What do our friends need?

Thoughts on a Chinese-African Education Cooperation conference

Dr. Zhang Minxuan is a man that knows the right words to say—and knows that he knows them.

With the somewhat showy humility of a diplomat or a politician, the president of Shanghai Normal University made a lot of really nice-sounding points to a collection of scholars from around the world at “The Seminar on China-Africa Education and Capacity Building”, hosted by Zhejiang Normal University last week. In order to better provide support to Africa, Zhang declared, China must better understand the local contexts of African countries. Chinese official assistance to the continent, he continued, needs to shift from “politically driven to demand driven”. Not afraid to turn a phrase, he concluded: “A friend in need is a friend indeed; but what do our friends need?”

Participants at Zhejiang Normal's African Museum

Beyond merely sounding nice, Zhang’s insistence on the need for more local knowledge is significant, and in line with a critical shift occurring in discourses about international development. Over the past decade, a growing number of development practitioners and scholars have argued for the importance of locally sourced solutions, chipping away at the dominant unilateral aid-focused international development paradigm epitomized by Jeffery Sach’s “Big Push” model. The proliferation of organizations like Ashoka and Akili Dada that seek to empower individuals from the communities where the “development” is occurring to solve local problems – rather than transplanting solutions developed at some university or international organization HQ – is a clear manifestation of this (important) shift in thinking about development.

As China becomes an increasingly important player in world affairs, it is essential that they are included in evolving conversations about development. From this perspective, last weeks conference represents an important event. While some of the presentations – particularly those focused on “China-Africa cooperation” – were limited to fluffy posturing common in politically motivated talks, many others had real substance. Chinese researchers reported lessons and recommendations based on field research in Southern Africa. Experts from Cameroon, Mauritius, Botswana, South Africa and Egypt shared the unique challenges facing education development and capacity building in each of their countries. Through this type of exchange, Chinese’ scholars can begin to “better understand” local African contexts.

The potential effectiveness was however diminished by a subtle shift that occurred as the conference progressed. While African development remained the focus, European and Chinese participants increasingly dominated the conversation, at the expense of the attending Africans. This was particularly evident following a bluntly worded speech by a Chinese scholar. Speaking hurriedly in Chinese while an interpreter simultaneously translated into English, the Chinese professor made comments like:

Global education governance needs to abolish the Western-created myth of universalism [全球教育治理需要破除西方制造的普世主义神话.]

His speech ignited a string of fascinating responses from the European participants – a few of whom were very involved in existing global education governance institutions (e.g. UNESCO) – regarding the role of the West versus China in global governance. As European and Chinese scholars took over, however, African participants were increasingly marginalized from the conversation. Although the conference included scholars from Zimbabwe, Sudan, South Sudan, Malawi and many other countries, and at issue were programs being carried out primarily on African soil, the voices of these individuals were absent from the discussions of global governance.

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Linguistic barriers probably partly explain this phenomenon. There were plenty of people at the conference who could translate between English and Chinese and several others between English and French. There were, however, none that could go from French to Chinese, making it more difficult for the large group of Africans from Francophone Africa to join in comfortably.

More significantly, there seems to be an attitudinal explanation for the absence of African voices. At the same time as Mr. Zhang cited the need for more research on the local needs of African countries, other scholars attempted to speak for the continent, rather than allowing the attending representatives speak for themselves.

Seeing this reminded me of former Tanzanian President Mkapa’s response to my question, “What role can West play in African development?” His answer: the West can do a better job of actually listening to African leaders. At the time, Mkapa was talking about the West; but as China’s involvement in global development waxes, his advice surely should be heeded by the Asian nation as well.

Overall, this conference indicated to me, on a positive note, that Chinese academics and practitioners are realizing the importance of and creating more opportunities to listen and exchange with African counterparts. However, more must to be done to encourage and facilitate actual listening.

Thus, at risk of sounding pithy and overly simplistic, my response to Zhang’s question, ‘what do our friends need’: why not ask them?

Have any of you had similar experiences at conferences? What can be done to facilitate and ensure not just the attendance but also the active participation of a more diverse group of people? I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas – please share any below!

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