School of Education

COVID-19 – A vindictive messenger for multilateralism

Damtew Teferra
Damtew Teferra

The COVID-19 pandemic has shattered the deeply-seated notion of invincibility, supremacy and affluence of the Goliaths of the world. The power of the invisible virus has not only demonstrated our collective vulnerability, but has humbled the most powerful nations, their people and their institutions.

This pandemic – mercilessly and indiscriminately – strikes at the time when the new world order, as peddled by its most powerful architects, has been dangerously marching towards unilateralism. Enter COVID-19: the infinitesimal multilateralist, which brought together the gigantic unilateralists in a search for redemption. 

The reign of unilateralism

In the last few years, we have witnessed the emergence of unilateralism, nationalism and provincialism around the world. Countries which for a long period championed vigorous multilateral views and deeds have been increasingly challenged by internal issues which tended to be disproportionately inward-looking.

The simplistic, but populist, view that a country’s internal problems reside external to its borders has slowly trickled into the psyche of many countries and has, in effect, muscled out multilateralist views and principles.

Some countries have gone so far as to restrict and block the movement of students and academics, riding on the sentiments of vocal internal political forces. We have witnessed travel embargoes on multiple countries, a number of them in Africa. Yet others are selectively permitting migration into their territories but only to those with high-end skills and knowledge, stealthily siphoning off more experts and resources which make them more globally competitive.

In keeping with this trend, unilateralist forces have been slowly weakening multilateralist forces, institutions and views. Multilateral principles of governing, including international collaboration and development cooperation, have been frowned upon as unilateralism has taken hold in major global power centres.

Non-viable islands

In a book chapter I wrote in 2008, “Higher Education in Africa: The dynamics of international partnerships and interventions”, I articulated that the common agendas that bind countries together and the common challenges that confront them in the shrinking global village increasingly necessitate a serious and equitable partnership between all stakeholders.

The environment, climate, health, energy, migration, peace and global security, to mention some key concerns, are no longer amenable to solutions conceptualised only within national jurisdictions or confined by artificial political boundaries.

I further noted that more than ever before, there was a need for new and sustainable forms of global and regional engagement that were mutually beneficial, in order to address these common issues and challenges of critical importance.

In the recent words of Bill Gates, the Microsoft founder, this pandemic “is reminding us that we are all connected and something that affects one person has an effect on another. It is reminding us that the false borders that we have put up have little value as this virus does not need a passport.”

A wealthy, safe, secure and healthy island surrounded by a massive landmass of poverty, war, violence and disease has increasingly become an illusion. COVID-19 may be a vindictive but effective messenger.

African higher education – The challenge ahead

For over a decade now, Africa has been witnessing both expansion as well as some level of revitalisation of its higher education sector. During this period many African economies have shown steady growth – as a matter of fact, half of the fastest-growing economies are reported to be in Africa.

Africa’s growth performance, which stood at 3.4% in 2019, was expected to climb to 3.9% in 2020. Alas, this may now remain a dream as the global economic depression is likely to devastate its economy and also its institutions, including higher education.

The effect on higher education may likely be most felt on two grounds: firstly, a precipitous decline in government subventions to higher education due to weak revenue and income; and secondly, a comparable drop in commitments from development partners, largely to research, upon which African higher education has been unduly and disproportionately dependent.

In light of the impending economic realities, it is important to vigorously underscore, once again, the key role of higher education in the global development discourse. A strong medical institute that undertakes life-saving research for its immediate population needs to be construed as protecting others globally from similar pandemics as Ebola, bird flu and COVID-19.

Similarly, the building and sustaining of a strong forestry institute that plays a key role in afforestation schemes in the Global South needs to be construed as catering for all in the world. Carbon footprint comes to mind. Supporting a space science institute in the Global South to help predict rainfall patterns more accurately, for instance, is as much in the interest of the Global North.

By producing more harvest, not only will countries feed their own populations, but they will have more to provide to the world and, in so doing, will minimise poverty, conflict and violence. They will also help to contain mass migration – a serious concern of the Global North.

There is the impending danger that higher education may once again be sidelined as a luxury that African countries can least afford when it should continue to garner support on a priority basis to help overcome challenges like COVID-19 – and many other human-made problems and natural disasters.

In light of this reality, the appeal to institutional egalitarianism has to give way to institutional differentiation. Countries need to ring-fence their flagship universities and key research institutions for undiminished support to ensure their survival, if not their growth. Every crisis creates an opportunity, and this may be an opportune time to push some unpopular and unconventional, but realistic, measures.

Flawed approaches, neglected realities

The Ethiopian Prime Minister and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Dr Abiy Ahmed recently wrote a piece in the Financial Times articulating the need for global partnership.

He said: “There is a major flaw in the strategy to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. Advanced economies are unveiling unprecedented economic stimulus packages. African countries, by contrast, lack the wherewithal to make similarly meaningful interventions. Yet if the virus is not defeated in Africa, it will only bounce back to the rest of the world.”

He described the current strategy as myopic, unsustainable and potentially counter-productive.

Quite a lot has been written about the ethos of international collaboration in the interests of sustainable development, peace and security of the global community. Alas, despite these declarations and deliberations, there is little to show for it. Despite these pronouncements, yellow fever kills up to 60,000 people every year. Malaria kills 500,000 people a year. Night blindness afflicts 2.55 million children every year – in Africa alone.

Poverty, war and conflict kill millions more every year. In effect, many COVID-19s – ruthlessly and selectively – strike Africa every year without the world seriously caring. The time has come to push the pendulum back.


In an article on the proliferation of African summits and the role of universities, I noted my longstanding resistance to the notion of donor-recipient phraseology, on the premise that there is no one donor who is not receiving and there is no one recipient who is not giving.

This phraseology continues to dominate the landscape presumably because what is considered to be donated or received is inequitably claimed, inappropriately monetised, and unfairly expressed. The prevailing discourse must change in the interests of healthy, meaningful and sustainable global development and higher education at the centre of it.

In bequeathing its colossal fortunes to the Gates Foundation, Warren Buffet, one of the richest people in the world, reportedly urged Bill and Melinda Gates to “swing for the fences”.

I wonder how many more deaths and devastation need to be entertained before we trigger an all-inclusive and truly global plan to swing for the fences, along the lines of the Marshall Plan, to save the world and humanity as a whole.


Damtew Teferra is professor of higher education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, and founding director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa. He is convenor and founder of the Higher Education Forum on Africa, Asia and Latin America (HEFAALA). Teferra is founding editor-in-chief of the International Journal of African Higher Education. He steers the Higher Education Cluster of the African Union’s Continental Education Strategy for Africa. 

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