Development Aid to Africa: Time for Plan B?

Fifty years and trillions of dollars of foreign aid has yet to put the African continent on a real growth trajectory. Here’s a suggestion for a change in focus.


Despite the best of intentions, trillions of dollars in Western foreign aid have failed to pull sub-Saharan Africa out of poverty—much less put the continent on a development trajectory similar to the one many Asian and Latin American countries have successfully followed for decades. Here I propose a different approach to development assistance in Africa—redirecting aid flows to developing U.S.-run university programs, initially within existing African universities. Online education would be the core mode, greatly reducing costs.

This proposal has several advantages over current practice. First, and most important, building U.S. educational programs and institutions on the continent is the most efficient way to help establish the foundation for Africans to build their societies on their own terms. At the same time, however, it is arguably a very effective way to compete with China in Africa.

Beijing is already building universities in Ethiopia and Malawi, and funding existing schools in South Africa, to win the hearts and minds of future African leaders. Yet the United States still has the best system of higher education in the world, which is why students flock to our colleges from all over the world.

Scope of the Problem

The failure of development aid to date is easy to see in Tanzania, where I recently taught at a small university in the country’s central region. After 50 years of projects and programs, this area still suffers from food insecurity, malnutrition, maternal anemia and stunting of children’s growth, as well as dismal education standards, poor agricultural productivity and endemic corruption. The same pattern exists across much of the continent.

U.S. universities in these countries would set a standard against which indigenous schools could challenge themselves.

African counties commonly derive some 50 percent of their government budgets from foreign aid. This is a recipe for dependency and for bloated governments that maintain a small percent of the population at high incomes, yet fail to reach the people in villages and slums with development programs. In my experience, Tanzanian government employees are often corrupt and undereducated. Yet they are the very people on whom conventional donors depend for the crucial “last mile” of aid program implementation. Many of these bureaucrats demand “sitting fees”—starting at five dollars a day for villagers and rising to hundreds of dollars a day for regional and district heads—just to participate in development projects.

On top of that, far too much aid money is frittered away on new cars, the construction of new offices, stays in high-end hotels and generous per diem payments for government staff. I can always tell when nongovernmental organizations or government bodies are meeting in Dodoma, because fleets of new Toyota Land Cruisers and other sports utility vehicles dominate the city. I recall chatting one time with a Tanzanian at the bar in a high-end tourist hotel in Arusha. He worked for the highway-building division and was staying at this $250-per-night hotel on the government’s tab. (I couldn’t help thinking of my experience during the 1980s working for the state of California, with an economy bigger than all of sub-Saharan Africa’s. We stayed at $30-per-night hotels.)

Africans outside these power loops rightly resent such misuse of money, which runs counter to donors’ development goals. But then failing to develop and remaining poor are, of course, the qualifications for more aid. In such an environment of self-feeding corruption it is nearly impossible to do effective development work.

Build American Universities

Unfortunately, while new colleges and universities are opening all over the African continent today, many of them are substandard institutions. Many instructors are unqualified, yet cannot be easily discharged. Lecturer absenteeism is alarmingly high, and many instructors make no effort to keep up in their fields despite the existence of free online resources geared to professionals. Many African college students pay bribes, very often instructor-elicited, to pass courses and graduate without being able to read or write well.

Instead of trying to fix local schools, the United States should consider the establishment of U.S. universities in these countries, to set a standard against which indigenous schools could challenge themselves. Their faculties should be entirely American, because local hiring would poach good teachers from schools where they are needed so badly. We have a surfeit of people with doctoral degrees in the United States, at least some of whom would presumably welcome the opportunity to teach overseas.

Accreditation of these institutions could be handled by a U.S.-based body, such as the Council for Higher Education Accreditation or the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Relationships with organizations such as the American Council on Education, as well as joint-degree programs with U.S. universities, could also be explored. (There was welcome movement in this direction at an April 2015 conference on international joint and dual degrees, hosted by ACE’s Center for Internationalization and Global Engagement.) Similarly, a U.S. university consortium could take on the development and management of these schools.

Online and distance education systems will go a long way to reduce costs.

Although a host of historic American universities continue to serve the Middle East, they are not appropriate models for Africa. Those countries have much higher per capita incomes and can support private universities. Because Africa is at the opposite end of the income spectrum despite reports of rapid economic growth, these new facilities would simply be filled by students from elite families, who already have the wherewithal to go abroad for education.

Meeting Critical Needs

The students we want for these schools are the bright young people who are locked out of quality education and struggle through the dismal government schools. I have found them extraordinarily hungry to learn and excel. Once they no longer have to contend with widespread corruption and incompetence in the indigenous education system, they will be equipped to effect change from within their societies. As a bonus, these American university alumni may very well become their countries’ future leaders and prime movers.

The undergraduate degree programs these American universities offer should concentrate on meeting urgent needs: business management, public health, nursing, agriculture, education, information technology, science, English and journalism. The degree programs would need to be four to five years to accommodate remedial needs.

I don’t foresee the schools offering graduate programs because the pressing need is for education at the level of state universities and community colleges in the United States—in other words, the fundamentals of undergraduate education. But perhaps top graduates could be given scholarships to pursue further education in America. Graduates of the American universities will enter the job market with skills in the top 2 to 3 percent of local university graduates and are likely to be sought after.

Rigorous protocols will be required to ensure that acceptance to these schools is merit-based. State Department or USAID oversight of the universities’ operation will be necessary to stand up to pressure from wealthy families to admit their children, qualified or not. Students would be expected to pay tuition that is consistent with the host government’s loan programs for university students, which might cover 10 percent of the university’s budget. Rigorous background checking of student applicants will also be necessary, as fraudulent documentation is rampant.

Online and distance education systems such as massive open online courses (MOOCs) and real-time online classes taught by U.S.-based faculty will go a long way to reduce costs. Perhaps most of the teaching could be done this way for courses that are not laboratory- or field-based, with support and examinations carried out by resident U.S. staff. The necessary fiber-optic Internet backbones have already been laid in much of Africa.

A Timely Proposal

Now is the time to invest in this initiative, ideally through reallocating current aid flows. The universities would need to be subsidized to give ample opportunity to applicants of average African income.

On a strategic level, graduates of these schools could very well become their countries’ leaders.

A first phase might be to establish autonomous programs within existing African universities in which online instruction, both asynchronous (e.g., MOOCs) and synchronous (realtime), is done. A small team of American staff would administer the courses and exams and maintain the network. American universities would be contracted to provide instruction. Perhaps hybrid education systems made up of a combination of online and conventional classrooms and laboratory teaching is the way to go.

In the next phase, an American university can be started in an African country—one out of, say, a half-dozen we approach—that offers the best package of local resources: e.g., land allocation, loan programs for students and infrastructure support. Existing infrastructure can be used, such as a former school or urban building complex. Enrollment would be small in the first couple of years, until faculty and administrators gain experience and a fuller vision of what is needed. Africans are supremely adaptable when it comes to utilizing transitional, limited resources, I have found.

The challenges will be many, but I believe the potential gains far outweigh the costs. Africa needs, above all, to build from the ground up via its own resources and efforts. Access to affordable, rigorous university education can be the foundation for this. These American universities would not only elevate the current standard of higher education in most of these countries, but could do the same at lower levels. On a strategic level, graduates of these schools could very well become their countries’ leaders.

But perhaps the best reason of all to try it is this: We cannot continue to waste dwindling U.S. foreign assistance on ineffectual programs. It is time for us to make a lasting difference in the developing world.

(Please join my Facebook discussion page on this topic: American Universities Africa Vision at

Don Lotter was a senior lecturer in development studies at St. John’s University of Tanzania from 2011 to 2016. He has a Ph.D. in agriculture from the University of California-Davis, and has been involved in crop production for food security and the development of cooking fuels from agricultural waste to slow the destruction of Tanzania’s forests for charcoal.