Hurdles in path of an African Einstein
By Nick Ishmael Perkins
The Next Einstein Forum (NEF) has an ambition that is bound to win hearts and minds with its simple optimism. The forum, a group of scientists, policymakers and business representatives, wants a leader in the field of science to emerge from Africa with the kind of far-reaching impact that Albert Einstein had.
The official launch of the forum took place this week in Dakar, Senegal, and was billed as the first gathering of African scientists in Africa. Tolu Oni, one of the NEF research fellows, said: “You know something is a good idea when you can’t believe this hasn’t happened already.”
You know something is a good idea when you can’t believe this hasn’t happened already.
Tolu Oni, NEF
There was certainly a whiff of fresh air about this science conference. More than half of the nearly 1,000 delegates were under the age of 42. It was the first conference I have attended where a panel on data science for Africa featured a tenured mathematics professor and a cosmologist — both in their 20s.
As if that was not enough, Thierry Zomahoun, the president of the South Africa-based African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, where the idea for the event originated, spent five years as a street kid in Benin.
So far, so bracing.
The grand ambition though will need outcomes and ideas that are feasible. Here is where the Einstein project will have its work cut out, because, amid all the buzz, some important conversations were missing on the panels.
First there is the investment pipeline. Many recognised that a good education in mathematics is at the heart of a more scientifically literate society, and this means investing in the related subjects early. Given the diversity of languages and low educational budgets on the continent, however, a revolutionary combination of creative teaching and careful budgeting around delivering education will be required to meet this goal.
The panel meant to address this issue most directly ended up discussing a neat little box of tools on coding instead of how to bring about the change. There were also calls to “simplify maths” — a big ask that went largely unchallenged.
On a number of occasions it was noted that, to achieve research leadership, Africa needs a critical mass of scholars, not a lone genius like Einstein. Similarly, none of the governments talking about their commitments to research worried that national agenda setting might undermine the autonomy and productivity of their research talent.
Leszek Borysiewicz, the vice-chancellor of the United Kingdom’s Cambridge University, made a valiant attempt to raise concerns about the lack of intellectual property laws in Africa. It is the continent’s bustling markets that are the hotbed of innovation, but there was no reflection about how this can be harnessed into business opportunities.
However, this was just the first in a series of forums. Rwanda has agreed to host the next meeting in 2018 and funders are already lining up around the fellowships, scholarships and research chairs planned by then.
Zomahoun insists that the New Einstein Forum is not an event, it’s a movement. And movements need passion — they are not known for granular road maps.
The organisers helped pay for SciDev.Net to travel to the meeting.
China’s Confucius Institutes aren’t perfect but have much to offer Africa
Infrastructure development and economic cooperation will probably dominate discussions during the first ever Forum on China-Africa Co-operation on African soil. But education also features on the agenda. This is an important opportunity to reflect on the role and purpose of China’s global Confucius Institutes and Classrooms.
These are set up by China’s government to promote the country’s language, culture and intercultural exchange. There are currently 495 such institutes and 1000 smaller classrooms – affiliated to primary and secondary schools – in more than 130 countries. The latest available figures for Africa, from late 2014, show there are 60 institutes and classrooms across the continent. The ratio between the two is not clear.
The institutes give foreigners the chance to learn more about China. Indirectly, at least, they are a way for China to counter the generally negative images about the country by foreign media.
Some critics have described Confucius Institutes as merely crude outlets for propaganda. Is this true, or fair? My research suggests not. But there are some serious questions African universities must ask when they enter into Confucius Institute partnerships.
How Confucius Institutes work
Confucius Institutes are normally organised as joint ventures between Chinese and foreign universities. The institute in Grahamstown, South Africa, is a co-operation between the local Rhodes University and Guangzhou’s Jinan University. In Kenya, the University of Nairobi’s Confucius Institute is partnered with China’s Tianjin Normal University.
The third player in every Confucius Institute is Hanban. This is the China National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language, which falls under the Chinese Ministry of Education.
The host university usually provides the premises for the institute. It also sources local staff and pays part of the running costs. China, in turn, normally contributes start-up funding of between US$100,000 and $200,000 for the first couple of years. It dispatches a director and teachers, donates teaching materials and covers the rest of the running costs.
It is this co-operative structure – and the resulting close relationship between foreign universities and the authoritarian Chinese state – which spurs critics to describe the institutes as either academic malware or propaganda instruments of the Chinese Communist Party.
It is true that Confucius Institutes normally err on the safe side and don’t discuss “sensitive” issues like the banned practice of Falun Gong, the role of the Dalai Lama or what happened at Tiananmen Square in 1989. But I believe that critics go too far in describing them as Cold War style propaganda outlets that spread lies and brainwash their visitors.
Such debates, which are sometimes quite emotional and ideologically charged, are important. But they miss other, more pressing concerns about Confucius Institutes. Globally, the institutes are battling with teacher shortages, insufficient teaching materials and questions around their sustainability.
When it comes to institutes in Africa, it is crucial to interrogate how they create both new opportunities and new dependencies for stakeholders on the continent.
For many, if not most universities in Africa, Confucius Institutes are the first and often only contact point for people who want to learn the Chinese language or more about China in general. Numerous European and North American universities have a long history of offering Sinology or China Studies, but this is not the case in Africa.
There were a few small-scale initiatives in a few African countries, but until 2012 there was just one Mandarian program with resident teachers on the African continent and only one research centre dedicated to studying contemporary China. Both of these are at Stellenbosch University in South Africa.
This historical absence of engagement with China on an academic level in Africa suggests that Confucius Institutes could play a more prominent role on the continent. They could be more influential there than in other parts of the world where there are different sites of interaction. Both China and Africa know this. The fifth FOCAC-Beijing Action Plan (2013-2015) says that the:
… two sides will continue to promote the establishment and development of the Confucius Institute and Confucius Classrooms in Africa. China will extend active support in terms of teaching staff, personnel training and teaching materials and equipment.
This direct reference is one of the very few cases where Confucius Institutes are officially mentioned in a foreign policy context. It is proof that the institutes are part of China’s broader foreign relations policy.
Dependency may be a problem
But the very reason that Confucius Institutes are perhaps more important on the continent than anywhere else makes them potentially problematic.
Because there is no established infrastructure to engage with China academically and to learn its language, African universities are potentially more vulnerable if Hanban decides to close down Confucius Institutes in the future. It doesn’t matter why this might happen, whether it’s because of “inappropriate” content or financial constraints. If the Confucius Institute goes at many African universities, the China link goes.
This would be tragic. China is not just Africa’s largest trading partner and a major investor – it also plays an increasingly important role for ordinary people in Africa who should have the opportunity to engage with the Middle Kingdom.
Overall, I believe that Confucius Institutes can be very valuable. It is important, though, that local stakeholders – in Africa and elsewhere – know what they are letting themselves in for. They are not only coupling with the Chinese state, but must consider the sometimes overlooked practical issues and potential dependencies.
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October 06, 2015
A meeting of experts convened by the African Union and Nepad aimed at establishing specialized technical committee (STC) has agreed to present agriculture, water, rural development and environment as major issues during the Cop21 in Paris, France.
The Conference of Parties (COP) 21 is expected to be held in December this year with continental experts likely to present what they perceive as challenges following thorough research and consultations.
News has it that COP21 will be a crucial conference, as it needs to achieve a new international agreement on the climate, applicable to all countries, with the aim of keeping global warming below 2°C.
To this effect, the STC, which comes into effect this week following revision and examination of terms of reference (ToRs) is expected to do just that on behalf of the continent with clear backing of Nepad and AU.
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The timing of this is significant because tomorrow I am flying to Des Moines, Iowa for the World Food Prize event, which was created by Dr. Norman Borlaug in 1986. After he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, Dr. Borlaug noticed that there was no Nobel prize for agriculture, so he established the World Food Prize, which is given annually to a scientist who has made great contributions towards solving hunger problems in the world, especially in developing countries.
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Joice Mujuru was unceremoniously thrown out of ZANU-PF only at the end of last year by a faction led by Grace Mugabe, and closely linked to the current Vice President Emerson Mnangagwa. Once President Mugabe’s favoured successor her fall was rapid. Joice Mujuru was a ZANU-PF stalwart with a strong track record dating from her heroism in the liberation war, where she took the nom de guerre, Teurai Ropa (spill blood), reputedly gunning down a Rhodesian…
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