Written by Dr. Emma Jefferies
Lockdown, locked in, thinking about the world, DesignThinkers Group began to wonder what the impact of our 2016 work has been with Michigan State University’s Alliance for African Partnership. Did our workshop with 32 people have an impact? Yes, it did.
Following up four years later, we can report that the Alliance for African Partnership (AAP) is alive, well, and thriving, even during COVID lockdown in the US and many African countries. Today, AAP involves Michigan State University (MSU) and 10 universities in Africa. Faculty research collaborations are being funded by mini-grants, students go on exchange to African universities (but less frequently than pre-COVID), and online programs are being carried out.
The initial design thinking workshop
In 2016, The African Studies Center at Michigan State University contacted Design Thinkers Group USA (DTG) at the beginning of their co-creation inquiries of a new initiative entitle the Alliance for African Partnership. The initiatives’s goal was to explore ways to strengthen and expand MSU’s relationships with African universities. MSU has an impressive history of working with African institutions since 1960.
A three-day co-creation workshop was designed and carried out on the campus of MSU involving 13 African leaders, 15 MSU faculty and staff members, and four MSU graduate school MasterCard Fellows (read the summary report here).
In July 2017, The Alliance for African Partnership was formalized during a three-day meeting involving 246 participants in Dar es Salaam, representing 15 African countries and covered by 26 media outlets.
Four years later: questions and answers
DTG conducted two focus group discussions during late 2020 to better understand the lasting impact of our work with MSU. Our focus groups consisted of people who were involved in the original co-creation event and continue to be involved with AAP, people who were at the original event and are no longer involved with AAP, and people who were not involved in the original event but are now involved with AAP.
Did the use of co-creation during the Convening Workshop have an influence or impact on AAP?
DTG collaborated with AAP to conduct two virtual focus groups in November 2020 to discuss this question. Here are some of the highlights from focus group findings:
- Many faculty members used collaborative methods, including variations on co-creation before they participated in the Convening Workshop, and continue to use these practices through their work with partners.
- The Convening Workshop set a tone that all participants have a voice and all have something valuable to say. That contributed to a change, for some, in how African faculty relate to counterparts in Africa and with MSU faculty.
- One focus group participant noted that “we got to know people in other departments” through the Convening, and that has helped their research and relationships with other universities. It was also noted that they wished AAP would do more to encourage cross disciplinary research and collaboration.
- The AAP continues to have relevant and lasting impact. For example, the AAP conducted a COVID-19 Public Dialogue Series in 2020. It was attended by over 2,200 unique attendees from 61 countries across every continent, resulting in the publication of professional articles with over 1,500 views of materials on-line.
- “Mini grants” have been a very positive part of AAP’s impact. Seed grant application criteria are announced with larger partnership funding calls in 2016 and 2020 and funding levels vary by the proposed activities. Focus group participants noted that mini grants are helpful to faculty and departments because they are small, so university administrations neither get involved nor want a share of the funds. Focus groups noted that many of the mini-grant-funded research projects are carried out with the goal of changing the relationships between MSU and African universities with the ultimate goal of making relationships more of a collaboration rather than a funder/donor-recipient relationship.
- Not all Convening Workshop participants have stayed involved. It was noted during the focus groups that “all you have to do is either apply or participate. AAP is open and ready to work with all member universities and faculty/students who want to get involved.”
What have been the challenges?
During our time with the two focus groups, DTG learned about things that have not worked well.
- Faculty are busy and have obligations; it is difficult to participate in AAP. Participants noted that “you just have to make time” and “just make it a part of your work.”
- Use of co-creation is not happening in all parts of AAP; in some cases, focus group participants noted that more traditional relationships continue. One participant noted that co-equal relationships are easier to establish through AAP as that was the “foundation” of the organization and those norms are established.
- Traditional research is still being funded, but what is needed is greater collaboration to address more complex, cross-discipline challenges. One participant noted that the mini grants are not large enough to do this, while another noted that cross-department collaborations are not encouraged by university administrations. Yet another participant challenged the group: “We just have to do it.”
- One participant noted that AAP is not receiving mini grant applications outside the traditional disciplines – agriculture, economics, etc. Based on our conversations, AAP is interested in receiving more applications in education, nursing, journalism, other sciences, and a broader array of disciplines.
- It was also noted that universities within the African region needed to collaborate more with each other beyond the North/South partnership with MSU.
Findings and takeways
AAP is succeeding. Participating universities—10 universities in Africa and MSU—are succeeding. Collaborations are taking place through mini grants, special events, and faculty/student exchanges.
Co-creation set a norm. For some, the Convening Workshop in 2016 was not their first experience with co-creation; for others, it was a first. Overall, it seems co-creation set a norm, a positive tone, and way of doing business that, for many, continues and is actively encouraged in AAP. One of these positive norms includes collaboration as professional equals. One focus group participant stated that he is currently utilizing the DTG co-creation methods in a program he is facilitating and would like to be more proficient in facilitating virtual co-creation trainings.
Trial-and-error helps. One focus group participant noted he has seen a lot of trial-and-error efforts. He believes having the flexibility to try things is a real AAP strength, one that is connected to the “prototyping” exercise that was conducted during the Convening Workshop. Other participants in the focus group expanded on this, suggesting that AAP is not trying and failing, but it is trying and learning and building upon the ideas that work. At the same time, AAP does try some new things.
In our conversations, one participant encouraged AAP to strengthen relationships with different university departments using new models and to explore new funding models. For example, the current model makes it difficult for younger faculty to be involved in AAP because they do not have time to make errors and focused on getting tenure.
MSU is still the big brother. Some participants noted that MSU does have a fiscal responsibility for funding many of the AAP activities, such as the mini grant programs. They expressed concern over MSU’s ability to continue being the “big brother.” Some noted that there needs to be more co-funded activities, other donors, or institutional funding to make this model sustainable.
Bottom up or top down? One focus group discussed how university leadership, presidents, and deans are heavily involved in the current AAP model. Participants explained that this was necessary to get the Alliance off the ground and legally established on each campus. Yet, the real work and change that is taking place is at the faculty and student level. Some encouraged more support for changes in how faculty across departments and disciplines within each university work with each other and between universities. It was pointed out that relationships need to be encouraged and supported over time to promote significant change.
Youth. One topic that came up during each of the discussions was the need for AAP to work with more youth. These discussions varied about what could be done and how to do it. As one participant put it, in the “long run, it is the next generation” that will bring about the real changes AAP is striving to achieve.
In conclusion, Design Thinkers Group is proud to have worked with MSU and the Convening Workshop participants that led to the formal establishment of the AAP and built the foundation for a continuing culture of co-creation within the initiative. We see a bright future for AAP, both within MSU and within AAP participating universities in Africa. The AAP model for collaboration and cooperation as co-equals is growing and a sustainable model, with continued efforts to expand the funding base.
DTG thanks all the faculty and staff who participated in our focus groups; we enjoyed talking with you, learning from you, and we encourage your visions for stronger ties between universities, faculty and students.
FOCUS GROUP PARTICIPANTS
Alliance for African Partnership
Wenda Bauchspies – Michigan State University https://www.linkedin.com/in/wenda-bauchspies-99822b70/
Chinwe Effiong – Michigan State University https://www.linkedin.com/in/chinwe-effiong-3888644
Steve Esquith – Michigan State University https://www.linkedin.com/in/stephen-esquith-144b1029/
Robert Ofoli – Michigan State University https://www.linkedin.com/in/robert-ofoli-9610a0a3/
David Skole – Michigan State University https://www.linkedin.com/in/david-skole-3b143713/
Leonard Wantchekon – Princeton University https://www.linkedin.com/in/leonard-wantchekon-ba4bab35/
Cholani Weebadde – Michigan State University
Paul Tiyambe Zeleza – United States International University https://www.linkedin.com/in/paul-tiyambe-zeleza-b91ab051/
Design Thinkers Group USA
David Esch – https://www.linkedin.com/in/c-david-esch-3106b3/
Marc Bolick – https://www.linkedin.com/in/marcbolick/
Augusta Olaore – https://www.linkedin.com/in/augustaolaore/
Katie Weber – https://www.linkedin.com/in/katherinetweber/
Michigan State University
International Studies and Programs
Convening Workshop Report
Launch of AAP
News and information about AAP programs and activities
Design Thinkers Group USA