Survival of many developing country universities at risk, UNU expert warns

The survival of many developing country universities, especially in Africa, is at risk if they are not quickly strengthened and geared to help address regional development problems through research, warns the head of advanced studies at the United Nations University.

Speaking at UNESCO’s Paris headquarters Nov. 29, Prof. A.H. Zakri, Director of UNU’s Yokohama-based Institute for Advanced Studies, appealed for international help to foster relevant research programmes in the developing world, where “the pressures are greatest, the need most acute and it is really a matter of life and death.”

Many developing country universities are not relevant, he says, citing Dutch research showing a major disconnect between research in developing country universities and regional economic development priorities, as well as weak linkages between knowledge producers and users and between knowledge production and innovation.

A universal characteristic of university success is “relevance” or “research utility,” says Dr. Zakri. “Universities and the research they undertake needs to be relevant – to their Government’s policy, to their people’s educational needs and to their community’s needs. Universities that are not relevant will not survive.”

He told an international conference of higher education experts that rising poverty, falling Gross Domestic Product and political upheaval in Africa are a function in part of paltry national R&D investment through universities in that part of the world. According to Dr. Zakri, Asia accounted for 31.5% of world R&D expenditure in 2001; Africa accounted for 0.6%.

“Developed countries on average spend 2.5 percent of their gross domestic product on R&D. India allocates 1.2 percent; Brazil, 0.91 percent; China, 0.69 percent, most developing nations devote less than 0.5 percent of GDP to research and development.”

The same contrast is seen in the statistics for

  • Gross expenditure on R&D (or GERD);
  • Percentage of world researchers;
  • Researchers per million people;
  • GERD per researcher;
  • World share of scientific publications and patents;
  • Enrolments in higher education;
  • Internet access in developing countries; and
  • World academic ranking of universities.

And the forecast for research in much of the developing world is dim. For example, despite many political statements in support of biotechnology, the amount of biotech R&D funding available in most African countries amounts to less than US$250,000 per year.

“Agricultural research in Africa is becoming increasingly dependent on donor funding – which means it is less sustainable and less responsive to African needs and priorities or less relevant.”

Without strong research capabilities, many parts of the world are being left behind. While the rest of the world takes advantage of new technologies related to, for example, information, biotechnology, nanotechnology, many societies have no capacity to undertake even basic research and fall further behind.

Dr. Zakri stresses that several developing countries have excellent R&D institutions, sectors and universities. “The Philippines, for example, is an international leader in rice research. Chile is strong in astronomy. Malaysia leads the world in oil palm research. China conducts world-class research in seismology. Cuba is a world leader in health services. And India is considered among the world's best in mathematics.”

He also singled out the research institutes of Egypt’s Library of Alexandria and the work of Pakistani-born Rabia Hussain, who established a globally pre-eminent immunology laboratory at Aga Khan University, Karachi, focused on diseases relevant to the South, such as leprosy and tuberculosis. A recent review by the Academy of Sciences of the Developing World and the South Centre lists 525 institutions carrying out world-class scientific research from 59 developing countries.

“Within these successes are the keys to understanding how we can promote research, how we can bridge the gaps and ensure that research within universities thrives,” says Dr. Zakri. The lessons include:

  • Government policies and funding to support capacity building;
  • Stable, autonomous and flexible institutional environment;
  • Merit based evaluation;
  • Effective international networking;
  • Local leadership – especially passionate championing by resident or expatriate individuals; and
  • International support.

10-point action programme

“It is not possible to seriously tackle poverty without ensuring that R&D, universities and education generally thrives in the developing world,” says Dr. Zakri, proposing a 10-point action plan for individuals, universities, governments and international organisations:

1) Create and Strengthen Centres of Leadership and Excellence, especially in least developed countries, by identifying leaders and research teams, providing them with autonomy, financial stability, modern equipment and access to information technologies and international peer groups.

2) Support Fellowships and Training Programmes that keep researchers up-to-date with the latest information and connected with other research and educational centres around the world.

3) Promote Cooperation in the South through South-South exchange fellowships for doctoral and postdoctoral researchers. In particular, the major developing countries should make significant contributions towards the development of least developed countries.

4) Create Institutional Networks to Address Common Problems relating to issues of regional concern or common interest. These networks should promote joint research projects and conferences, workshops and symposia that allow for the constant exchange of ideas.

5) Publicize and Share Successful Experiences of researchers, policy makers and planners in using research for national development. Efforts should highlight that, despite problems, researchers in the South have developed many creative answers to address and solve critical development issues.

6) Create and Support Merit-based Academies in the South to help promote and sustain scholarship, recognize and reward good work, interact with other academies and scholastic bodies, serve as role models for the young and engage governments in matters where R&D and policy meet.

7) Mobilize Expatriates and Institutions in the North enabling the 'brain drain' to be converted, in part, into a 'brain gain'. Researchers in the North, particularly those from developing countries, should be encouraged to work on major Third World problems, and institutions in the North should be encouraged to assist in building capacity and excellence in the South.

8) Provide Equitable Access to Knowledge. This means promoting internet access, creating international networks among teams of research scientists and making sure that intellectual property rights do not limit access in developing countries]

9) Engage the Private Sector as agents for national development by supporting R&D through in-house research, training, recruitment and related modes of support.

10) Persuade Governments to Commit to R&D by investing more in education. For example the Millennium Project, the Third World Academy of Science (TWAS), the African Panel on Biotechnology and the InterAcademy Council, called for setting a target for the science sector to receive at least 1 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) within 10 years. We also need to recognise that long term funding is critical for promoting R&D. Successful R&D is not achieved in one or two years – it requires decades to properly nurture.

“Developing R&D is a responsibility we cannot ignore,” says Dr. Zakri. “R&D fuelled the industrial revolution and the Green Revolution. R&D is the basis of the IT and biotech revolutions we are in the midst of today. Without R&D capacities no country can expect to benefit from any of these revolutions.”

“Should we fail our responsibilities, research will wither, universities fail and the poor will remain rooted in poverty and inequity.”


UNU Institute of Advanced Studies

The Institute of Advanced Studies is part of the United Nations University’s global network of research and training centres. IAS undertakes research and postgraduate education on leading sustainable development issues, convening expertise from disciplines such as economics, law, biology, political science, physics and chemistry to better understand and contribute creative solutions to pressing global concerns. UNU-IAS works to identify and address strategic issues of concern for all humankind, for governments and decision makers and, particularly, for developing countries. (

United Nations University

Established by the U.N. General Assembly, UNU is an international community of scholars engaged in research, advanced training and the dissemination of knowledge related to pressing global problems. Activities focus mainly on peace and conflict resolution, sustainable development and the use of science and technology to advance human welfare. The University operates a worldwide network of research and post-graduate training centres, with headquarters in Tokyo. (

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Apr 2016
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