Bringing more equality into aid and development studies: a view from Makerere University, Uganda

03/2021 | Farida T. Bena

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This blog was originally published on Kiliza on March 11, 2021. 




A few months ago, I wrote about how the international aid and development sector was addressing the double challenge of Covid-19 and mounting accusations of racism following the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in the US. I recommended levelling the playing field between Northern and Southern academia to counteract the widespread belief that ‘developed’ nations know what is best for ‘developing’ countries. In particular, establishing joint Northern and Southern degrees in comparative development would in my view be a major step forward to ‘decolonise’ development knowledge and lay the ground for more equitable solidarity.

A few academics have signaled their interest in my idea so I have reached out to Professor Robert Senath Esuruku, Head of the Institute of Development Studies at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, one of Africa’s leading academic institutions, to discuss more. Here he shares his perspectives on Southern and Northern academia.



Thank you for agreeing to do this interview, Professor Esuruku. You head the international development branch of one of Africa’s best academic institutions, Makerere University. What do you think about the current trend to ‘decolonise’ aid and development programmes, particularly in Africa?

The discussion about decolonisation of aid and development programmes in Africa is not new. This discussion is often Western-centric and considers the Global South as recipient of Western aid. Such debates raise more questions than answers! Is decolonisation of aid a possibility or a pretence of the Western world? What does ‘decolonisation of aid’ mean when the North depends on the South for its raw industrial materials? We never confront the real issues that people should be talking about. Right now, when we talk about decolonisation, we see colonialism reinforcing itself, a new kind of colonialism taking roots. China is becoming stronger, asserting itself in Africa in the name of aid and forcing its presence in the continent. The EU is doing the same through some of its programmes. In reality, we do not see this [decolonisation] happening. Do we talk about reality or is it just a debate? There are usually more questions than answers.


In your view, what is the role of academia, both in Uganda and abroad, in recognising that the global South too has valuable knowledge to share?

The North-South knowledge flow has often been channelled through the transfer of intellectual property, trade and foreign direct investment between North and South. Academia is at the centre of knowledge production and dissemination through human capital development, research and sharing for development purposes. With ICT [information and communication technology], knowledge sharing between North-South has been made easy and institutions in the two hemispheres have exchanged knowledge through staff and students, joint research projects and publications. For example, our Institute of Development Studies at Makerere University has collaborated with the Research Centre for Plural Economics, University of Siegen in Germany to build an international partnership.


I know you are very busy these days turning your Department into an Institute of Development Studies. Why this change?

As part of Makerere’s strategy, we want to optimise the potential of our Department as a knowledge hub and focus its research and innovation on addressing development challenges in Uganda, the East African region and Africa more broadly. We can only do this by transforming ourselves into an Institute, which is research-led and makes contributions to national, regional and global development challenges, as well as to global knowledge production and dissemination.


Makerere University already offers joint academic programmes with Northern universities, such as the Makerere-Sweden Research Cooperation. How is this kind of collaboration going?

Our Institute of Development Studies has partnered with the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana and the Centre of African Studies at the University of Copenhagen to run a joint interdisciplinary PhD programme with funding from the Danish Development Research Council. The cross-country collaborative research programme is entitled Certifications of Citizenship in Africa (CERTIZENS) and enables human capital development, knowledge production and sharing. The collaboration is progressing very well, we are just getting started. For the official launch last week, we invited PhD candidates in Uganda to come to our campus. Later this month [March 2021], they will be travelling to Denmark for a face-to-face interaction with students from the University of Copenhagen. Students from the University of Ghana will do the same. We are also planning to have students from Denmark visit Makerere University later on. Students will get their degree from the university where they have initially registered. There are no problems with accreditation because each university can grant a degree.


Have you considered going one step farther and granting a joint degree in aid and development with a Northern University?

Internationalising our degree programmes is part of Makerere’s plans, but my question is: why only focus on aid and development? I find such a degree programme to be narrow. We should incorporate broader international development issues. We already teach aid and development but treat it as one component of our curriculum.

When I used to teach at Uganda Martyrs University, we had a joint degree programme with Saint Mary’s University in Canada. We used to transfer credits without a problem because the degree was granted by the institution where the candidate was registered. Granting a joint degree with other universities is an interesting proposal. Personally, I haven’t had the experience yet. Every university has its own regulations – who would be responsible for a joint degree? How would we harmonise differences in regulations? We need to consider this carefully.

Looking at what is currently happening in Uganda, Northern universities are increasingly establishing campuses in the global South, for example Cavendish University. But we see more and more students coming to Makerere because we have good ranking globally and in Africa. Often, their second choice will be a Northern university campus in the South.

We have also seen the reverse trend, that is, Northern students studying at Makerere and elsewhere. With globalisation we find more interaction happening. Had it not been for COVID-19, we would be seeing even more students from the global North here now. Equality in academia is really a question of mindset. Interaction between North and South, more exposure to these exchanges and being open-minded can be a better solution to bring equality in our sector [than granting joint degrees].


What would you regard as an ideal curriculum for a joint master’s degree in aid and development?

Let’s go step by step. Start with a basic concept of what kind of curriculum we want to develop, and how. Then, discuss and refine this idea. Let’s conduct a training needs assessment and reach out to potential stakeholders. They may have similar ideas. We need to look at the evolution of development aid, its approaches and effectiveness. There are claims that international aid reduces poverty and creates change in communities. We need to dissect such assertions and critically examine if they are real. Who really benefits from international aid? Is it the recipient countries or international organisations, aid agencies and their countries? We also need to look at the political economy of international aid and the changing landscape following the Paris declaration [a 2005 international agreement to make aid more effective]. We need to critically unpack the donor-recipient relationship and accountability.


I have suggested shifting the focus of the university curriculum from international/overseas development to comparative development in recognition of the fact that excellence can be found anywhere and different countries may approach similar challenges differently. What do you think about this idea?

Once we have sorted out the basic concept of a joint curriculum, we need to find out which other institutions are interested and whether their regulations would be compatible with ours. This approach must be systematic and requires time. I would start by engaging institutions in the North and South to do joint research, write papers about aid and development and organise seminars that will gradually lead us to develop a programme. Through seminars and presentations, we will also establish relationships that will point us in the right direction and to the right people.



Farida T. Bena is an aid and development effectiveness expert, humanitarian and campaigner with 20 years’ experience with non-governmental organisations (Oxfam, International Rescue Committee, CSO Partnership for Development Effectiveness) and international organisations (UNICEF, OECD, European Commission). Farida’s interests include citizen participation, social accountability and innovation in the global South. After having worked in about twenty countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, Farida is now based in Geneva, Switzerland.


Photo: Robert Senath Esuruku

Photo Credit: Makerere University

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