Corruption, consultants and contributions to academic life

I was part of an interesting seminar of the Nepal Study Group at the University of Trondheim/Norway last week. I presented and discussed with the audience via Skype which worked really well and I was able to listen to the other presentations and the discussion for three hours. It was great to be in Trondheim virtually and an important reminder about how relatively inexpensive technology can contribute to important academic exchanges. But this post is less about technology and more about one particular aspect that a Nepali participant raised in the discussion: How 'development' and its agencies are in his view 'corrupting' academics (and other parts of the elite) by hiring them as consultants.
After my presentation one Nepali member of the audience made a comment about how donor money has been 'corrupting' Nepal for a long time. This is a claim that I have often heard during my research and a point that was argued most prominently in Devendra Panday’ 'Nepal's failed development'.
But the discussion was more specific as the Nepali colleague referred to my example of local academics and intellectuals being hired as consultants by the bi- and multilateral donors and often produce 'ritualised' reports that are neither very critical nor innovative. But I also pointed out that despite these shortcomings, I do not generally want to condemn these endeavours because consultancies often provide much needed income for very low paid academic researchers and teachers. However, I disagreed with him that such consultancies necessarily have to 'corrupt' academics and lure them away from their academic engagements. Many adjunct faculty in higher education around the globe face the problem that their academic employment is not paying enough, but that they like to be involved with students, teaching and learning. I also think that higher, tertiary education is a much neglected area of international development which focuses a lot on primary education, the MDGs and getting boys and girls into schools, but does hardly engage with higher education, especially humanities or social sciences in universities. My point is: If you paid academics properly, you would not have many of those problems. But just because your academic employment does not pay enough, you do not have the carte blanche to neglect your academic duties; it is less than ideal to teach at the public university of Kathmandu, for example, where everything is in short supply. But not showing up to classes/on campus or supervise students is not the solution. I would argue that you could balance consultancy work with academic work. I also realise that there many cultural differences between academic systems around the world; John Holm’s blog post ‘When family ties bind African universities’ is a very interesting insight into challenges faced by the higher education system in Botswana (The comments are also interesting to read, although I tend to agree less with the claims that his 'Western' background is a big problem for this matter; there is also a comment posted by and Indian academic which suggests that some of the challenges may be similar in South Asia). Blaming donors and their (access to or lack of) funds is too easy of an explanation for the crisis; Liz Reisberg’s post on ‘Challenges for African university leadership’ is a good overview over some key challenges.
So back to Nepal. A Nepali visiting professor from the US recently invited students to an intensive reading and discussion seminar and I thought this was an excellent idea. Bring reading materials (classic political science writings as well as new journal articles that are difficult if not impossible to access in Nepal), give them to students and sit down and discuss them with the students. Or invite students to your house for a small seminar or supervision. Or share invitations to workshops and conferences with your graduate students. Despite many problems that come with donors and their money, exposing your students to international colleagues and debates may not be the worst aspect of it. My point is: You can accept 'corrupting' donor money, but at the same time make these engagements work for your students as well. Hiding behind well-known phrases such as 'the World Bank pays more per day than the university in a month' is not good enough if you really care about academic life and your students. The same is often true for adjunct faculty in Europe or North America where a cosultancy for an international organisation can easily pay more than a course you are teaching at the university. The ethical questions, but also choices, that you as an academic can make are part of being an academic and simply blaming donors for the malaise limits the important debates right from the beginning.
As far as I know in the case of Kathmandu a lot of the challenges also have to do with the senior management of the university. I heard quite a few stories about alleged ‘corruption’ in the senior echelons of the university administration once there is a rare instance when foreign funding is available or foreign researchers try to engage with their Nepali colleagues.
But none of these issues should distract as from the bigger discussion that is important to have, namely how international development can help to make universities and academia more attractive in the first place so that they can offer the education to keen students many academics are very capable of providing.


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