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Enhancing the Digital Transformation of African Universities: COVID-19 as Accelerator

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African universities must transform higher education. At stake is the future of the African continent and humanity itself, as much of this humanity becomes increasingly African.

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Enhancing the Digital Transformation of African Universities: COVID-19 as Accelerator
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The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated global economies, healthcare systems, and institutions including universities. It has accelerated trends towards the digitalisation of economic and social life and the need for digital skills. Here we focus on how African higher education institutions can embrace these changes in order to survive and succeed in the emerging “new normal”. The pandemic has exposed the huge developmental challenges that African universities face, while at the same time it has opened immense new opportunities for transformation. The continent is indeed at the proverbial crossroads in which the multiple demographic, economic, ecological, political and social problems confronting it can be turned into possibilities if managed with strategic, systemic and smart interventions, and the seriousness they deserve.

One of the continent’s biggest assets is its rapid population growth. If properly harnessed, the youth bulge not only promises to become the continent’s largest population ever, but also potentially its most educated and skilled. It is this population upon whose weighty shoulders the continent has placed a historic opportunity to overcome its half millennia of global marginality, underdevelopment and dependency, and begin realising the long-deferred dreams of constructing integrated, inclusive, innovative democratic developmental states and societies. The ghastly alternative is a Malthusian nightmare of hundreds of millions of uneducated, unemployable, and ungovernable marauding masses of young people, a future of unimaginable dystopia.

Educational institutions including universities have a monumental responsibility to turn the youth explosion into a dividend rather than a disaster. This entails removing prevailing skills and jobs mismatches, upgrading the employability skills of the youth, and strengthening and reforming educational institutions to prepare them for the jobs of the 21st century, which increasingly require digitalised competencies. For this to happen, higher education institutions themselves must undergo and embrace digital transformation. COVID-19 suddenly shoved universities—which are renowned for their aversion to change and notoriously move at a snail’s pace—into the future as they moved teaching and learning, administrative and support services, research activities, and even their beloved seminars, symposia, and conferences online.

The ghastly alternative is a Malthusian nightmare of hundreds of millions of uneducated, unemployable, and ungovernable marauding masses of young people, a future of unimaginable dystopia.

Here we examine the digital transformation of higher education. First, we begin by placing the changes, challenges, and opportunities facing contemporary Africa in the context of the mega trends of the 21st century in which the digitalisation of the economy, society, politics, work, education, and even leisure and interpersonal relations increasingly loom large. Second, we examine global developments in the digitalisation of higher education. Third, we present a twelve-point digital transformation agenda for African universities. Finally, the question of building Africa’s technological capacities to ensure that the continent is a major technological player and not pawn, dynamic creator not just passive consumer of technology, is broached and analysed. We believe without it, the digital transformation of not only African universities, but the continent’s economies and societies will remain incomplete and keep them in perpetual underdevelopment.

The mega trends of the 21st century 

There is no shortage of diagnoses and prognoses of the trends and trajectories of the 21st century by international agencies, consultancy firms, governments, academics and pundits. The projections and predictions of the future are as varied as their progenitors and prognosticators, reflecting their divergent institutional, ideological, intellectual, and even individual investments and proclivities. At a more collective and policy level, they find articulation in national, regional, and global visions. Examples include Kenya’s Vision 2030, East Africa’s Vision 2050, the African Union’s Agenda 2063, and the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.

The futuristic soothsayers were particularly busy at the turn of the new century and millennium but they are by no means gone. A recent compelling and controversial forecast of the unfolding century can be seen in Yuval Noah Harari’s book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. He identifies five developments under which he outlines specific challenges. The first is what he calls “The Technological Challenge” (under which he discusses disillusionment, work, liberty, and equality); second, “The Political Challenge” (community, civilisation, nationalism, religion, and immigration); third, “Despair and Hope” (terrorism, war, humility, God, secularism); fourth, “Truth” (ignorance, justice, post-truth, science fiction); and fifth “Resilience” (education, meaning, meditation).

One of us (Zeleza) is writing a book, The Long Transition to the 21st Century: A Global History of the Present, which seeks to examine the major features of the contemporary world, how they came about, and their differentiated manifestations in different world regions. It is divided into five chapters. The first is entitled, “The Rise of the People” (on social movements and struggles for emancipation and empowerment); the second, “The Emergence of Planetary Consciousness” (on the development of global consciousness fostered by the processes of globalisation and growth of environmental awareness); the third, “The Digitalisation of Everything” (on transformations brought about by digital information and communications technologies on every aspect of social life); the fourth, “The Restructuring of the Geopolitical Order” (on shifting global hegemonies, hierarchies and struggles); and the fifth, “The Great Demographic Reshuffle” (on changing demographic regimes and migration processes and patterns).

Three of these phenomena are particularly pertinent here. The first centers around the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The term often refers to the emergence of quantum computing, artificial intelligence, the internet of things, machine learning, data analytics, big data, robotics, biotechnology, nanotechnology, and the convergence of the digital, biological, and physical domains of life, and the digitalisation of communication, connectivity, and surveillance. Africa has participated in the three revolutions lately as a pawn rather than a player.

During the First Industrial Revolution of the mid-18th century the continent paid a huge price through the Atlantic slave trade that laid the foundations of the industrial economies of EuroAmerica. Under the Second Industrial Revolution of the late 19th century Africa was colonised. The Third Industrial Revolution that emerged in the second half of the 20th century coincided with the tightening clutches of neo-colonialism for Africa. If the continent continues to be a minor player, content to import technologies invented and controlled elsewhere, its long-term fate might not be confined to marginalisation and exploitation as with the other three revolutions, but descent into irreversible global irrelevance.

The second major trend centers on hegemonic shifts in the world system. The global hegemony of the West that has survived over the last half millennium appears to be drawing to a close with the rise of Asia and other emerging economies of the global South. A harbinger of the hegemonic rivalries that are likely to dominate much of the 21st century is the trade war between a declining United States and a rising China. The consequences of previous hegemonic struggles for global power for Africa varied.

The imperial rivalries between Britain, the world’s first industrial power, and industrialising Germany, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries culminated in the “New Imperialism” that engendered both the colonisation of Asia and Africa and World War I. In contrast, the superpower rivalry between the former Soviet Union and the United States spawned the geopolitical spaces for Asian and African decolonisation. What will the current reconfiguration of global power bring for Africa? How can Africans ensure it creates opportunities for development?

If the continent continues to be a minor player, content to import technologies invented and controlled elsewhere, its long-term fate might be descent into irreversible global irrelevance.

Africa’s prospects in the 21st century will be inextricably linked to the third major transformation, namely, the profound changes in world demography. This is characterised by, on the one hand, an aging population in the global North and in China thanks to its one-child policy imposed from 1979 to 2015, and on the other, population explosion in some regions of the global South, principally Africa. Currently, 60 per cent of the African population is below the age of 25.

The continent is expected to have, on current trends, 1.7 billion people in 2030 (20 per cent  of the world’s population), rising to 2.53 billion (26 per cent) in 2050, and 4.5 billion (40 per cent) in 2100. It is estimated that in 2100 Africa will have a large proportion of the world’s labour force. Thus, educating and skilling Africa’s youths is critical to the future of Africa itself and the rest of the world. Doing so will yield a historic demographic dividend, whereas failure will doom Africa’s prospects for centuries to come.

The digitalisation of higher education

Higher education institutions have a fundamental role to play in enhancing the development and nurturing of demand-driven digital and technical skills because of their quadruple mission, namely, teaching and learning, research and scholarship, public service and engagement, and innovation and entrepreneurship. This mission is particularly pressing for African universities, the bulk of which were established after independence by the developmentalist state as locomotives to catapult the continent from the perils of colonial dependency and underdevelopment to the possibilities of sustainable development.

As with every other sector, higher education institutions are facing massive transformations that require continuous reform to make them better responsive to the unyielding and unpredictable demands of 21st century economies, societies, polities, and ecologies. The restructuring of universities is necessitated by pervasive and escalating digital disruptions, rising demands for public service and engagement, changes in the credentialing economy, and escalating imperatives for lifelong and lifewide learning. Given the changing nature and future of jobs, today’s youth will not only have multiple jobs but several careers, some of which have not even been invented.

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic exposed widespread differences and inequalities in terms of national capacities to manage the crisis and its costs. It forced higher education institutions around the world to embrace distance teaching and learning using online platforms as never before. They had to learn to do more with less as their financial resources became strained as never before and their faculty and students faced the stresses of massive readjustment. Many institutions rose to the occasion as they leveraged existing and acquired new digital technologies, while faculty and students adapted to the new normal.

Empty class.

Empty class. Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

The unprecedented crisis revealed differentiated institutional resources, access to information technology, and capabilities to transition to online teaching and learning. The pandemic also underscored challenges of access by faculty and students to digital technologies and broadband based on the social dynamics of class, location, gender, and age. It simultaneously exposed and eroded prevalent distrust and discomfort with online compared to face-to-face teaching and learning, and widespread concerns about the quality of online instruction by students, parents and employers.

A few months before the world was engulfed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the International Association of Universities published an important report on Higher Education in the Digital Era. The report contained results of a global consultation encompassing 1,039 public and private higher education institutions in 127 countries (29 per cent from Europe, 27 per cent Asia and the Pacific, 21 per cent Africa, 17 per cent Middle East, 5 per cent Latin America and Caribbean). Globally, only 16 per cent of respondents found national regulatory policies supportive for higher education transformation in the digital era; 32 per cent mostly supportive with some exceptions; 36 per cent variably supportive and constraining; and 17 per cent mostly unsupportive. The responses from African institutions were 19 per cent, 26 per cent, 37 per cent, and 19 per cent, respectively. Overall, Asia had the most positive assessment, and Europe the most negative.

Today’s youth will not only have multiple jobs but several careers, some of which have not even been invented.

The report also investigated the national financial framework for higher education. Only 7 per cent globally deemed the frameworks highly supportive; 26 per cent mostly supportive with some exceptions; 43 per cent variably supportive and constraining; and 24 per cent mostly unsupportive. Overall, Asia led with 43 per cent, reporting highly and mostly supportive, followed by the Middle East at 40 per cent, Latin America and the Caribbean at 36 per cent, Africa at 30 per cent, and Europe at 27 per cent.

As for Internet infrastructure, the variations favoured the more developed regions. The proportion of individuals out of 100 using the Internet stood at 80.9 in the developed countries, 45.3 in developing countries, 19.5 less developed countries, and a world average of 51.2. Europe led with 79.6, followed by the Commonwealth of Independent States 71.3, Americas 69.6, Arab States 54.7, and Africa was at the bottom with 24.4. The quality of the Internet infrastructure in Africa is exceptionally poor: only 7 per cent find it satisfactory, compared to 39 per cent in Europe, and 21 per cent in Africa find it not good, compared to 2per cent in Europe.

There are also glaring inequalities in the spatial distribution of Internet facilities. At a global level, 34 per cent reported that Internet infrastructure was good in big cities, but poor in rural areas. The equivalent figures were 58 per cent for Latin America and the Caribbean, 47 per cent for Asia and the Pacific, 39 per cent for Africa, 26 per cent for Middle East, and 17 per cent for Europe.

Clearly, enhancing the technological transformation of higher education depends on the levels of national investments in IT infrastructure. The global digital divide remains real and daunting. High inequalities in the spatial distribution of Internet facilities deprives tens of millions of people around the world, especially Africa, access to information, knowledge and networks. Equally critical are institutional investments in IT and here too, Africa lags awfully behind. According to the IAU report, 39 per cent noted digital infrastructure was a significant obstacle at the institutional level compared to 7 per cent in Europe, representing the highest and lowest global levels, respectively.

Higher education and research institutions tend to use national research education networks (NRENs) as an alternative to the commercial Internet Service Providers. On the issue of national support for NRENs, Africa is also at the bottom with 67 per cent of respondents noting the level of support was very or somewhat high compared to the world average of 71 per cent, and 74 per cent for Asia and Pacific, 73 per cent for Middle East, 72 per cent for Europe, and 50 per cent for Latin America and Caribbean.  Africa led in the use of NRENs by higher education institutions at 70 per cent compared to a world average at 62 per cent, the same as Asia and Pacific, and 68 per cent for Latin America and the Caribbean, 64 per cent for Middle East, and 56 per cent for Europe.

Technology at University of Washington, Seattle, United States

Information Technology infrastructure at University of Washington, Seattle, United States Photo by Taylor Vick on Unsplash

Institutional commitment to digital transformation is obviously critical to making the necessary investments in IT infrastructures. The IAU’s report shows generally high levels of commitment from institutional leaders. Africa led with 77 per cent claiming strong leadership support, compared to 74 per cent for Middle East, 73 per cent for Asia and Pacific, 70 per cent for Europe and 61 per cent for Latin America and Caribbean. At a global level, advocacy for digital transformation was bottom-up (56 per cent) rather than top-down (41 per cent). For Africa it was 34 per cent and 63 per cent, respectively. Top-down strategies were most pronounced in Europe (49 per cent) and Latin America and Caribbean (49 per cent), while Middle East led with bottom up approaches (70 per cent).

Approaches to digital transformation varied. Only 18 per cent of respondents globally, and 18 per cent in Africa, and 14 per cent each in Europe and Latin America and Caribbean, 21 per cent in Asia and Pacific, and 33 per cent in Middle East expected to continue doing the same things in their teaching and governance with technology. A larger proportion 43 per cent at the global level expected to do things differently with technology; for Africa the proportion was 16 per cent, Latin America and Caribbean led with 63 per cent, followed by Europe 53 per cent, Asia and Pacific 45 per cent, and Middle East 26 per cent. In Africa, 63 per cent were planning to do things differently but were limited by funds, while globally the figure was 38 per cent, and for Middle East 41 per cent, Europe 33 per cent, Asia and Pacific 32 per cent, and Latin America and Caribbean 23 per cent.

Digital transformation was integrated in institutional strategic plans in all the regions. According to the respondents, globally it was 75 per cent, ranging from 77 per cent for Africa, Asia and Pacific, to 76 per cent for Latin America and Caribbean, 74 Europe and 73 Middle East. Budget allocation for digital transformation was 55 per cent, from a high of 60 per cent in Africa to a low of 50 per cent in Latin America and the Caribbean, with Middle East (56 per cent), Asia and Pacific (55 per cent), and Europe (51 per cent) in between. Overall, the bulk of the institutional budget allocated was mostly between 0 and 9 per cent (35 per cent) and 10 and 19 per cent (29 per cent). In most cases, 73 per cent of institutions reported having a senior person in charge of digital transformation. Training opportunities for faculty and staff were generally in the same range.

The survey further revealed regional divergences in online governance of student data and learning processes. Globally, 63 per cent of institutions reported managing enrolment and student data fully online, with a high of 72 per cent in Europe and a low of 55 per cent in Africa, and 70 per cent for Middle East, 60 per cent for Asia and Pacific, and 58 per cent for Latin America and Caribbean. But the use of learning management systems was lower. The range as reported by institutional leaders was from 47 per cent in Latin America and the Caribbean to 24 per cent in Africa, while it was 40 per cent in Asia and Pacific, 34 per cent in Europe, and 33 per cent in Middle East. Online data management creates both new possibilities and perils in tracking and managing student enrolments, learning, and outcomes. This raises the issue of data privacy and protection. Globally, 55 per cent of institutions reported fully having ethical guidelines or data privacy policies. Africa ranked lowest at 43 per cent, compared to 65 per cent in Latin America and the Caribbean, 64 per cent in Europe, 49 per cent in Asia and Pacific, and 41 per cent in Middle East.

Similarly varied was the use of technology and new modalities in teaching and learning. The global average for full integration of technology in teaching was 31 per cent. Africa ranked second to Middle East at 38 per cent and 40 per cent, respectively. The lowest was Latin America and the Caribbean at 11 per cent, followed by Asia and Pacific at 33 per cent, and Europe at 23 per cent per cent. When it comes to the full use of the new teaching modalities of flipped classroom, blended and online learning, Africa ranked last at 14 per cent, and Latin America and Caribbean on top at 49 per cent, while Asia and Pacific scored 32 per cent, Europe 24 per cent, and Middle East 22 per cent. The global average was 27 per cent. Very few of the responding institutions provided fully online courses: 32 per cent had none, in 14 per cent of institutions they comprised 1 to4 per cent of all courses, and in 13 per cent between 5 and9 per cent.

In much of the world the majority of undergraduate courses were largely delivered through lectures. Africa led in the category “mostly lecture-based learning but combined with problem-based learning”, scoring 56 per cent against a world average of 49 per cent, and ranked lowest under “mostly problem-based learning but combined with lectures” at 11 per cent compared to a world average of 19 per cent. Only 35 per cent of institutions globally reported having fully reconsidered the skills and competencies required of students in the past three years. The regional rankings were Latin America and Caribbean (56 per cent), Asia and Pacific (36 per cent), Europe (35 per cent), Africa (31 per cent), and Middle East (22 per cent). As for reviews of learning outcome assessments, the global average was 42 per cent, and was lowest in Africa at 33 per cent and highest in Latin America and Caribbean at 49 per cent.

Digital literacy is increasingly becoming a critical skill. However, the survey revealed relatively low levels of national support for digital literacy and computational thinking. The global average reporting “Yes, very much” was 19 per cent; Africa registered at the bottom with 12 per cent, while Asia and Pacific and Middle East were on top with 19 per cent each. At the institutional level, digital literacy was viewed as a transversal learning outcome in 22 per cent of the responding institutions globally, the same figure as Africa.

Equally low were levels of national support for open educational resources (OER). In terms of national initiatives in favour of OER, the global average for “Yes, very much” was 16 per cent, similar to Africa’s. The global average for support for online bibliography or library for online content was 23 per cent and for Africa 16 per cent compared to a high of 32 per cent each for Europe and Latin America and Caribbean. At the institutional level only 19 per cent reported fully creating and using OER at the global level, while in Africa 9 per cent did so, which was below the other regions. Commitment to open science was much lower at the national level (17 per cent) compared to the institutional level (56 per cent).

The impact of digital transformations on the nature of jobs and future of work is increasingly appreciated. As a result, continuous reskilling and upskilling through lifelong learning is becoming more and more imperative. Only 18 per cent of respondents globally agreed “Yes, very much” that there were national initiatives in support of lifelong learning; for Africa it was 16 per cent, Europe 24 per cent, Asia and Pacific 18 per cent, Middle East 14 per cent, and Latin America and Caribbean 8 per cent. At the institutional level, 84 per cent reported having adult learners globally led by Europe with 90 per cent, then Africa 88 per cent,  Latin America and Caribbean 87 per cent, and Asia and Pacific and Middle East with 77 per cent each. African institutions reported a 65 per cent increase in adult learners over the past three years, compared to an average 55 per cent globally. African institutions also had higher expectations (68 per cent) that adult learners would increase than other regions (the global average was 61 per cent).

Overall, it is evident from the survey that digital transformation was being pushed by the leadership, followed by faculty, staff, students, governing board, and national authorities. The respondents identified the key achievements using new technologies as, in descending order, improved governance of information, new learning pedagogies to enhance the student experience, improved research, and improved accessibility to higher education. As for challenges, they selected financial costs, university culture’s slowness to adapt to change, lack of interest of faculty and staff to change, lack of capacity building, unreliable internet, and national policies, in that order. For Africa the order of challenges was listed as financial costs, unreliable internet, lack of capacity building, university culture, lack of faculty and staff interest, and national policies.

The report concluded by examining perceptions of current transformations. On institutional readiness towards change, the majority, 53 per cent, indicated they were “very ready”. Respondents from Africa were in the lead at 46 per cent, followed by Latin America and Caribbean 35 per cent, Asia and Pacific 33 per cent, Middle East 30 per cent, and Europe 21 per cent. African respondents (77 per cent) believed more strongly than others (global average 61 per cent) that digital transformation is necessary and inevitable in preparing students to actively participate in society. They also more strongly agreed that digital transformation exacerbates socioeconomic divides within and between countries by 35 per cent to 27 per cent.

Further, to 75 per cent globally, 89 per cent of African respondents strongly agreed compared that digital transformation and new technologies represent an opportunity to expand access to higher education. By a margin of 58 per cent to 39 per cent, they strongly believe these technologies will lower the costs of higher education; 97 per cent to 79 per cent strongly believe they are essential to improving higher education; 90 per cent to 77 per cent that they can enhance the quality of higher education; and 78 per cent to 58 per cent that higher education plays an important role in shaping digital transformation. Yet, only 27 per cent compared to 33 per cent globally believe their institutions were equipped for the future in terms of the emerging technologies and opportunities, compared to 40 per cent in Asia and Pacific, 35 per cent in Europe, 33 per cent in Latin America and Caribbean, and 30 per cent in Middle East.

Clearly, even before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic higher education institutions around the world including Africa were increasingly aware and committed to the challenges and opportunities of emerging technologies. They understood the need to undertake transformations at the national and institutional levels in terms of creating enabling policies, making the necessary financial investments in technological infrastructures and capacities, promoting institutional leadership, culture and commitment to change, providing opportunities for faculty and staff training and development. Further, it was appreciated that critical attention needed to be paid to the inequalities of access and the ethical dimensions of data protection and privacy in institutional data management.

COVID-19 acted as an accelerator in the digitalisation of higher education. It is evident from numerous reports in the higher education and popular media that following closures of campuses as part of the containment measures imposed by governments against the pandemic universities scrambled to transition to remote or distance teaching and learning using digital technologies. An informative comparative snapshot on how universities managed and continue to manage the massive disruptions engendered by COVID-19 is provided by the Association of Commonwealth Universities that conducted a survey in May 2020 of its 500 member universities across 50 countries around the world.

The transition to online education, research and administration revealed glaring digital divides among and within countries, as well as among and within universities in terms of digital capacities and access to data, devices, and broadband. More positively, it helped change perceptions about the quality of online teaching and learning. By the beginning of April 2020, higher education institutions had closed in 175 countries affecting over 220 million students. The survey showed 80 per cent of respondents reported teaching had moved online, 78 per cent agreed it had affected their ability to conduct research, while 69 per cent reported they had been able to take research activities online.

The digital divide between countries was evident in the fact that 83 per cent of respondents in the high income countries had access to broadband, compared to 63 per cent for upper middle income countries, 38 per cent in lower middle income countries and 19 per cent from low income countries. Institutions that were unable to move online were confined to the lower middle income countries (19 per cent) and low income countries (24 per cent). Only 33 per cent with broadband access strongly agreed that the pandemic had affected their ability to conduct research, compared to 43 per cent of respondents without broadband access.

Within institutions, the distribution of access to broadband ranged from 74 per cent for senior leaders to 52 per cent to those in professional services, to 38 per cent for academics, and 30 per cent for students. Institutional support for remote working in terms of devices or data was also skewed in favour of senior leaders and professional services staff (both 82 per cent), compared to students (45 per cent) and academics (40 per cent). Prior to the pandemic students were less likely than other groups to report always having worked online, while after the pandemic senior leaders were more likely than their counterparts to say they would work online frequently.

Perceptions of the quality of online teaching and learning showed marked improvement. The vast majority of respondents, 81 per cent, agreed that quality had improved since the pandemic; 90 per cent agreed that a blended degree, combining online and face-to-face learning, was equivalent to a degree earned only through face-to-face learning, while 53 per cent felt a degree earned solely through online learning was equivalent to one earned through face-to-face learning. As for online working, 65 per cent foresaw working online frequently after the pandemic, while 19 per cent foresaw doing so “all of the time”, and only 16 per cent said rarely and 1 per cent said never.

Fifty-three  per cent of respondents envisaged all (26 per cent) or most (28 per cent) departments would continue to use online teaching and learning, and only 4 per cent said that no departments would do so. In terms of institutional commitments and capacity, 89 per cent agreed that their institution had the will to develop high-quality online teaching and learning, while 82 per cent of respondents agreed that their institution has the capacity to do so.

It was reported that universities were providing support for remote working, but with variations between countries and professional roles. Thirty-seven per cent noted their university made a contribution towards data costs, 31 per cent that they were provided device(s) and 7 per cent that their institutions contributed towards device costs. The levels of support ranged from 87 per cent in high income countries, to 70 per cent in upper middle income countries, 51 per cent in lower middle income countries, and 52 per cent in low income countries. Support was also provided in the form of faculty and staff training and development.

The most pressing challenges identified by respondents for remote working were internet speed (69 per cent), data costs (61 per cent), internet reliability (56 per cent), and time zones (38 per cent). Data costs were most pressing for those from low and lower middle income countries, while those from high income countries cited time zones. As for online teaching and learning, the leading challenges were accessibility for students (81 per cent), staff training and confidence (79 per cent), connectivity costs (76 per cent), and student engagement (71 per cent). Respondents from low and lower middle income countries emphasised connectivity costs, while those from high income countries stressed challenges relating to student perceptions of quality. In terms of impact on research, there were some disciplinary variations: in the natural, environmental and earth sciences 92 per cent of academics reported being affected, while in the arts, social sciences and humanities 61 per cent did so.

The twelve-point digital transformation agenda for Africa

Based on data collected from Africa, the ACU noted that African universities faced particular challenges in managing COVID-19. Many suffered from limited digital infrastructure, capacity and connectivity which made it difficult for them to transition online for education, research and administration. These challenges were compounded by enduring financial strains worsened by severe budget cuts as student enrolments dropped and government funding declined. Fundraising has largely been negligible in most African universities.

Also evident was the digital divide across and within African countries. Across the continent respondents identified many challenges including accessibility of students (83 per cent), staff training and confidence (82 per cent), and connectivity costs (89 per cent). In terms of devices and connectivity, respondents indicated 58 per cent had access to two devices, 82 per cent had access to mobile data and 35 per cent to broadband. In Kenya, 25 per cent of respondents reported having access to a desktop, while in Nigeria 15 per cent and in South Africa 13 per cent did. With regard to broadband, 63 per cent of South African respondents had access compared to 54 per cent for Kenya, and 27 per cent for Nigeria.

Among the leading challenges identified for remote working respondents across the continent were data costs (77 per cent), internet speed (71 per cent) and internet reliability (65 per cent). An encouraging development was the growing provision of institutional support. Forty per cent of respondents received contributions toward data costs from their university, 22 per cent were provided with a device and 8 per cent received a contribution toward device costs. Some institutions adopted innovative ameliorative measures, ranging from negotiating with technology companies zero-rated access or reduced subscription prices to educational content, to providing free dongles to students without remote connections.

There were of course national and intra-institutional variations. More likely to receive support were senior leaders and professional services than faculty and students. In terms of contributions to data costs, 62 per cent of senior leaders and 64 per cent of professional services received support. In the provision of devices 54 per cent of the former and 38 per cent of the latter received support.

As far as online teaching and learning is concerned, there was a marked shift. Prior to the pandemic only 16 per cent of respondents indicated online teaching had occurred in all or most departments; 74 per cent said that all or most teaching and learning was now online. Forty-seven  per cent expected that all or most departments would continue to use online teaching and learning. Again, there were national divergences. In Nigeria 44 per cent of respondents reported no teaching and learning had moved online, unlike South Africa and Kenya where no respondents reported this to be the case. In South Africa 94 per cent of respondents stated all or most teaching was now online, compared to 62 per cent for Kenya and 22 per cent for Nigeria. Attitudes on the quality of online teaching and learning witnessed a marked shift as 80 per cent of respondents believed quality had improved; 49 per cent said they thought a degree earned exclusively online was equivalent, while 91 per cent agreed a blended degree is equivalent to a degree earned face to face.

African educators and policy makers now widely accept that the digital transformation of higher education is here to stay. They also appreciate more keenly the need to make significant investments and interventions in technology-based platforms for the higher education enterprise. In the context of the new realities and pressures, it is increasingly evident that the traditional instructional methods, modes of knowledge production and consumption, and institutional conceits of exclusivity are no longer tenable if higher education institutions are to remain relevant for Africa’s regeneration.

A report on digital transformation for British universities recommends ten useful guiding principles that promote digital fluency among faculty and students: institutional digital innovation and progress; integrated working by creating inclusive and collaborative working environments; engaged learning by rethinking interactivity across physical and virtual spaces; personalised learning that motivates and facilitates individual student success; transformed learning spaces that are connected, coherent and compelling; inclusivity in design to accommodate diverse students and learning styles; building of learning communities for students that are safe, secure, and empowering; learning infrastructure in a propitious technology environment that allows for continuous upgrading; and innovative learning based on continuous experimentation, learning, and investment.

Higher education will emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic profoundly changed from the most catastrophic crisis it has ever faced and for which it was not prepared.  The EDUCAUSE 2021 Top IT Issues foresees the emergence of what it calls alternative and overlapping futures involving three scenarios, restore, evolve, and transform. “The Restore scenario is a story of institutional survival focused on reclaiming the institution’s pre-pandemic financial health”, while the Evolve scenario applies to “institutions that will choose to incorporate the impact and lessons of the pandemic into their culture and vision”. Institutions embracing the Transform scenario “plan to use the pandemic to launch or accelerate an institutional transformation agenda”.

African educators and policy makers now widely accept that the digital transformation of higher education is here to stay.

For example, on the issue of financial health, the Restore scenario focuses on cutting costs, while the Evolve scenario focuses on “increasing revenues and funding sources and on evolving the institution’s business model”. On online learning, the “Restore version takes a structural approach to online learning—emphasizing supports, processes, and policies—whereas the Evolve version focuses on advancing the quality of online learning”. On information security the “Restore version is a tactical one that covers returning to campus as well as cost-effectiveness and recovery. The Evolve version takes a strategic approach and also expands the scope of cybersecurity efforts to include off-campus locations, in recognition of the need to adapt to constituents whose technology environments will never fully return to campus”.

For its part, the “Transform version expands the role of technology (digital transformation) in order to not only reduce costs but also maximize value”. Transform institutions seek to prioritise changing institutional culture and promoting technology alignment. They also seek to develop “an enterprise architecture to enable business outcomes, manage data to enable decision-making and future opportunities, streamline business processes, and enable digital resources to keep pace with strategic change”. For enrollment and recruitment they endeavour to explore and implement “creative holistic solutions for recruitment, including analytics-based marketing around student career outcomes, technology-enabled transfer agreements and partnerships, and use of social media to build student communities”.

Each African university has to ask itself: What kind of institution does it wish to become in the post-COVID-19 era? Many of course will combine elements of all three—restoration, evolution, and transformation. Some may not survive, while others will thrive. Those that endure and excel will need to adopt the twelve-point agenda outlined below.

First, COVID-19-induced transition to remote delivery of education must turn to the development of a long-term digital strategic framework that ensures resilience, flexibility, experimentation, and continuous improvement. Digital transformation must be embedded in institutional culture from strategic planning processes, organisational structures, to administrative practices and daily operations while avoiding exacerbating existing inter- and intra-institutional inequalities for historically, socially, and spatially disadvantaged communities. Universities have to integrate digitalisation in their four core missions: teaching and learning, research and scholarship, public service and engagement, and innovation and entrepreneurship.

Second, universities have no choice but to make strategic and sustainable investments in digital infrastructures and platforms by rethinking capital expenditures and increasing spending on technological and digital infrastructure. Their budgets must not only support a more robust online learning ecosystem, but also build in flexibilities to reallocate resources in the face of unexpected crises. Critical in this regard is building resilient and secure digital business continuity plans, strategies and capabilities.

Third, African universities have to develop online design competencies both individually and through consortia with each other and overseas institutions that are committed to mutually beneficial partnerships in promoting e-learning. Such consortial arrangements should encompass sharing technical expertise for online instructional design, pedagogy and curation, content development, and training of faculty and university leaders. Inter-institutional collaboration is more imperative than ever following the global transition to online teaching and learning spawned by COVID-19 because competition for students between universities in the global North and the global South is likely to intensify. Africa already loses many of its richest and brightest students to universities in the global North and increasingly the major emerging economies of Asia. Now, they stand to lose some middle class students who can afford enrolling in online programmes offered by foreign universities that enjoy better brands than local universities.

Fourth, universities need to entrench technology-mediated modalities of teaching and learning. Higher education has to embrace face-to-face, blended and online teaching and learning, and raise the digital skills of faculty and students accordingly. Digital transformation promises to diversify students beyond the 18-24 age cohort, maximise learning opportunities for students, and open new markets and increasing tuition revenues for universities. Blended and online teaching and learning offers much needed flexibility for students, who increasingly find it appealing and convenient for its space and time shifting possibilities. It also offers faculty “opportunities to improve educational outcomes by adopting a wider range of learning activities, allowing greater flexibility of study times, space for reflection and a move to different forms of assessment”.

Fifth, digitalisation provides opportunities for beneficial pedagogical changes in terms of curricula design and delivery that involves students and incorporates how they learn. It helps faculty to rethink learning and teaching practices, to see themselves less as imperious sages on the stage and more as facilitating coaches. In this transformed pedagogical terrain and relationship, universities ought to “ensure their professional development strategies and plans include digital training, peer support mechanisms, and reward and recognition incentives to encourage upskilling”. An important part of this agenda is for universities to promote research that enables them to stay current with the changing digital preferences, expectations, and capabilities of students, faculty and professional staff.

Sixth, universities should develop curricula that impart skills for the jobs of the 21st century. Such curricula must be holistic and integrate the classroom, campus, and community as learning spaces; promote inclusive, innovative, intersectional, and interdisciplinary teaching and learning; embed experiential, active, work-based, personalised, and competence-based learning; instil among the GenZ youth the mind-sets of creativity, enterprise, innovation, problem solving, resilience, and patience rather than mindsets of passive learners and knowledge consumers who regurgitate information to pass exams. The extensive changes taking place require continuous reskilling, upskilling, and lifelong learning. The growing importance of careers in science, technology, engineering, healthcare, and the creative arts, all within an increasingly technologically-driven environment, necessitates the development of hybrid hard and soft skills.

Students learning.

Students learning. Photo by heylagostechie on Unsplash

Seventh, for student success, universities have a responsibility to embrace and use educational technologies that support the whole student. According to the EDUCAUSE 2020 Student Technology Report, student success goes beyond degree completion. Holistic support encompasses “access to advisors and to helpful advising technologies”, raising students’ awareness about “the tools available to students, where to find those tools, how to use them, and how they can help advance educational and career goals”. Surveys show students also appreciate course-related alerts, nudges and kudos that are positive and offered early. Regular, constructive, targeted and personalised feedback makes a big difference, so does “embedding a human assistant in the online virtual lectures and office hours [who] . . . through modeling, or observational learning, may persuade students to imitate the assistant . . .. The assistant could be a graduate teaching assistant, an undergraduate student, or a peer leader”.

On technology use and preferences, it is important for universities to “establish research-based instructional practices in all teaching modalities” and develop “an acceptable use policy (AUP) for classroom uses of student devices that is informed by evidence-based practice and students’ preferences for device use. Allow students to participate in the design of the AUP to create a digital learning environment in which they feel empowered to use their devices and to regulate their own behavior”. Also important is assessing “student access to Wi-Fi and digital devices and work to ensure that every student has access to these critical technologies”.

Eighth, universities need to develop effective policies and interventions to address the digital divide and issues of mental health disorders and learning disabilities. Resources and new investments are required to provide opportunities to those trapped by digital poverty. An inclusive agenda for digital transformation must also include using the universal design for learning framework (UDL) “when designing learning experiences and services to optimize learning for all people… If technology and IT policies are thoughtfully and inclusively incorporated into a course guided by UDL, then ideally learner variability, choice, and agency increase, while the need for individual accommodations is greatly reduced”.

Creating inclusive learning environments also entails investing in professional development for faculty to better prepare them to provide accessible instruction. Moreover, as universities seek to expand access to mental health services, they need to leverage technology-based interventions that do not just introduce new ways of offering services but also enable scaling of those services to multiple students online.

Ninth, as learning and student life move seamlessly across digital, physical, and social experiences, issues of data protection and privacy become more pressing than ever. Protecting personal data especially relating to students has to be a priority through the provision of safe storage options and the development of policies and practices that are transparent and ethical. Students are generally comfortable with the institutional use of their personal data as long as it helps them achieve their own academic goals, but not for other gratuitous purposes. Thus, they need to know and have confidence in how the institution collects, stores, protects and uses their personal data, and be able to view, update, and opt out.

The proliferation of online harassment especially against women and people from marginalised groups requires institutional protections including creating codes of conduct against clearly defined online harassment, fostering an anti-harassment culture, and developing a centralised system of reporting and tracking. Growing dependence on digital technologies increases cyber security risks that require robust mitigation capabilities including conducting information security awareness campaigns.

Tenth, in so far as the market for online programmes is transnational, it is essential for universities to pay special attention to international students who face unique barriers in an online learning environment that require special redress. Generally, African universities are not serious players in the international education market. Online education opens new opportunities. The key barriers international students face in the virtual classroom include time differences, hard deadlines, limited connectivity and access, lack of learning space, lack of scheduled support,  lack of language support for non-native or secondary speakers of the language of instruction, remote class culture, invisible support, social isolation and racial discrimination.

The solutions include adopting asynchronous learning, allowing flexible timelines, providing connectivity support, offering safe learning spaces, replicating the class structure, providing language support, setting digital expectations early, building cultural bridges, providing remote support services, and practicing micro-inclusions by encouraging “teachers, staff and students to use subtle, inclusive ways to show international students they are welcome and valued” and establishing safe “virtual” spaces for international and marginalised students and faculty to talk openly.

Eleventh, higher education institutions must develop meaningful partnerships with external constituencies and stakeholders including digital technology and telecommunication companies. As the demands for return on investment increase from students and their families, as well as the state and society, pressures are growing on universities to demonstrate their value proposition and social impact. This translates into the question of graduate employability, closing the much-bemoaned mismatches between educational qualifications and the economy. This entails strengthening experiential learning and work-based learning, which requires strengthening connections with employers. Virtual learning not only necessitates and opens new ways of engaging industry, the economy and society, it also creates huge demands for digital skills for the emerging jobs of the 21st century.

Higher education institutions must develop meaningful partnerships with external constituencies and stakeholders including digital technology and telecommunication companies.

Twelfth, the stakes for research have been raised for African higher education institutions. All along they have been expected to actively produce both basic and applied research and generate innovations that address the pressing problems of African communities, countries, continent, and Africa’s place in the world. However, levels of research productivity have remained generally low. Universities also have a responsibility to promote research and data driven policy and decision-making. Following the disruptions and digital opportunities engendered by COVID-19, universities will increasingly be expected to anchor their research and innovation in the technological infrastructure that supports and enhances the opportunities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution for Africa.

Research, innovation and technological infrastructure

As noted earlier, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is disrupting and transforming every sector. A critical facet of the technological revolution is advancing research and turning hindsight into insight to make our world a better place whether its gene sequencing, predictive medicine, climate research, economic modelling, manufacturing with computer aided design or financial services trading and risk management.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) has produced numerous reports showing how the data-driven technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution are shaping the future of advanced manufacturing and production; consumer industries; energy, materials and infrastructure; financial and monetary systems; health and healthcare; investing; media, entertainment and sport; mobility through the creation of autonomous vehicles; and trade and global economic interdependence.

In its report, The Future Jobs Report 2020, the WEF forecasts massive changes in the jobs landscape by as soon as 2025. The report contends, “we estimate that by 2025, 85 million jobs may be displaced by a shift in the division of labour between humans and machines, while 97 million new roles may emerge that are more adapted to the new division of labour between humans, machines and algorithms, across the 15 industries and 26 economies covered by the report”. It identifies the top ten emerging jobs as: Data Analysts and Scientists, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning Specialists, Big Data Specialists, Digital Marketing and Strategy Specialists, Process Automation Specialists, Business Development Professionals, Digital Transformation Specialists, Information Security Analysts, Software and Applications Developers, and Internet of Things Specialists, in that order.

Digital upskilling.

Digital upskilling. Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

Conversely, the top ten declining jobs mentioned are: Data Entry Clerks, Administrative and Executive Secretaries, Accounting, Bookkeeping and Payroll Clerks, Accountants and Auditors, Assembly and Factory Workers, Business Services and Administration Managers, Client Information and Customer Service Workers, General and Operations Managers, Mechanics and Machinery Repairers, Material-Recording and Stock-Keeping Clerks.

“Data is the new oil” headlines abound and countries that can harness this data to extract value will have a significant competitive advantage. Data is even more valuable than oil, whose reserves on the planet are fixed. As Adam Schlosser notes, “Unlike oil, increasing amounts of data are being generated at a pace that’s hard to fathom: in the next two years, 40 zettabytes of data will be created – an amount so large that there is no useful framing exercise to demonstrate its size and scope. It’s roughly equivalent to 4 million years of HD video or five billion Libraries of Congress . . .. Unlike oil, the value of data doesn’t grow by merely accumulating more. It is the insights generated through analytics and combinations of different data sets that generate the real value.”

Thus, harnessing data, advancing research and drawing insights requires advances in computing and specifically High Performance Computing or HPC. There is an intersection between technologies that are driven by the pertinent needs of the 21st century workplaces such as Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence, Big Data etc. and high performance computing. Huge technological strides in the development of hardware technology and computing architectures have played a big role towards making it possible for complex machine learning algorithms to be used to resolve real world problems and challenges from climate change to disease pandemics.

It is noteworthy that the future jobs mentioned above in areas such as Data Analytics, Big Data, Artificial Intelligence and Robotics will require advanced computing technologies and performance in order to support the operational roles that employees will play in organisations.  Notwithstanding the financial pressures that the COVID-19 pandemic has visited on Africa, the continent has to make strategic and smart investments in the digitalisation of its economies, societies, and educational institutions. At most it has a decade to do so if it is not to be permanently left behind by the rest of the world.

During the First Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century Africa was reduced to providing labour for the Atlantic Slave Trade that developed EuroAmerica and underdeveloped the continent. Under the Second Industrial Revolution of the late 19th century, colonised Africa supplied raw materials that deepened its dependency. Africa participated in the Third Industrial Revolution of the late-20th century as a collection of neo-colonial peripheries. In exchange for its labour Africa received trinkets, its raw materials fetched a pittance on world markets, and later the backward post-colonies were sold “appropriate technologies”. Now, the continent is even paying dearly for the privilege of exporting its data!

The danger of remaining peripheral to the Fourth Industrial Revolution for Africa is not exploitation and marginalisation, but historical irrelevance as noted earlier, becoming a landmass of disposable people. Critics caution that Africa should not embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution at the risk of “premature de-industrialisation”. Others warn of the dangers of data manipulation and cyberattacks and that the continent is not ready, an argument that condemns Africa to eternal technological underdevelopment. On the contrary, as Ndung’u and Signé, argue, the transformative potential of the Fourth Industrial Revolution for Africa is substantial. It promises to promote economic growth and structural transformation; fight poverty and inequality; reinvent labour skills and production; increase financial services and investment; modernise agriculture and agro-industries; and improve health care and human capital.

In order to play a pivotal role in the 4th Industrial revolution, African higher education institutions need a change of mind set and to recognise their role as centres for teaching and learning, research, knowledge and technology transfer to current and future generations. They need to collaborate among themselves and with industry, government and other key players to undertake research, innovation, and develop digital technologies that address the continent’s most enduring and difficult needs and opportunities, not simply consume technologies produced by others.

The danger of remaining peripheral to the Fourth Industrial Revolution for Africa is not exploitation and marginalisation, but historical irrelevance.

Africa’s leading research universities need to reinvent themselves by using advanced technologies such as HPC that support supply of human resources for the jobs of the future, as well as training faculty that have the requisite skills and competency to equip students with the skills required to take up those jobs. The digital transformation agenda has huge implications on universities’ institutional capacities, financial resources, human capital in relation to development and delivery of curricula and technological infrastructures. Currently, the continent’s HPC capacity is abysmally low as shown below.

Data presented at the HPC conference held at USIU-Africa and the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) in December 2017 underscored Africa’s insignificant capability for the high performance computing that is essential for the digital revolution as evident in Figure 2.

The need and rationale for HPC in Africa is self-evident. It is simply unacceptable for a continent of 1.2 billion people to have negligible HPC capacity that is so essential for research, innovation and development. The African continent faces several socio-economic and political challenges, scores low on research and innovation indices, and is plagued by the persistent challenges of “brain drain” with some of the best and brightest people often leaving the continent in search of “greener pastures” including access to research infrastructures, higher pay and an appreciation for innovation. Nevertheless, Africa is posting impressive economic growth rates and has one of the youngest populations in the world. Technology is making a dramatic impact in Africa and Africa’s rate of technology adoption is unprecedented as evident in Figure 5. The mobile phone and internet are increasingly widely available.

Figure 5: Kenya's rapid adoption of technology (source World Development Report 2016)

Figure 4: Kenya’s rapid adoption of technology (source World Development Report 2016)

For Africa to competitively contribute to research and innovation and to find home-grown solutions to its socio-economic challenges, it is important that measures are taken which will provide the continent with access to cutting-edge computing technologies from hardware to software that have become essential for research, innovation, growth and jobs. Africa must invest in High Performance Computing platforms because modern scientific discovery involves very high computing power and the capability to deal with massive volumes of data. Otherwise, the continent will miss out on major advances in research and innovation in the digital age.

It is estimated that a $1 HPC Investment on average yields $463 in revenue and $44 in added profit. HPC can help solve Africa’s challenges, such as:

  • Climate Change: climate research and weather prediction are critical if Africa is to weather the ravages of climate change. Predicting weather accurately can enable countries to make better long-term food security policies, environmental policies and interventions and even security policies.
  • Health and life sciences: gene sequencing, molecular research and bio-physical simulations can all support the development of effective medicine and vaccines for critical diseases like Malaria and HIV in Africa; and explore Africa’s abundance of natural remedies. Epidemic modelling can predict disease spread so that governments and healthcare providers can make appropriate interventions.
  • Oil, gas and mineral exploration: Africa has an abundance of natural resources and access to HPC platforms can speed up seismic analysis which can speed up exploration and exploitation.
  • Growth of industry and SMEs: Industry and SMEs are increasingly dependent on the power of supercomputers to discover innovative solutions, cut costs and reduce time to market for products and services (European Commission, 2017). Sectors such as retail, manufacturing and financial services could benefit from HPC for data analysis for insights and innovation.
  • Economic research: economic modelling using big and open data would lead to insights and contribute to evidence-based policy making.
  • Research Collaboration: Increase research collaboration between Africa and other parts of the world. Having local capacity for large data processing means African scientists can better contribute to the global research agenda, provide tools for wider collaboration with research colleagues, and stimulate increased awareness, utilisation and application of high performance computing in the sectors identified in Figure 1 above.

It is evident from Figure 1 and Figure 2 above that despite the potential that HPC for promoting collaborative research and innovation in various sectors of the world economy, hardly any effort has been made towards harnessing this huge potential on the African continent. There have been HPC initiatives in several countries in the past, including Ghana, Kenya, Congo, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, Cameroon. Clearly, these efforts have not gone far.

There is need to develop HPC technical design and management skills etc., leverage initiatives and build synergy through discussions with potential partners including research programmes, networks and institutions, university communities, associations and institutions, donors, development partners, and philanthropists, governments, intergovernmental agencies, and the private sector.

It is simply unacceptable for a continent of 1.2 billion people to have negligible HPC capacity that is so essential for research, innovation and development.

To conclude, building digital capacities including information literacy for students at one end and HPC infrastructures at the other end is essential for dealing with the development and employment challenges of today, tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow. Digital capabilities and skills are not good to have, but are a must-have. They are essential to support effective development of solutions to address societal/scientific/industrial challenges in Africa, and the development of innovations, products and services.

This will lead to job creation; building computing capacity that will create new opportunities for both scientific applications and computing technologies; support for growth and competitiveness in industry and Africa’s economy through round-the-clock availability and utilisation of HPC systems and services; and enhance South-South and South-North collaboration in education, research and development.

We invite you to join African universities in this great calling and journey to transform higher education on this continent to educate, skill, and empower the youth to fully participate in their countries’ socioeconomic development. At stake is not only their future, but the future of the African continent and humanity itself, as much of this humanity becomes increasingly African.

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Paul Tiyambe Zeleza is a Malawian historian, academic, literary critic, novelist, short-story writer and blogger.

Long Reads

We Are Not the Wretched of the Pandemic

Casting Africans as the wretched of the pandemic seems to make sense, given the obvious inequalities. But it deprives us of agency and urgency.

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We Are Not the Wretched of the Pandemic
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“Kenya’s official languages are English, Kiswahili, and Silence.” ~ Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Dust (2014)

I want to explore something I have been wrestling with over the last three weeks. About silences, and also about anger.

~~~

The Omicron variant of COVID-19 was first identified by scientific teams in southern Africa, and reported to the WHO on 24 November 2021. Since then, there has been a chaotic outpouring of news, speculation and reactions. We have also been furious about travel bans, about scientists being punished, about COVID being labelled as African, and about global vaccine inequality/apartheid.

Some of the dust is only now settling. Omicron has spread incredibly quickly worldwide, and has displaced older variants. European and North American healthcare systems are in danger of being overwhelmed. There is political fallout from the unpopular introduction of tighter controls.

The first cases from Omicron in Kenya have now been identified, but the variant has probably been here for some time. Daily case numbers began doubling just before Christmas 2021. We have entered our fifth wave.

This new variant seems extremely transmissible, but key aspects of its longer-term severity, and its ability to resist existing vaccines, remain unclear. Results from South Africa, Europe and North America about its “mildness” were eagerly projected onto a quite different population here, one with much lower vaccination levels – even as all those health systems went into crisis. New unpredictable variants are still likely to appear over the coming year.

We are still in a situation of uncertainty, but we are desperate to believe the pandemic is over.

~~~

I want to explore the psychological impact of the pandemic. There are things we need to understand, acknowledge, and address now. If we fail to do this, we may remain distracted or paralysed at a time when we really need to gather and refocus our energies.

The pandemic may be viral, but it has also created a mental health epidemic. Most of us are completely exhausted from the past two years. Our emotional and financial reserves are drained. Some of us are suffering from the longer-term effects of COVID, from isolation, or just from the stress of unpredictability.

~~~

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor wrote, “Kenya’s official languages are English, Kiswahili, and Silence.”

After the Omicron variant was announced, and the West responded with travel bans, I felt we should add a fourth language — and perhaps for Africa more broadly. Anger.

~~~

Fight, Flight or Freeze.

Many of you will recognise these as our classic responses to threats. We usually become angry in response to a source of fear — a threat. We want to fight, to protect ourselves from whatever threatens us. An ancient reactive part of our brain, the amygdala, takes over.

It has to act quickly.  It can’t do nuance.  It. Doesn’t. Have. Time.

Our amygdala has to flatten the world around us, divide it neatly into friends and foes.

~~~

Anger in itself is not a bad emotion. It evolved to protect us. Sometimes it is life-saving. Channelled well, outrage can change society in really positive ways.

However, in our modern, artificial, overcrowded, confusing, stressful and technological lifestyles, we have to be careful. Anger can be misplaced, destructive, and exhausting, especially if we become trapped within cycles of anger and trauma.

At this stage of the pandemic, we are frightened and exhausted. Some of us are on the verge of collapse and paralysis. We want this to be over.

We are also angry.

But the real cause of this anger — an invisible virus — is hard to attack.

~~~

Since COVID-19 emerged in 2019, the world has been a confusing and frightening place. COVID-19 fuelled a global crisis in an extremely unequal and unfair world.

The pandemic, and the accompanying lockdowns, created huge fears, personal losses, sickness, deep economic and psychological challenges. Many people struggled and some genuinely found it hard to understand why.

COVID-19 fuelled a global crisis in an extremely unequal and unfair world.

Lockdowns succeeded in reducing the initial spread, but this paradoxically undermined their justification. Without people visibly dying everywhere, some questioned whether news of the pandemic had a hidden motive. The reluctance of western media to show the suffering of white bodies also created a cognitive disconnect, especially in the US.

We were at war with an invisible virus — not with one another — but still tensions rose.

Our amygdala is not good at this new kind of war. It needs a recognisable enemy.

This medical crisis is not a fairy tale, with cartoon heroes and villains. However, when we are angry, frustrated and scared, the protective instinctive part of our brain activates.  It desperately wants to flatten complicated reality into a reassuringly simple cartoon version.

Who is attacking us?  Who are our enemies?

We needed someone to blame.

~~~

There has been a lot of coverage of far-right COVID conspiracy theories. Trump labelled COVID-19 the “China virus”, while allowing it to kill far more people in the US. An election year in the US cemented a crazy partisan divide, with right-wing politicians taking their stance against masks and vaccines. Public health was placed in opposition to personal freedoms. This soon spread to other countries online.

At a deeper level, the Christian far-right in the US doesn’t believe in evolution. A rapidly mutating virus is impossible to understand. A deliberately weaponized pathogen, developed in a lab, by godless people unlike them, made far more sense. There was someone (imaginary) to blame. They found their “real” enemy.

(This wasn’t a solely Christian problem. Religious “leaders” with political access in India also derailed the COVID response in their country, with disastrous global consequences.)

~~~

Conspiracy theories may be convoluted and nonsensical — but they are emotionally satisfying. In a confusing world, they give us someone clear to blame, to scapegoat.

The idea of the scapegoat comes from the Jewish tradition where, as described in Leviticus 16:21, the sins of a community were placed on a live goat, which was then chased off into the wilderness. I am not sure the scapegoat fully understood what was happening, and the goats I have consulted think this was probably not a huge punishment. However, the point was never really about the goat, but about the removal of sins from within the community.

Lockdowns succeeded in reducing the initial spread, but this paradoxically undermined their justification.

In the modern world, we still find scapegoats — people to blame.  They are not the real cause of our problems and chasing them into the wilderness does not resolve anything.  While the original Jewish ceremony may have served a genuinely useful social purpose, our modern versions do not.  Scapegoats are now useful distractions, used to stoke up and misdirect fear and hatred.

~~~

While there has been a lot of emphasis on far-right conspiracy theories, I think there is also a different but related phenomenon on the left.  After all, people who are scared and angry need to find someone to blame. We all need a scapegoat on whom to pile our complex, perhaps intractable problems — and then noisily chase them out of town.

This does not solve our problems — but it is something tangible we can do. It provides some temporary relief.

In the narratives of these conspiracy theories, pharmaceutical companies and Western governments have conspired to create global vaccine apartheid.  Greed, control or naked racism are the clear explanation in the wilder discussions online. There are wicked people to blame, and we must attack them.

Like any good conspiracy theory, there is a kernel of truth in these narratives. We live in a world that has been substantially shaped by capitalism, and that is still scarred by deep historical inequalities stemming from slavery and Western colonialism. Africa has been last on the list to receive vaccines. (Omicron may have emerged in Africa because of low vaccine coverage, allowing new variants to appear.)

We all need a scapegoat on whom to pile our complex, perhaps intractable problems — and then noisily chase them out of town.

A global public health emergency needed a global public health response. While there was immense public funding and coordination, it has been galling to see large pharmaceutical companies make massive profits from this catastrophe; the techniques and “recipes” for the vaccines must become public goods — not controlled for private profit.

There are very unpleasant echoes of past crises. As Zeynep Tupfecki has observed, most of the people who died in the HIV/AIDS epidemic did so after ARV medicines had been developed. Intellectual property rights and corporate profits took precedence over global health, and Africans bore the brunt of that approach.

~~~

We clearly need better global health systems.  However, this narrative that vaccine inequality was deliberate and racist — and our angry response — simplifies and obscures key issues.

There actually was a plan to make sure all countries received vaccines. This plan recognised that we were facing an interlinked global health crisis, and that we needed to address structural inequalities. COVAX was explicitly set up as “a global risk-sharing mechanism for pooled procurement and equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.”

Several things went wrong with this plan, but an angry backlash against vaccine inequality is now obscuring that history. This anger may prevent us from learning difficult lessons, or taking the time-critical action we need to focus on right now.

Our house is on fire. People are inside, still at risk, but some of us are standing outside —  feeling safe because we have been vaccinated — and yelling about who started the fire. Trying to find the people to blame, instead of figuring out how we can help right now.

~~~

Contracting most of the shared vaccines to one provider — the Serum Institute of India (SSI) — was a disastrous decision for COVAX. This decision may have been based on cost, but it was a strategic mistake to put so many eggs in one basket during an unpredictable global disaster.

Under Narendra Modi, India’s right-wing government did not take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously. A whole government department was set up to push herbal remedies, and other unproven treatments like steaming. Politicians were preoccupied with elections and religious rallies, which turned into super-spreader events. When the Delta variant began to ravage India in February 2021, the government retreated into full-scale denial.

It has been galling to see large pharmaceutical companies make massive profits from this catastrophe.

The situation in India was devastating. I was already helping to coordinate Indian volunteer group efforts, and I remember the horror of seeing the wave of infections grow rapidly, and then overwhelm the country. People struggled to find oxygen, medicines and ICU beds for their loved ones — or even for themselves.

Then things went quiet — which was even more ominous. The COVID wave was starting to ravage communities, and they had no one to ask for help.

However, the crisis in India was also an indication that a global crisis was brewing. SSI was meant to produce 700 million doses of the Astra-Zeneca vaccine for poorer countries in 2021. It had already encountered some production issues, and the Indian government, in its complacency, had not ordered doses for its own citizens until it was too late. At one point, facing threats from desperate Indian politicians, the CEO fled to London for his own safety.

Exports of the doses produced for other countries, including for Kenya, were blocked. Much of the vaccine famine we experienced early in 2021 was caused by this crisis.

Mistakes were made, and people were definitely culpable as well. However, this key event does not fit neatly into the angry narrative of vaccine apartheid. If the rich white West are the obvious villains, and black Africans are the clear victims — adding a complex disaster in India to the mix just messes up the neat fairy tale.

China developed its own vaccine. It has administered nearly three billion doses to its own people, and exported millions as well.  Cuba did even better, despite facing economic sanctions. After a delayed start, Latin America is doing far better with vaccinations, with larger countries nearing Western levels of protection.

The problem is not simply racism, but relative poverty. However, it is a better fairy tale if we just edit out the inconvenient parts.

~~~

In political theory, a surprising convergence between right- and left-wing extremes has often been noted. Starting from different initial points, positions seem to become more similar as they become more radicalised and angry. This is known as the “horseshoe theory”.

This links to how we flatten the world, and look for simple friends, foes, and scapegoats, as that part of our brain that responds instinctively takes over to protect us from threats. Traditionally, political theory has focussed on dry policy issues and class allegiances.  But with the rise of Trump and other populists mainstreaming conspiracy theories worldwide, a lot more research has been undertaken to explore deeper psychological issues around fear, uncertainty, and anger.

Politicians were preoccupied with elections and religious rallies, which turned into super-spreader events.

In a world dominated by powerful and often impersonal, confusing and opaque structures, our amygdala has to find someone to blame — like a classic Bond villain. Common examples are both right- and left-wing antisemitism, and attacks on globalisation.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, pro- and anti-vaccine groups both see conspiracies organised by greedy pharmaceutical companies. The more you think about this, the more bizarre it seems — but here we are. Anger at international structures in general has also grown, leading to strange bedfellows. At one point, I saw Elon Musk attacking the World Food Programme, and left-wing people rallying to his side. I had to switch off my devices and lie down for a while.

~~~

The SARS-CoV-2 genome only contains about 29,903 bases of single-stranded RNA — 30kB of data, less than half the length of this article. This tiny virus is outwitting human civilization.

Our amygdala, and the adrenalin it activates, can save lives — but only in the right context. We need to act instinctively rapidly when we are running out of a house that is on fire — as did our distant ancestors when escaping predators.

However, in a slow-burning and confusing pandemic, our amygdala should not be allowed to take charge.

COVID-19 is being helped right now by our own fearful responses.

Right now, our house is on fire — and many of us are still trapped inside.  We instinctively want to save ourselves, get our boosters, and get away from the problem as quickly as possible.

However, as a country we are less than 10% fully vaccinated.  Our fire is far from out.

~~~

The last few years have been an “I can’t breathe” crisis on several levels.

Franz Fanon was a physician, psychiatrist and philosopher. His work on colonial violence, and the lasting psychological and cultural damage it caused, remains important to this day. After all, these past years have been a crisis of COVID, but also of George Floyd, and of Black Lives Matter.

I was very influenced by Fanon’s work, via Steve Biko, the South African anti-apartheid activist who built on Fanon’s work.  I first encountered these ideas around lasting cultural trauma when I was a peace worker for British Quakers, based in South Africa.  About a decade after that experience, I took part in the first large Rhodes Must Fall march in Oxford, which was extraordinarily moving and powerful.

Fanon talks of the colonial world as “a Manichaean World”, divided into light and dark.  White colonizers are seen as the light, and black colonized individuals are viewed as darkness, and the epitome of evil.

In a world dominated by powerful and often impersonal, confusing and opaque structures, our amygdala has to find someone to blame.

At this point, this should sound familiar. Surely the antidote to this colonial polarisation, a world where black is bad — is it’s opposite — white neo-colonial pharma as the epitome of evil?

However, this is simplistic — as I have demonstrated with the catastrophe in India.  I am reminded of a jingle for Lotus FM in Durban: “Not everything’s black and white. . .”

I would also argue that it is literally dangerous.

Painting Africa as the wretched of the pandemic, a whole continent victimised yet again by the West, deprives us of agency and urgency. It glosses over complex but really important details.

Most importantly, while the image gives us something to focus our anger on, a scapegoat to chase out of town, it also provides us with an excuse not to actually do anything difficult but useful ourselves.

We can safely exhaust ourselves shouting at foreigners in the West, and this venting is cathartic. We are now absolved from doing anything closer to home. Powerful and evil external actors are in charge — at least until some utopian revolution dawns.

~~~

Meanwhile, the reality which this narrative obscures is that vaccines have been arriving in Africa. Kenya now has millions of vaccines available, and the immediate but very real challenges are local logistics, and persuading people with mild vaccine reluctance to get vaccinated.

Unfortunately, anger at global pharma is being manipulated to make people on the ground more hesitant at a time when we need to reassure them that vaccines are safe and effective. It is still not quick and easy to get a vaccine in Kenya. Vague rumours about side effects and large wicked corporations are enough to put scared people off doing something that seems novel, risky and time-consuming.

But while overall Africa has lagged behind other countries on vaccine uptake, we have also seen much fewer deaths.  It is not entirely clear why this is — although it will probably be due to a complex mix of factors, including our younger demographics, and fewer comorbidities from diseases of affluence like obesity and diabetes.

Painting Africa as the wretched of the pandemic, a whole continent victimised yet again by the West, deprives us of agency and urgency.

As more vaccines became available during 2021, more of them went to countries where they were more desperately needed, rather than to Africa, which had lower case rates. The overall picture includes Latin America and South East Asia, which did get vaccines when they needed them more. The now high vaccination rates in these regions are being ignored by those arguing that there is a global vaccine apartheid.

We are also likely to experience a global oversupply of vaccines in 2022. Part of the reason pharmaceutical companies seem greedy is that they know vaccines are going to commodify. Increased supply will drive price reductions, so companies want to take profits while they still can. Free markets are not morally perfect, but when they scale up, they are incredibly powerful.

(I still believe we need a more global public control of vaccines that are essential to public health. Since the Delta variant overwhelmed India in May, and torpedoed collective efforts via COVAX, I have argued that we need a “Liberty Ships” approach to this pandemic — a wartime level of effort and resources. This did not happen fast enough, and we have lost lives as a result.)

~~~

Mirroring global vaccine inequality is local vaccine inequality.

I have been concerned for some time that the relatively privileged but tiny urban elites in Kenya would get themselves vaccinated then lose interest as their own lives returned to normal. Once vaccination rates in Nairobi reached about 20 per cent, and the lockdowns and curfews were eased, this did seem to happen; although most of Kenya’s counties still had very low levels of vaccination, the national conversation moved on, unconcerned.

Once Omicron was announced, there was a vast amount of anger at travel restrictions imposed on southern African countries. There were lots of legitimate reasons for the frustration, especially as Omicron was probably already in many countries, as has proved to be the case, but African scientists were effectively being punished for being the first to identify it.

Blanket travel bans are in any case not very effective at stemming the spread of variants and those travel bans have now been largely removed.  (Ironically, France is now restricting travellers from Britain, where Omicron case numbers are rising alarmingly.)

Part of the reason pharmaceutical companies seem greedy is that they know vaccines are going to commodify.

However, the anger I sensed seemed really unfocused and confused. Kenyans were also outraged, but there was little concern or interest in the actual variant, or in the rising cases in southern Africa — the countries with which we were apparently showing solidarity. Christmas concerts and parties continued. Some people seemed more worried about having their own travel plans, and their newly regained privileged lifestyles, threatened.  I felt like a lone voice, trying to remind Kenyans just how few of our own citizens were protected by vaccines.

I am not sure what Frantz Fanon would make of our bourgeoisie.  Che Guevara would actually have shot most of the people who wear those trendy t-shirts bearing his image. I doubt Fanon would have been impressed.

We have now got our reward, with exponentially rising case numbers in Kenya as well.

My feeling is that the outrage was actually based on the deeper fear that we would return to lockdowns, and that the pandemic was not actually over. Instead of focussing on the actual problem — a new variant — we found foreign scapegoats to yell at, allowing the thing which frightened us to take root.

~~~

For Fanon, the colonized were kept constantly on edge by an “atmospheric violence”, tensed in anticipation of violence. The pandemic has done something similar to our limbic systems. While not comparable to the traumas of slavery, we are constantly stressed, and on edge.

I am strangely reminded of Nietzsche’s criticism of Christianity as a “slave morality”. Good Christians, by turning the other cheek, did not push back against power. Returning to the Fight/Fright/Freeze stress response that I learnt about in school, it has been updated to include a fourth response sometimes called ‘Submit’, ‘Fawn’ or ‘Feign’.

The Slave Bible, published in 1807 in London, then circulated in Caribbean and North American plantations, was a disturbing later embodiment of Nietzsche’s criticism. Sections such as the exodus story, which might inspire hope for liberation, were removed. Instead, portions that justified and fortified the system of British Imperial slavery were emphasized.

The Slave Bible encouraged silence, subservience and passivity, in the face of injustice.  It was used to pacify people subjected to the worst forms of oppression and constant violence.

We found foreign scapegoats to yell at, allowing the thing that frightened us to take root.

The reality is more complex. Jesus himself was not passive. Theologians like Walter Wink have shown that turning the other cheek was actually a powerful act of resistance, given wider Roman culture. To turn the other cheek forced the aggressor to use their left hand, which would be seen as humiliating for the aggressor to other Romans. This would reclaim some power and agency for the Christian in a situation of powerlessness.

In the “atmospheric violence” of the pandemic, I sense we all feel disempowered. Some of us have become passive and withdrawn, while others have become angry and frustrated. However, instead of channelling the energy of anger into practical action to take care of one another, we are simply venting our frustrations publicly and fruitlessly – and sometimes counterproductively.

Some of us channel our frustrations against the pandemic restrictions of our own governments, or vaccination programmes – while others rail against international injustices.

Venting may feel helpful, but it is not reclaiming power or agency.  It may briefly feel good, but it is not really helping us.

~~~

Casting Africans as the wretched of the pandemic seems to make sense, given the obvious inequalities.  It is proving an incredibly powerful global rallying cry.

It makes people righteously, blindly, angry.  It directs all our fear and rage outwards.

It is also, however, a good way of absolving us from tackling the harder questions, much closer to home, or requiring more difficult practical action. The actors who matter are powerful and elsewhere, which limits our own direct responsibility to do more than yell from a safe distance.

We all have limited energy at the best of times, and right now most of us are depleted. Directing our energy at global injustice, while ignoring more local problems, feels wrong to me. We actually have vaccines and knowledge and hard work to do right now. Nobody else can or will do that work for us.

Perhaps this is why such anger is so attractive though.  If the problems are all global, we don’t have to look at our own broken health systems, venal politicians diverting COVID-19 relief funds, or the real challenge of addressing rumours that have spread over the past year about vaccine side effects. We can ignore the failings of our own leaders, who hold rallies and threaten our citizens, if our true enemies are global ones.

Anger directed at outside factors also prevents us from taking a hard look at how fragmented we ourselves are. While life-threatening famine was raging in large parts of Kenya, Nairobi was worried about cancelling Christmas parties and flight bans.

If you are reading this, you probably inhabit a tiny, relatively privileged bubble, just as I do.  Even those of us who want to improve vaccine access have little idea what is happening in other parts of the country. It is harder still to know how to help.

Fanon never wanted colonialism — or the struggle against colonialism — to define us, taking on a simplistic crusading missionary zeal ourselves.

~~~

I’ve been organising civil society work around COVID-19 for much of the year, but I’m struck by how few people are able to volunteer their time and energy. We are all exhausted, but it feels deeper than that.

In India, one genuine problem was that so many people wanted to get involved, which created lots of duplication and confusion, as so many people reinvented the same wheels, and made the same mistakes.

South Africa also has a much stronger civil society response than I have seen here. Kenya is one of the few places I know where activists are treated with suspicion. This feels like the shadow of both colonialism, and Jomo Kenyatta’s and Moi’s authoritarian rule. Repression and fear were normalised. Kenya suffered from atmospheric violence. The few brave activists became lightning rods — but with little support from those for whom they organised.

No country in the world had massive health service capacity in reserve, ready for a pandemic. A massive civil society effort has been needed everywhere but I simply have not seen one in Kenya. We are rightly frustrated at the incompetence and the colonial threats of our own Ministry of Health, but we are not yet willing to roll up our sleeves and get involved where we see obvious gaps. We complain loudly — but that is all we do.

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor talks of silence as one of Kenya’s official languages.

I feel that that silence has been breaking over the past decade. Kenyans are more forthright, more outspoken and more critical. The internet has helped many to speak up, and to find kindred spirits. There is also a lot of buried historical baggage to process, and economic frustration and inequality, and injustice as well.

We are rightly frustrated at the incompetence and the colonial threats of our own Ministry of Health, but we are not yet willing to roll up our sleeves and get involved.

This is an important part of becoming a healthier society — one not cowed by power. We are growing up, from literally being treated as the children of the nation, which suited our rulers just fine. We have suffered the consequences of arrogant power for far too long.

We have difficult baggage to process, and the pandemic has added layers of fear and frustration. There is a lot we need to face, and mourn, but being angry is a distraction from that. I also see a hollow and defensive kind of pride, used as a shield against any kind of criticism.

These are ways of covering up our pain.

Anger is becoming our fourth official language.

This is dangerous — especially since 2022 will be an election year.

~~~

What is the alternative?

Well, vaccines are here, and will keep coming.

Kenya has more vaccines in fridges than we’ve used in total so far.

We have a national mobilisation project — to ensure all of our people are safe.

The narrative that we are wretched victims also ignores all the inconvenient good news. How did Morocco or Botswana manage to vaccinate so many of their populations?

Within Kenya itself, some counties are doing much better than others.

What could we learn from them?

Who are our local heroes?

Who needs our help?

~~~

We stand at the beginning of a New Year.

I actually think it will be a hopeful one, as far as the pandemic is concerned.

Even with new variants like Omicron, science is incredibly powerful. In particular, the mRNA platform is able to rapidly create new targeted vaccines.

There is also unprecedented global solidarity. Unlike during other previous crises, such as conflicts or famines, rich countries were the first to suffer the devastating consequences of the pandemic, so there is huge empathy. We can tell our stories online in compelling ways, and these stories resonate.

Even more than science and compassion, economically speaking, the world will put resources into ending the pandemic. Highly infectious diseases simply cannot be contained by travel restrictions. Our world is simply too interconnected and interwoven.

It is also an election year in Kenya. We can look at how politicians and governors have performed, and the state of their health programmes. This is the one time we have some leverage.

Anger is a call to action that we can channel into things that are more useful than empty, exhausting rage and the accompanying disempowering sense of victimhood. Action will be truly healing, as we find ways to take back control, after the helplessness of the past two years.

For some reason, we have also been lucky. The level of COVID deaths and serious illness in Kenya have been undercounted – but they still aren’t as high as in some other countries. This isn’t because of our excellent scientists (that’s southern Africa) or our experience with Ebola (west and central Africa). It may be demographics, geography, and exposure to other pathogens. The answer will probably be a mix of different factors.

So far, strangely enough, we’ve actually escaped the worst of it; we have simply not been the wretched of this pandemic. The worst of what I saw in India, and in many other countries, did not befall us. Our biggest challenge now is to get our own population vaccinated, with the now fairly available vaccines, so that we are better protected against new variants.

It may be demographics, geography, and exposure to other pathogens. The answer will probably be a mix of different factors.

We need to take a deep breath and take stock of where we actually are right now. Instead of fighting battles from last year, and knowing all that we now, what should be our focus?

~~~

Our next challenge is climate change, and that will be much harder. Especially for Africa.

We need to end this crisis, and in doing so, learn how to deal with our own fears and anger, our need for simple scapegoats, if we are to stand a chance of addressing the climate crisis.

COVID-19 was relatively minor, but it still shook our civilisations. Climate change is a truly existential threat.

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Long Reads

The Possibilities and Perils of Leading an African University

This is the first of a ten-part series of reflections on various aspects of my experiences over six years as Vice Chancellor of USIU-Africa that will be expanded into a book.

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The Possibilities and Perils of Leading an African University
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For six years, from 2016 to 2021, I was Vice Chancellor (President) of a private university in Kenya, the United States International University-Africa. It was an honor and privilege to serve in that role. It marked the apex of my professional academic life. It offered an incredible opportunity to make my small contribution to the continued development of the university itself, put into practice my scholarly research on African higher education, and deepen my understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing the sector at a time of tumultuous change in African and global political economies.

When I took the position, I was quite familiar with both African universities and Kenya as a country. I was a product of African higher education having undertaken my undergraduate studies at the University of Malawi, my home country, in the 1970s. I had done my PhD dissertation at Dalhousie University in Canada on Kenya’s economic and labor history where I spent about fifteen months in 1979-1980.

Later, I taught at Kenyatta University in Nairobi for five and half years between 1984-1989. That is one reason the position of Vice Chancellor at USIU-Africa eventually proved attractive to me.  I would be returning to my African “intellectual home.” Or so I thought. I came back to a different country, as I will elaborate later in my reflections.

After I left Kenya at the beginning of January 1990, I spent the next 25 years at Canadian and American universities. But Africa was always on my mind, as an epistemic and existential reality, the focus of my intellectual and political passions, the locus of my research work and creative writing. My scholarly studies on intellectual history examined the construction of ideas, disciplines, interdisciplines, and higher education institutions and their African provenance, iterations, and inflections.

Over the years I had published numerous books and papers on African studies and universities including in 2004 African Universities in the 21st Century (Vol.I: Liberalization and Internationalization and Vol II: Knowledge and Society), and in 2007 The Study of Africa (Vol. I: Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary Encounters and Vol.II: Global and Transnational Engagements).

In early 2015, I was commissioned to write the Framing Paper for the 1st African Higher Education Summit on Revitalizing Higher Education for Africa’s Future held in Dakar, Senegal March 10-12. I was also one of the drafters of the Summit Declaration and Action Plan. So, I was well versed on the key issues facing African higher education. But leading an actual African university proved a lot more complex and demanding as this series will show.

The vice chancellor’s position at USIU-Africa was advertised after the Dakar Summit. Initially, it had little appeal for me. My earlier experiences at Kenyatta University had left me wary of working as an “expatriate”, as a foreigner, in an African country other than my own. In fact, in 1990 I wrote a paper on the subject, “The Lightness of Being an Expatriate African Scholar,” which was delivered at the renowned conference convened by the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, held in Uganda in late November 1990, out of which emerged the landmark Kampala Declaration on Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility. The paper was included in my essay collection, Manufacturing African Studies and Crises published in 1997.

The paper began by noting, “The lack of academic freedom in Africa is often blamed on the state. Although the role of the state cannot be doubted, the institutions dominated by the intellectuals themselves are also quite authoritarian and tend to undermine the practices and pursuit of academic freedom. Thus, the intellectual communities in Africa and abroad, cannot be entirely absolved from responsibility for generating many of the restrictive practices and processes that presently characterize the social production of knowledge in, and on, Africa. In many instances they have internalized the coercive anti-intellectualist norms of the state, be it those of the developmentalist state in the South or the imperialist state in the North, and they articulate the chauvinisms and tyrannies of civil society, whether of ethnicity, class, gender or race.”

The rest of the paper delineated, drawing from my experiences at Kenyatta, the conditions, contradictions, constraints, exclusions, and marginalization of African expatriate scholars in African countries that often force them to trek back to the global North where many of them studied or migrated from, as I did.

Once I returned from the diaspora back to Kenya in 2016, I soon realized, to my consternation, that xenophobia had actually gotten worse, as I will discuss in later sections. It even infected USIU-Africa that took pride in being an “international American university.” In my diasporic excitement to “give back” to the continent, to escape the daily assaults of racism that people of African descent are often subjected to in North America, Europe and elsewhere, I had invested restorative Pan-African intellectual and imaginative energies in a rising developmental, democratic, integrated and inclusive post-nationalist Africa.

Over the next six years, I clang desperately to this fraying ideal. It became emotionally draining, but intellectually clarifying and enriching. I became an Afro-realist, eschewing the debilitating Afro-pessimism of Africa’s eternal foes and the exultant bullishness of Afro-optimists.

In 2015, as I talked to the VC search firm based in the United States, and some of my close friends, and colleagues in the diaspora I warned up to the idea of diaspora return. The colleagues included those who participated in the Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship Program (CADFP). The program was based on research I conducted in 2011-2012 for the Carnegie Corporation of New York (CCNY) on the engagement of African diaspora academics in Canada and the United with African higher education institutions.

CADFP was launched in 2013 and I became chair of its Advisory Council comprised of prominent African academics and administrators. This was one of four organs of the program; the other three were CCNY providing funding, the Institute for International Education (IIE) offering management support, and my two former universities in the US (Quinnipiac) and Kenya (USIU-Africa) hosting the Secretariat. Several recipients ended up returning to work back on the continent long after their fellowships. I said to myself, why not me?

For various reasons, my position as Vice President for Academic Affairs in Connecticut had turned out to be far less satisfactory than I had anticipated. I was ready for a new environment, challenges, and opportunities. So, I put in an application for the USIU-Africa vice chancellorship. There were 65 candidates altogether. The multi-stage search process replicated the ones I was familiar with in the US, but it was novel in Kenya where the appointment of vice chancellors tends to be truncated to an interview lasting over a couple of hours or so in which committee members score the candidates sometimes on dubious ethnic grounds.

At the time I got the offer from USIU-Africa, I had two other offers, a provostship in Maryland, and as founding CEO of the African Research Universities Alliance. Furthermore, I was one of the last two candidates for a senior position at one of the world’s largest foundations from which I withdrew. I chose USIU-Africa after long deliberations with my wife and closest friends. Becoming vice chancellor would give me an opportunity to test, implement, and refine my ideas on the Pan-African project of revitalizing African universities for the continent’s sustainable transformation.

USIU-Africa had its own attractions as the oldest private secular university in Kenya. Originally established in 1969 as a branch campus of an American university by that name based in San Diego that had other branches in London, Tokyo, and Mexico City, it was the only university in the region that enjoyed dual accreditation by the Commission for University Education in Kenya and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges in the United States. Moreover, it was the most international university in the region with students from more than 70 countries; an institution that seemed to take diversity and inclusion seriously; a comprehensive university with several schools offering bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral programs; one that boasted seemingly well-maintained physical and electronic infrastructure poised for expansion. The position prospectus proclaimed the university’s ambitions to become research intensive.

Six months before my wife and I packed our bags for Kenya, I took up a fellowship at Harvard University to work on a book titled, The Transformation of Global Higher Education: 1945-2015 that was published in late 2016. I had long been fascinated by the history of ideas and knowledge producing institutions around the world, and this book gave me an opportunity to do so, to examine the development of universities and knowledge systems on every continent—the Americas, Europe, Asia, and of course Africa. Writing the book filled me with excitement bordering on exhilaration, not least because it marked the second time in my academic career that I was on sabbatical.

I thought I was as prepared as I could be to assume leadership of a private African university. As I showed in my book, by 2015, private universities outnumbered public ones across the continent, 972 out of 1639. In 1999, there were only 339 private universities. Still, public universities predominated in student enrollments, and although many had lost their former glory, they were often much better than most of the fly by night profiteering private institutions sprouting all over the place like wild mushrooms.

Africa of course needed more universities to overcome its abysmally low tertiary enrollment ratios, but the haphazard expansion taking place often without proper planning and the investment of adequate physical, financial, and human resources only succeeded in gravely undermining the quality of university education. The quality of faculty and research fell precipitously in many countries and campuses as I have demonstrated in numerous papers.

Serving in successive administrative positions ranging from college principal and acting director of the international program at Trent University in Canada, and in the United States as center director and department chair at the University of Illinois, college dean at Loyola Marymount University, and academic vice president at Quinnipiac University, I had come to appreciate that once you enter the administrative ladder, even if it’s by accident or reluctantly as was in my case, there are some imperatives one has to undertake in preparing for the next level.

Universities are learning institutions and as such university leaders at all levels from department chairs to school deans to management to board members must be continuous learners. This requires an inquisitive, humble, agile, open, creative, entrepreneurial, and resilient mindset.

It entails, first, undergoing formal training in university leadership. Unfortunately, this is underdeveloped in much of Africa as higher education leadership programs hardly exist in most countries. As part of my appointment, I asked for professional training opportunities to be included in my contract for the simple reason I had never been VC before so I needed to learn how to be one! In summer 2016 and summer 2017, I attended Harvard University’s seminars, one for new presidents and another on advancement leadership for presidents. Not only did I learn a lot, I also built an invaluable network of presidential colleagues.

Second, university leaders must familiarize themselves with and understand trends in higher education by reading widely on developments in the sector. In my case, for two decades I became immersed in the higher education media by subscribing to The Chronicle of Higher Education and later Times Higher Education, and reading the editions of Inside Higher EducationUniversity World News, and other outlets. As vice chancellor I took to producing a weekly digest of summaries of pertinent articles for the university’s leadership teams. I got the impression few bothered to read them, so after a while I stopped doing it. I delved into the academic media because I wanted to better understand my role and responsibilities as an administrator. Over time, this morphed into an abiding fascination with the history of universities and other knowledge producing institutions and systems.

Third, it is essential to develop the propensity for consulting, connecting, and learning from fellow leaders within and outside one’s institution. As a director, chair or a dean that means colleagues in those positions as well as those to who one reports. The same is true for deputy vice chancellors or vice presidents. For provosts and executive vice presidents and presidents the circle for collegial and candid conversations and advice narrows considerably and pivots to external peers.

In my case, this was immensely facilitated by joining boards including those of the International Association of Universities, the Kenya Education Network, better known as KENET, and the University of Ghana Council, and maintaining contacts with Universities South Africa. These networks together with those from my previous positions in Canada and the United States proved invaluable in sustaining my administrative and intellectual sanity.

Fourth, it is imperative to develop a deep appreciation and respect for the values of shared governance. Embracing and practicing shared governance is hard enough among the university’s internal stakeholders comprising administrators, faculty, staff, and students. It’s even more challenging for the external stakeholders including members of governing boards external to the academy. This was one of the biggest challenges I faced at USIU-Africa as I’ll discuss in a later installment.

Fifth, it is critical to appreciate the extraordinary demands, frustrations, opportunities and joys of leadership in African universities. Precisely because many of these universities are relatively new and suffer from severe capacity challenges of resources in terms of funding, facilities, qualified faculty, and well-prepared students, it creates exceptional opportunities for change and impact. Again, as will be elaborated in a later section, I derived levels of satisfaction as vice chancellor that were higher than I had experienced from previous positions in much older and better endowed Canadian and American institutions where university leaders are often caretakers of well-oiled institutional machines.

Sixth, during my long years of university leadership at various levels I had cultivated what I call the 6Ps: passion for the job, people engagement, planning for complexity and uncertainty, peer learning, process adherence, and partnership building. This often encompasses developing a personal philosophy of leadership. As I shared during the interviews for the position and throughout my tenure, I was committed to what I had crystallized into the 3Cs: collaboration, communication and creativity, in pursuit of the 3Es: excellence, engagement, and efficiency, based on the 3Ts: transparency, trust, and trends.

Seventh, it is important to pursue what my wonderful colleague, Ruthie Rono, who served as Deputy Vice Chancellor during my tenure, characterized as the 3Ps: protect, promote, and project, in this case, the mission, values, priorities, and interests of the institution as a whole not sectarian agendas. She often reminded us that this was her role as Kenya’s ambassador to several European and Southern African countries during a leave of absence from USIU-Africa, to safeguard Kenya’s interests. Unfortunately, outside the management team, this was not always the case among the other governing bodies as will be demonstrated later.

Eighth, as an administrator one has to balance personal and institutional voices, develop an ability to forgive and forget, and realize that it’s often not about you, but the position. Of course, so long as you occupy the position what you do matters; you take credit and blame for everything that happens in the institution even if you had little to do with it. Over the years as I climbed the escalator of academic administration, I confronted the ever-rising demands and circuits of institutional responsibility and accountability. You need to develop a thick skin to deflect the arrows of personal attack without absorbing them into your emotions. You need to anticipate and manage the predictable unpredictability of events.

Ninth, I had long learned the need to establish work balance as a teacher, scholar, and administrator. In this case, as an administrator I taught and conducted research within the time constraints of whatever position I held. I did the same during my time as vice chancellor. I taught one undergraduate class a year, attended academic conferences, and published research papers to the surprise of some faculty and staff and my fellow vice chancellors. I always reminded people that I became an academic because I was passionate about teaching and research. Being an administrator had actually opened new avenues for pursuing those passions. I had a satisfying professional life before becoming vice chancellor and I would have another after I left.

There was also the question of work-life balance. Throughout my administrative career I’ve always tried to balance as best as I can my roles as a parent, husband, friend, and colleague. Moreover, I maintained outside interests especially my love for travel, the creative, performing and visual arts, voracious reading habits developed in my youth over a wide range of subjects and genres, not to mention the esthetics of cooking and joys of eating out, and taking long walks. I found my neighborhood in Runda in Nairobi quite auspicious for the invigorating physical and mental pleasures of walking, which I did every day for more than an hour during weekdays and up to two hours on weekends.

Not being defined by my position made it easier to strive to perform to the best of any ability without being consumed by the job, and becoming overly protective of the fleeting seductions of the title of vice chancellor. I asked colleagues to call me by my first name, but save for one or two they balked preferring the colorless concoction, “Prof.” Over the years I had acquired a capacity to immerse myself and enjoy whatever position I occupied with the analytical predisposition of an institutional ethnographer. So, I took even unpleasant events and nasty surprises as learning and teachable moments.

This enabled me to develop the tenth lesson. Leave the position when you’ve given your best and have the energy to follow other positions or pursuits. When I informed the Board of Trustees, Chancellor, and University Council fourteen months to the end of my six-year contract that I would be leaving at the end of the contract, some people within and outside USIU-Africa including my fellow vice chancellors expressed surprise that I was not interested in another term.

The fact of the matter is that the average tenure of university presidents in many countries is getting shorter. This is certainly true in the United States. According to a 2017 report on the college presidency by the American Council of Education, while in the past presidents used to serve for decades—my predecessor served for 21 years—“The average tenure of a college president in their current job was 6.5 years in 2016, down from seven years in 2011. It was 8.5 years in 2006. More than half of presidents, 54 percent, said they planned to leave their current presidency in five years or sooner. But just 24 percent said their institution had a presidential succession plan.” Whatever the merits of longevity, creativity and fresh thinking is not one of them!

A major reason for the declining term of American university presidencies is, as William H. McRaven, a former military commander who planned the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, declared as he announced his departure as chancellor of the University of Texas system after only three years, “the job of college president, along with the leader of a health institution, [is] ‘the toughest job in the nation.’ In my case, there was a more mundane and compelling reason. My wife and I had agreed before I accepted the position that I would serve only one term. Taking the vice chancellorship represented a huge professional and financial sacrifice for her.

By the time I assumed the position, I believed I had acquired the necessary experiences, skills and mindset for the pinnacle of university leadership. Over the next six years I experienced the joys and tribulations of the job in dizzying abundance. This was evident almost immediately.

Two days after we arrived in Nairobi, we were invited to the home of one of my former students at Kenyatta University and the University of Illinois. Both he and his wife, who we knew in the United States from the days they were dating, were prominent public figures in Kenya; she later became a cabinet minister in President Kenyatta’s administration. We spent New Year’s Day at their beautiful home together with their lovely and exceedingly smart two daughters and some of their friends and relatives eating great food including roasted meat in Kenyan style. It was a fabulous welcome. We felt at home.

But the bubble soon burst. Hardly two weeks later, our home in the tony neighborhood of Runda was invaded by armed thugs one night. I was out of town at a university leadership retreat. My wife was alone. While she was not physically molested, she was psychologically traumatized. So was I. The thugs went off with all her jewelry including her wedding ring, my clothes and shoes, and our cellphones and computers. My soon to be finished book manuscript on The Transformation of Global Higher Education was in my stolen computer. It was a heinous intellectual assault.

Our Kenyan and foreign friends and acquaintances showered us with sympathy and support. Some commiserated with us by sharing their own stories of armed robbery, what the media called with evident exasperation, Nairoberry. We later learnt there was more to our hideous encounter, the specter of criminal xenophobia. It was a rude awakening to the roller coaster of highs and lows we would experience over the next six years during my tenure as Vice Chancellor of USIU-Africa.

Both of us had fought too many personal, professional, and political battles in our respective pasts to be intimidated. We were determined to stay, to contribute in whatever way we could to higher education in our beloved motherland.

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Scapegoats and Holy Cows: Climate Activism and Livestock

Opposition to livestock has become part of climate activism. Veganism is growing, particularly amongst affluent Westerners, and billions of dollars are flowing into the associated “animal-free meat and dairy” industry. This will result in yet more people forced off their land and away from self-sufficiency, give more profits and power to corporations, and may have little or no positive impact on the environment.

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Scapegoats and Holy Cows: Climate Activism and Livestock
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Until recently, Greta Thunberg kept a filmed appeal to stop eating meat and dairy as the first item on her twitter account—she has been a vegan for half her life, so that is not surprising. Her message begins with pandemics but swiftly segues to climate change, as might be expected. (Assertions linking deforestation with pandemics are tenuous and speculative: there is no established link between COVID19 and deforestation or the wildlife trade.) The film was made by Mercy for Animals, which she thanks.

The film remained top of her twitter account for months. She has several million followers, so the value of the advertising she gave this little-known not-for-profit must run into millions of dollars. As opposition to livestock has become a major plank of climate activism, it is worth looking at how the world’s biggest climate influencer chooses to influence it.

Greta Thunberg’s 2021 Mercy for Animals film: “If we don’t change, we are f***ed.”

Greta Thunberg’s 2021 Mercy for Animals film: “If we don’t change, we are f***ed.”

Mercy for Animals is an American NGO with the stated purpose of ending factory farming because it is cruel to animals, a fact with which few would disagree. There are other reasons to shun factory-farmed meat as opposed to meat from animals raised on pasture, not least because some of the meat thus produced is subsequently heavily processed using unhealthy ingredients and then shipped long distances. The reason factory-farmed meat remains profitable is, obviously, because it is cheap and those who cannot afford expensive free range or organic have little other choice.

There is no doubt that factory farming is an industrial process that pollutes. There is also no doubt that an average Western—especially urban—diet contains a lot of unhealthy things, including too much meat. But whether or not folk who eat sensible amounts of local, organic meat and dairy, and try to stay fit and healthy, would have any significant impact on the planet’s climate by changing their diet is another matter, which I will come back to.

Mercy for Animal’s beliefs go much further than opposing animal cruelty. The organisation believes in speciesism or rather anti-speciesism, the idea that humans have no right to impose their will on other animals or to “exploit” them. It is a view that is shared by a growing number of people, especially vegans in the Global North. Thunberg goes as far as believing that only vegans can legitimately “stand up for human rights,” and wants non-vegans to feel guilty. Even more radical is Google founder, Larry Page, who reportedly thinks robots should be treated as a living species, just that they are silicon-based rather than carbon-based!

Whatever novel ideas anti-speciesists think up, no species would evolve without favouring its own. Our ancestors would never have developed their oversized brains if they had not eaten scavenged or hunted meat, and we have always lived in symbiosis with other animals, sometimes to the benefit of both. It seems likely that the wolf ancestors of dogs freely elected to live close to humans, taking advantage of our hearths and our ability to store game. In this, the earliest proven instance of domestication, perhaps each species exploited the other.

Having visited many subsistence hunters and herders over the last half century, I know that the physical – and spiritual – relationship they have with the creatures they hunt, herd or use for transport, is very different from that of most people (including me!). Most of us now have little experience of the intimacy that comes when people depend at first-hand on animals for survival.

Hunters, for example, often think they have a close connection with their game, and it is based on respect and exchange. A good Yanomami huntsman in Amazonia does not eat his own catch but gives it away to others. Boys are taught that if they are generous like this, the animals will approach them to offer themselves willingly as prey. Such a belief encourages strong social cohesion and reciprocity, which could not be more different from Western ideals of accumulation. The importance of individual cows to African herders, or of horses to the Asian steppe dwellers who, we think, started riding them in earnest, can be touchingly personal, and the same can be found all over the world.

Our ancestors would never have developed their oversized brains if they had not eaten scavenged or hunted meat

Everyone knows that many small children, if they feel safe, have an innate love of getting up close and personal to animals, and projects enabling deprived city kids to interact with livestock on farms can improve mental wellbeing and make children happier.

This closeness to other species is a positive experience for many, clearly including Thunberg; her film features her in an English animal sanctuary and cuddling one of her pet dogs. Those who believe speciesism is of great consequence, on the other hand, seem to seek a separation between us and other animals, whilst paradoxically advancing the idea that there is none. Animals are to be observed from a distance, perhaps kept as pets, but never “exploited” for people’s benefit.

Mercy for Animals does not stop at opposing factory farming. It is against the consumption of animal products altogether, including milk and eggs, and thinks that all creatures, including insects, must be treated humanely. Using animals for any “work” that benefits people is frowned upon. For example, the foundation holds the view that sheepdogs are “doubly problematic” because both dogs and sheep are exploited. It accepts, however, that they have been bred to perform certain tasks and may “experience stress and boredom if not given . . . work.” In a communication to me, the organisation has confirmed that it is also (albeit seemingly reluctantly) ok with keeping pets as they are “cherished companions with whom we love to share our lives”, and without them we would be “impoverished”. Exactly the same could be said for many working dogs of course.

Anyway, this not-for-profit believes that humans are moving away from using animals for anything, not only meat, but milk, wool, transport, emergency rescue, and everything else. It claims “several historical cultures have recognized the inherent right of animals to live . . . without human intervention or exploitation,” and thinks we are slowly evolving to a “higher consciousness” which will adopt its beliefs. It says this is informed by Hindu and Buddhist ideals and that it is working to “elevate humanity to its fullest potential.”

We all exalt our own morality of course, but professing a higher consciousness than those who think differently casts a supremacist shadow. The alleged connection with Indian religions is a common argument but remains debatable. The sacredness of cows, for example, is allied to their providing the dairy products widespread in Hindu foods and rituals. The god Krishna, himself a manifestation of the Supreme Being Vishnu, was a cattle herder. The Rig Veda, the oldest Indian religious text, is clear about their role: “In our stalls, contented may they stay! May they bring forth calves for us . . . giving milk.” Nearly a third of the world’s cattle are thought to live in India. Would they survive the unlikely event of Hindus converting to veganism?

Most Hindus are not wholly vegetarian. Although a key tenet of Hindu fundamentalism over recent generations is not eating beef, the Rig Veda mentions cows being ritually killed in an earlier age. The renowned Swami Vivekananda, who first took Hinduism and yoga to the US at the end of the 19th century and is hailed as one of the most important holy men of his era, wrote that formerly, “A man [could not] be a good Hindu who does not eat beef,” and reportedly ate it himself. Anyway, the degree to which cows were viewed as “sacred” in early Hinduism is not as obvious as many believe. The Indus Civilisation of four or five thousand years ago, to which many look for their physical and spiritual origins, was meat-eating, although many fundamentalist Hindus now deny it.

Vegetarians are fond of claiming well-known historical figures for themselves. In India, perhaps the most famous is Ashoka, who ruled much of the subcontinent in the third century before Christ and was the key proponent of Buddhism. He certainly advocated compassion for animals and was against sacrificial slaughter and killing some species, but it is questionable whether he or those he ruled were actually vegetarian.

We all exalt our own morality of course, but professing a higher consciousness than those who think differently casts a supremacist shadow.

Whatever Ashoka’s diet included, many Buddhists today are meat-eaters like the Dalai Lama and most Tibetans—rather avid ones in my experience—and tea made with butter is a staple of Himalayan monastic life. Mercy for Animals however remains steadfast to its principles, asserting, “Even (sic!) Jewish and Muslim cultures are experiencing a rise in animal welfare consciousness.”

Mercy for Animals might look at how racists have supported animal rights over the last hundred years, sometimes cynically and sometimes not. “Concern for animals can coexist with a strong strain of misanthropy, and can be used to demonise minority groups as barbaric, uncivilised and outdated . . . in contrast to supposedly civilised, humane Aryans. . . . The far right’s ventures into animal welfare is sometimes coupled with ‘green’ politics and a form of nature mysticism.”

Mercy for Animals was founded by Milo Runkle, a self-styled “yogi” who lives in Los Angeles. He was raised on an Ohio farm and discovered his calling as a teenager on realising the cruelty of animal slaughter. He is now an evangelical vegan who believes an “animal-free” meal is, “an act of kindness”. He is also a keen participant in the billion-dollar Silicon Valley industry trying to make and sell “meat and dairy” made from plants, animal cells and chemicals. He is a co-founder of the Good Food Institute and sits on the board of Lovely Foods. Like others in the movement, he rejects the term “fake” and insists that the products made in factories—that are supported by billionaires like Richard Branson and Bill Gates—are real meat and dairy, just made without animals.

The multi-million dollar Good Food Institute is also supported by Sam Harris, a US philosopher who came to prominence with his criticism of Islam, which he believes is a religion of “bad ideas, held for bad reasons, leading to bad behaviour”, and constitutes “a unique danger to all of us.”

Milo Runkle, in white, and vegan friends, 2019.

Milo Runkle, in white, and vegan friends, 2019.

Ersatz animal products are of course ultra-processed, by definition. They use gene modifications, are expensive, and produce a significant carbon footprint, although figures for the gasses emitted for any type of food depend on thousands of variables and are extremely complex to calculate. The numbers bandied about are often manipulated and should be viewed with caution, but it seems that the environmental footprint of “cultivated meat” may actually be greater than that of pork or poultry.

Is opposing livestock—and not just factory farming—and promoting veganism and fake meat and dairy a really effective way of reducing environmental pollution? Few people are qualified to assess the numerous calculations and guesses, but it is clear that there are vastly different claims from the different sides in the anti-livestock debate. They range from it contributing some 14 per cent of greenhouse gases, to a clearly exaggerated 50 per cent—and the fact that livestock on pasture also benefits the atmosphere is rarely mentioned by its critics. Thunberg plumps for a vague “agriculture and land use together” category, which she thinks accounts for 25 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions, but which of course includes plants. It is also important to realise that some grazing lands are simply not able to produce human food other than when used as animal pasture. Take livestock out of the picture in such places, and the amount of land available for food production immediately shrinks.

In brief, some vegetarians and vegans may produce higher greenhouse gas emissions than some omnivores—it all depends on exactly what they consume and where it is from. If they eat an out-of-season vegetable that has travelled thousands of miles to reach their plate, it has a high carbon footprint. The same thing, grown locally in season, has a much lower carbon footprint. If you are in Britain and buy, for example, aubergines, peas, beans, asparagus, or Kenyan beans, you are likely consuming stuff with a high environmental impact.

Mercy for Animals might look at how racists have supported animal rights over the last hundred years, sometimes cynically and sometimes not.

In any event, there is no doubt that a locally sourced, organically raised—or wild—animal is an entirely different creature from one born and living in a factory on the other side of the world. There is also no doubt that the factory version could be a legitimate target for climate activism. So could the felling of established forests, whether it is for cattle, animal feed or any number of things.

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Why should anyone who does not want real meat or dairy want to eat an expensive lookalike made entirely in a factory? Is it mere taste, habit, or virtue signalling? Few would dispute that the food we eat is at the centre of our identity. This has long been recognised by social scientists, and is in plain sight in the restaurant quarter of every city, everywhere in the world. “You are what you eat” is also as scientific as it is axiomatic.

3D printed meatDiet is central to many religions, and making people change what they eat, whether through the mission, schoolroom, or legal prohibitions, has long been a significant component in the colonial enterprise of “civilising the natives”. Many traditional indigenous diets are high in animal protein, are nutrient-rich, and are low in fat or high in marine sources of fat. Restricting the use of traditional lands and prohibiting hunting, fishing and trapping—as well as constant health edicts extolling low animal fat diets—have been generally disastrous for indigenous people’s wellbeing, and this is particularly noticeable in North America and Australia. The uniquely notorious residential schools in North America, where indigenous children were taken from their families and forced into a deliberately assimilationist regime, provided children with very little meat, or much of anything for that matter. Many died.

Western campaigns around supposedly improving diet go far beyond physical welfare. For example, the world’s best known breakfast cereal was developed by the Seventh Day Adventist and fiercely vegetarian Kellogg brothers in 1894. They were evangelical about the need to reduce people’s sex drive. Dr Kellogg advocated a healthy diet of his Corn Flakes, which earned him millions. He separately advised threading silver wire through the foreskin and applying acid to the clitoris to stop the “doubly abominable” sin of masturbation. Food choices go beyond animal cruelty or climate change!

The belief that meat-eatingparticularly red meatstimulates sexual desire and promotes devilish masturbation is common in Seventh Day Adventism, a religion founded in the US in the 1860s out of an earlier belief called Millerism. The latter held that Christ would return in 1844 to herald the destruction of the Earth by fire. Seventh Day Adventism is a branch of Protestantism, the religion that has always underpinned American attitudes about material wealth being potentially allied to holiness. I have written elsewhere on how Calvinist Protestant theology from northern Europe underpins the contemporary notion of a sinful humankind opposing a divine “Nature”, and it is noteworthy that Seventh Day Adventism starts at exactly the same time as does the US national park movement in the 1860s.

Restricting the use of traditional lands and prohibiting hunting, fishing and trapping have been generally disastrous for indigenous people’s wellbeing.

Although this is not widely known by the general public, Seventh Day Adventism is one of the world’s fastest growing religions, and has sought to push its opposition to meat into wider American attitudes for over a century. For example, the American Dietetic Association was co-founded by a colleague of Kellogg, Lenna Cooper, in 1917. It evolved into the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and is now the world’s largest organisation of nutrition and dietetics practitioners.

Protestants figuring out what God wants humans to eat dates from before Seventh Day Adventism. The famous founder of Methodism, John Wesley, did not eat meat; some years after he died, a few of his followers started the vegetarian Bible Christian Church in England’s West Country. They sent missionaries to North America a generation before the foundation of Seventh Day Adventism and were also closely involved in establishing the Vegetarian Society in England in 1847three years after Christ did not come to end the world with fire as originally predicted. It was this society that first popularised the term “vegetarian”. In 1944, a hundred years after that non-appearance of Christ, the word “vegan” was coined.

Fundamentalist Christians might believe that humankind’s supposedly vegan diet in the Garden of Eden should be followed by everyone, and that is obviously open to question from several points of view. What is clearer, and worth repeating, is that the “normal” Western urban diet, particularly North American, contains a lot of highly processed factory foods and additives and is just not great for human health.

In 1944, a hundred years after that non-appearance of Christ, the word “vegan” was coined.

It is also true that, in spite of generations of colonialism trying to erode people’s food self-sufficiency, hundreds of millions of people still depend on eating produceanimal as well as vegetablewhich is collected, hunted, caught or herded by their own hands, or by others close by, often sustainably and organically. Perhaps rather paradoxically, Thunberg visited Sami reindeer herders the year before her Mercy for Animals film. They are recognised as indigenous people in her part of the world and are about as far from veganism as is possible. They not only eat the reindeer, including its milk, cheese and blood, but also consume fish, moose and other animals. As far as I know, there are no indigenous peoples who vegan anywhere in the world.

Sami haute cuisine, about as far from veganism as imaginable.

Sami haute cuisine, about as far from veganism as imaginable.

Like the Sami, about one quarter of all Africans depend on sustainable herding, and the pastoralists in that continent have an enviable record of knowing how to survive the droughts that have been a seasonal feature in their lives for countless generations. It is also the case that pasturelands created or sustained by their herds are far better carbon sinks than new woodlands.

Some wild as well as domesticated animal species feed a lot of people. In spite of conservationist prohibitions and its relentless demonisation, “bushmeat” is more widespread than is admitted and remains an important nutritional source for many Africans. Denigrating it has an obviously racist tone when compared to how “game” is extolled in European cuisine. If you are rich, you can eat bushmeat, if you are poor, you cannot.

Many do not realise that bushmeat is openly served in African restaurants, particularly in South Africa and Namibia, the countries with by far the highest proportion of white citizens. During the hunting season, no less than 20 per cent of all (red) meat eaten is from game with, for example, ostrich, springbok, warthog, kudu, giraffe, wildebeest, crocodile and zebra all featuring on upmarket menus. Meanwhile, poor Africans risk fines, beatings, imprisonment or worse if they hunt the same creatures. When “poachers” are caught or shot, Western social media invariably erupts with brays of how they deserve extreme punishment.

 The Carnivore, Johannesburg (also in Nairobi), “Africa’s Greatest Eating Experience”, makes a feature of bushmeat on its menus.

The Carnivore, Johannesburg (also in Nairobi), “Africa’s Greatest Eating Experience”, makes a feature of bushmeat on its menus.

Some conservationists would like to end both herding and hunting and, even more astonishingly, advocate for Africans to eat only chicken and farmed fish. In real life, any step towards that luckily unattainable goal would result in an increase in malnutrition, in the profits of those who own the food factories and supply chains, and probably in greenhouse gas emissions as well.

Controlling people’s health and money by controlling their access to food has always featured large in the history of human subjugation. Laying siege was always a guaranteed way of breaking an enemy’s body and spirit. If most food around the world is to be produced in factorieslike fake meat and dairythen the factory owners will control human life. The drive to push small-scale hunters, herders and farmers off their land, supposedly for rewilding or conservation, is a step towards that ruin.

The clamour against meat and dairy goes far beyond opposition to factory farming, and that is the problem. Of course, there is nothing wrong with celebrating vegetarianism and veganism, but claiming they are a product of a higher consciousness or morality, and labelling those who do not follow the commandment as cruel or guilty if they stick to their existing diet, as Thunberg and Runkle do, turns them into religious beliefs. These invariably encompass fundamentalist undertones that can tip all too easily into violence against non-believers.

“Meet [sic] is murder” – vandalism of meat and cheese shops is a common tactic of vegan activists.

“Meet [sic] is murder” – vandalism of meat and cheese shops is a common tactic of vegan activists.

Some vegans go beyond persuasion, and try to force others to their belief whether they like it or not. One way in which they do this is by raiding factory farms illegally to “liberate” the animals, as Milo Runkle did, or they engage in other low-level vandalism like spray-painting meat and cheese shops or breaking windows, or go further and wreck vehicles. The fact that the most extremist animal rights activistsusually referencing veganismdo all of this and a great deal more, including physical threats, arson, grave robbing (sic), and planting bombs, is unfortunately no invented conspiracy theory.

The most extreme protests involving firebombs and razor blades in letters are normally reserved for those who use animal tests in research. The homes of scientists are usually the targets, although other places such as restaurants and food processing plants are also in the firing line. One US study found that the activists behind the violence were all white, mostly unmarried men in their 20s. Their beliefs echoed those of many ordinary climate activists. They included supporting biodiversity; that humans should not dominate the earth; that governments and corporations destroy the environment; and that the political system will not fix the crisis.

An organisation called Band of Mercy (unrelated to Mercy for Animals) was formed in 1972 and renamed the Animal Liberation Front four years later. Starting in Britain, where by 1998 it had grown to become “the most serious domestic terrorist threat”, it spawned hundreds of similar groups in forty countries around the world. Membership is largely hidden but they do seek publicity—in one year alone, they claimed responsibility for 554 acts of vandalism and arson.

Of course, moderate vegans are not responsible for the violence of a small minority, but history shows that where there are lots of people looking for a meaningful cause, some will support those they latch onto in extreme ways. In brief, there is a problematic background to opposing meat and dairy that should be faced. Big influencers must accept a concomitantly big responsibility in choosing what to endorse. The most powerful influencers who demonise anything must be sensitive to the inevitability of extremist interpretations of their message.

The drive to push small-scale hunters, herders and farmers off their land, supposedly for rewilding or conservation, is a step towards that ruin.

We know that digital communication is a new and effective way of stoking anger that can lead to violence. For example, the risk that Muslims in India today might be murdered by Hindu fundamentalists if they are even suspected of eating beef seems to have increased with the proliferation of social media. Characterising a meal as cruel if it includes meat or even dairy, as Runkle wants us to, could be used to stoke deadly flames far from his West Coast home.

Hindu fundamentalists, having lynched a Muslim suspected of storing beef, burn his effigy in response to an inquiry that found that he had not.

Hindu fundamentalists, having lynched a Muslim suspected of storing beef, burn his effigy in response to an inquiry that found that he had not.

More broadly, well off influencers trying to make others feel guilty about what they eat should be careful about unintended consequences. Disordered eating damages many people, especially young girls who already face challenges around their transition to adulthood. In addition to everyday teenage angst and biology, they are faced with the relentless scourge of social media, now with eco- and COVID19-anxiety as added burdens. In a rich country like the UK, suicide has become the main cause of death for young people. In that context, telling people they are guilty sinners if they carry on eating what they, or their parents, have habitually eaten could set off dangerous, cultish echoes.

On another level, corporations and NGOs should stop trying to deprive people of any food self-sufficiency they might have left, and stop kicking them off their territories and into a dependence on factories from which the same corporations profit.

The obvious lesson from all this is to eat locally produced organic food as much as possible, if one can. That is a good choice for health, local farming, sustainability, and reducing pollution. Those who want to might also choose to eat less meat and dairy, or none at all. That is a good choice for those who oppose animal slaughter, believe milk is exploitation, or decide that vegan is better for them. However, claiming veganism means freedom from guilt and sin and is a key to planetary salvation is altogether different and, to say the least, open to question.

Thunberg’s core message in her Mercy for Animals film is “We can change what we eat”, although she admits that some have no choice. In reality, choosing what to eat is an extraordinarily rare privilege, denied to most of the world’s population, including the poor of Detroit and Dhaka. The world’s richest large country has 37 million people who simply do not have enough to eat, of anything; six million of these Americans are children. Those lucky enough to possess the privilege of choice do indeed have an obligation to use it thoughtfully. In that respect anyway, Thunberg is right.

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