, it surprised me, how difficult it is to conduct research on our own practice, i.e. changing from being practitioners of capacity building to researching this field. That being said, I also find that some of the most interesting chapters are the most personal ones. I am particularly fascinated by chapter 9 which is an auto-ethnography by Bev Sithole from Zimbabwe. She analyses her way through universities in the South and North and points to some interesting questions about who has the right to speak on behalf of Africa. Who can be said to represent the ‘African’ voice? And who has the ownership to knowledge?

Can you offer some guidelines for capacity building in higher education in Africa?

We argue that capacity building programmes can be a means to assist African universities to ‘find their own feet’ if they are based on long-term partnerships, a close understanding of historical, political and geographical context, and not least a common exploration of knowledge diversity. We are afraid that capacity building and the tendency towards increased internationalisation of higher education can lead to what might be called ‘mono-cultures of the mind’ (by the Indian activist Vandana Shiva). Therefore we find this exploration of knowledge diversity important.

Are these guidelines also valid for capacity building in other parts of the world?

Yes, we would argue that the dilemmas and paradoxes outlined in the conclusion can be found elsewhere in the Global South. In fact we have been asked why we had a focus on Africa in the book, why not include the whole Global South? While we do argue that African countries are different and that it is ill suited to talk about Africa as a whole, we found there were some commonalities which made it valid to focus on higher education in Africa. Moreover, we argue it is important to understand capacity building projects in their historical and geographical context and therefore, we focus on one continent instead of the whole Global South. However, readers without detailed knowledge of Africa can also learn a lot about the problems related to capacity building of higher education.

Moreover, the focus on geographies of knowledge taught us that some of the dilemmas are not due to North-South relations, but part of the wider power of knowledge as seen in internationalisation of higher education where the Anglo-American world (including Australia) are the winners. Hence, some of the chapters also warn against blind transfer of theories and methods from one context to another.