Views on the ideal relationship between government, universities and business have evolved considerably in African and Arab regions. In the earliest most powerful civilisations in Africa, for instance, universities were integral to societal progress, often organised around Islamic teaching, which was also the basis for governance and commerce. However, as both slavery and colonialism influenced economic development in the region, such linkages slowly eroded. While some efforts were made in the early 1960s to invest in African universities to increase science and technology development, governments were urged to “get out of the way” of business as a debt crisis emerged in the late 1980s.

More recently, inspired by emerging economies such as the UAE, China and Singapore, and due to the fourth industrial revolution, the idea of bringing together government, business and academia together for development — the ‘triple-helix’ model — has been revived. Africa’s Agenda 2063, for example, has an IT–university flagship project that builds on the experience of the Pan African University which has existed since 2008 and operates alongside the African Continental Free Trade Area. Triple Helix summits have been held in African and Arab ICT hubs such as Nairobi (2017) and Dubai (2018), and Rwanda and Mauritius co-host the African Leadership University, which aims to develop three million ethical and entrepreneurial leaders by 2035.

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While the triple-helix concept has attractions, especially in two regions where education spending as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) is among the highest in the world, the challenges of translating this spend into results are huge. According to Unesco statistics, tertiary enrolment rates are on average 12% across Africa, and 39% for the Arab world — versus China at 58% and the OECD average of 77%. The best universities in the Arab and African regions reach just 183th and 190th positions of the global Times Higher Education rankings. While part of this is no doubt due to racist pedagogical structures, the fact is African and Arab leaders and civil servants are not uniformly educated in these universities. 

My view is that the biggest challenge to the strategy is low industrialisation rates in both the Arab and African regions. In Africa, manufacturing accounts for just 11% of GDP — 14 times lower than China’s. While China’s manufacturing sector has grown annually by 10% since 2005, Africa’s has grown only by 3%. That means that while entrepreneurship clearly shows itself in the regions’ large informal sectors, there is also high youth unemployment. Until African and Arab industrial hubs take off – for instance through better infrastructure development – the triple helix model will remain a relic of the past.

Hannah Wanjie Ryder is the CEO of consultancy Development Reimagined and senior associate at the Center for Strategic International Studies Africa Program. E-mail: hannahryder@developmentreimagined.com

This article first appeared in the April/May 2022 print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.