Ever since I entered the doors of the University of Eastern Finland, then University of Kuopio, I heard stories of Africa education and research collaboration. The team of researchers and educators that worked with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation to develop fisheries and aquaculture on Lake Tanganyika, led by Professor Emeritus Ossi V. Lindqvist and the team of researchers and educators in Joensuu like Professor Emeritus Harri Siiskonen who worked on history and geographical research of Namibia. However, going a bit further back, we come to the beginnings of development cooperation in Finland, when forestry was identified as a focus. Although the first piloting of Finnish development aid support in the forestry sector was implemented in India in 1957, it was only later in the mid-60s that the training of forestry specialists using development aid started to become a main-stream activity in the Finnish development cooperation scene.[i] This was propelled by a visit of President Urho Kekkonen to Tunisia in 1965. He happened to be the very first Head of State of Finland to visit Africa. Needless to say, since then many forestry related projects have been implemented worldwide in developing countries by Finnish organisations. The other UEF parent university, University of Joensuu, was a forerunner in this area. After all, Joensuu is also known as the European Capital of Forests.
However, going even further back in history, we come to the roots of Finnish-African relations in the 1800s when Finnish missionaries found their way to present-day Namibia. Since then, we find that both Finland and Namibia have very close relations on many levels. Thus, so it is with UEF, where the first ever African students were Namibians, arriving in Joensuu in 1983 and in Kuopio in 1985. His Excellency, the Speaker of the Namibian National Assembly Peter Katjavivi was a researcher in the Department of History in the University of Joensuu in the 1980s and he planned the first history studies curriculum for the, then, future University of Namibia, and later became the first Vice-Chancellor of the University of Namibia. The current Vice-Chancellor of the University of Namibia, Professor Kenneth Matengu, is our alumnus, having completed both his master’s and doctoral degrees in Joensuu. Hence, our connections are long and strong, and the University of Namibia remains a strategic partner for UEF. Our collaborations extend from history and geography research to teacher education, computing sciences, health sciences, and social sciences.
Fast forward to current day, UEF’s Africa collaborations have grown and evolved. On a student level, over 1000 Africans from 30 African countries have studies at UEF. Currently, we have 207 African students enrolled at UEF: 109 master’s students and 98 doctoral researchers, with the majority hailing from Nigeria and Ghana. On roster, we have 24 African staff from 14 different African countries. With this, it is fair to say that we have a vast alumni network in Africa that are doing amazing things on the continent. Photonics Ghana is one such organisation. This is a network organisation of Ghanaian UEF photonics alumni dedicated to developing photonics education and research in Ghana, and with ambitious plans to scale to the rest of Africa. We remain dedicated to supporting this endeavour and to deepen our interaction with our African alumni.
We have active collaborations in 11 African countries, mostly anglo-phone regions in southern Africa, East Africa and West Africa, on many different initiatives and through many different networks, such as the Southern Africa Nordic Centre (SANORD), the Finnish University Partnership for International Development (UniPID), not to mention the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture’s Global Programme networks, four of which involve African partners: the EduCASE Platform, the Finland-Africa Platform for Innovation (FAPI), the Global Innovation Network for Teaching and Learning (GINTL) and the Southern Africa Finnish Network for Health and Wellbeing (SAFINET). These networks are indeed important for deepened engagement with Africa on education and research.
While the roots of Finnish-Africa collaboration lie in development aid, the mechanisms and practices are of the past. Dambisa Moyo’s book ‘Dead Aid[ii]’, demonstrates this well. Indeed, the new word that has been around for years now is development cooperation. A nuance, one may say, and I have certainly criticised this many a time. While fulfilling our global responsibility goals, it is important to note that a paradigm shift has occurred and will continue to occur, on this front. Aid needs much decolonising and is not the main driver for engagement anymore. Rather, collaboration and equal partnership are given more and more importance. This is mentioned several times in Finland’s Africa Strategy. The European Union (EU) has also recognised that the engagement with Africa must undergo a transformation towards a mutually beneficial partnership and common actions aligned to policies in both regions.
The frameworks that guide us as western higher education institutions, however, tend to ignore the African frameworks, knowledge and contexts. This is apparent through the very premise of knowledge, or that what we class as knowledge. Dr Lata Narayanaswamy of the University of Leeds put this very well in a recent UniPID and Global Programmes training on ‘Responsible and Equitable Academic Partnerships’ saying: our thinking, our institutional frameworks, research and discourse are shaped by a bunch dead white men: Foucault, Hayek, Marx etc.
Funding instruments are certainly very euro-centric, from their very design and drive collaborations a great deal more than we in academia may actually give thought too. In addition, Finnish development policy guides much of the academic collaborations between Finnish and African institutions (and other Global South), whereas education and science policy take more or less of a back seat. This has many implications on the types of collaborations that end up being implemented, not to mention that there are few mechanisms to recognise the participation of academics in these types collaborations. Participation in development cooperation type of activities can sometimes, sadly, be a career-stopper especially for young researchers. The positionality of development cooperation is seen as something on the side, nice to do but certainly not of priority.
A question related very much to my own role at UEF, is to determine how we can be more acknowledging of the diversity of knowledge that exists in Africa- the cradle of mankind. How can we move to real equity? How can we better recognise the needs and strategies of our African partners (be they institutional partners or our students, staff and alumni) while at the same time balance those with our own interests at UEF? Certainly, we need to think of these questions, if not for the very fact that some of our biggest international student groups hail from Africa. A majority minority, if you will.
I think this demand for and starts with open communication. Communication that really is open to discussions on how partnership and collaborations are founded, what the aims are, where we shall go and how we shall do this. It’s like taking a trek to Mount Kenya where one needs to know what peak they aim to summit, what routes shall be taken, what gear and clothing is needed and a plan for time is considered, and a plan B made, in case all does not proceed as planned. Communication to also ensure that parties are well aware of the commitments made and how data and benefits are shared, between the institutions. Communication to understand the different contexts of Finnish institutions and that of different African institutions. Communication to recognise that the same power dynamics that we are discussing between Finland and Africa, also exist within Africa and between different African institutions. It comes all down to voice. Who can be the 54 voices of Africa? So, on this Africa Day, while we celebrate, l invite Africa and Africans: Let’s talk to each other openly and set a foundation for research and education with excellence and impact. Tuko pamoja? Are we together, as we say in Kiswahili?
[i] Virtanen, R. 2013. Kaivoja Köyhille? Suomalaisen Kehitysyhteistyön Vuosikymmenet. WSOY. EU.
[ii] Moyo, D. 2009 Dead Aid. Why aid is not working and how there is another way for Africa. Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York