Norms and Values
Rethinking Russia-Africa Relations: Why Institutions of Higher Education Hold the Key to Sustainable Relations

Africa, beyond being a spectator to how external actors lay blame on each other or seek to take credit for their ‘humanitarian’ efforts to civilize the continent, believes there are many other issues that these countries should pay more attention to. This is where the role of higher education institutions comes in.

Relations between Russia and African countries have entered a crucial turning point since 2019, when Russia hosted leaders from the continent at the first Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi. Since then, a lot has happened, and not only for Russia in terms of its relations with Western states and its European neighbours. Africa has been experiencing significant changes in its relations with both great and emerging powers.

China’s two-decade momentum in pursuit of the continent seems now to be on the decline, with lower investments, especially in infrastructure, being witnessed over the past four years. According to Fudan University’s Green Finance and Development Center, the year 2022 saw a 55% decline in Chinese investment in Africa. On the other hand, the European Union seems to be warming up to the continent after years of reduced engagement. The adoption of a Joint Vision 2030 between the European Union and Africa during the February 17-18, 2022 summit in Brussels is an indicator of intent from both parties.

But as Africa is experiencing changes in its engagement with external powers, the focus has been on the growing narrative mostly invented and promoted by people outside the continent, most of which emphasises the negative aspects of African relations with the rest of the world. In addition to Africa’s identity, public opinion and proactive approach to international relations being overlooked, the gains made from Africa’s ‘open arms approach’ that allows the continent to have good relations with countries from other parts of the world, are also underestimated.

Africa, beyond being a spectator to how external actors lay blame on each other or seek to take credit for their ‘humanitarian’ efforts to civilize the continent, believes there are many other issues that these countries should pay more attention to. This is where the role of higher education institutions comes in. Looking at the re-emerging relations between Africa and Russia, higher education institutions can play a unique role in strengthening these relations. Crucially, the new engagements between Moscow and Africa need to go beyond high-level summits between policymakers and transform into an opportunity for generational engagement. The younger generation in Africa have more potential to carry forward the aspirations of the continent, but only if African countries can catch up with the global trend of making their societies knowledge-based. The place of knowledge in resolving the contemporary and historical challenges ailing many developing countries cannot be underestimated. From dealing with the problem of disease to urban planning and addressing the challenges of inadequate and inefficient housing, schools, food security, affordable energy and economic infrastructures, knowledge remains an important component of dealing with these challenges.

Russia provides a unique opportunity for students and researchers from the continent to tap into its experiences in emerging scientific and research trends such as artificial intelligence, engineering, nanotechnology, agriculture, nuclear energy, cyber security and foreign policy, which are essential for growing a knowledge-based economy. Importantly, the sanctions which were recently imposed on Russia have given the country an opportunity to rethink and reinvent its economic and social policies to match the challenges that the sanctions have brought about. These lessons can be crucial for Africa, which has struggled with the unfavourable conditions stemming from the dominant liberal economic system and institutions. Furthermore, these ideas can best be exchanged in an academic environment, due to the transferable nature of knowledge. Once cooperation between institutions in Africa and Russia has begun, then the political (or politicised) nature of the relationship can shift to one that is capable of bringing on board new actors (academicians and researchers), ideas and strategies.

To achieve this goal, we can propose (1) setting up a network of quality universities through which Africans and Russians can benchmark, collaborate and engage in joint research and projects. (2) enhancing the mobility of students and researchers between Russia and the continent, with the goal of promoting not only knowledge exchange but also culture and societal trends. (3) to use this platform for transferring technology and information especially in the age of post-truth and fake news. Custodians of knowledge and information ought to be those within intellectual spaces. (5) to use education for promoting hi-tech driven economies, where there is a gap that continues to be elusive.

Given the importance of knowledge and evidence-based policymaking in social inclusion and development, enhancing interstate relations based on scientific and academic engagements is perhaps an area that needs further exploration. Indeed, there have been tremendous efforts in Africa since the 1950s to promote higher education, but these efforts are still far behind the global trends. For example, according to the UNESCO science report of 2021, only 8.9% of the world’s 18,772 higher education institutions are in Africa, significantly trailing the Caribbean and Latin America (12%), North America (20.4%), Europe (21.9%) and Asia (37%). Even crucial for this discussion is the percentage of GDP allocated to higher education institutions in Africa (0.59%) which is roughly 1.01% of global R&D expenditures. With the population of Africa growing to over 1.3 billion, it is surprising that the continent produces fewer research publications than Canada, a country with a population of 37.8 million.

Thus, the shifting of Russia-Africa relations to more scientific and academic engagement is not only likely to have a positive impact on the current status of higher education in the continent. It also provides the continent with a great opportunity to rethink its development approach, moving from a more dominant humanitarian and aid-based approach to a more proactive, solution-based approach. Student exchanges, staff exchange, joint research, creating academic consortiums, consultancies and implementing joint projects are ways such relations can begin to grow.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.