In Sudan, U.S. Sanctions Cripple Higher Education

Nearly two decades of U.S.-imposed sanctions have left Sudan’s economy in crisis, and its education system severely damaged.  Online access to information is seriously curtailed, and funding and materials for academic research and programs are hard to come by. Sudan’s universities have suffered the blows of ongoing restrictions and an isolation that seriously hobbles research and the production of knowledge. Many young academics have fled the country.

In 1997, the Clinton Administration imposed economic sanctions on Sudan under the International Emergency Economic Power Act (IEEPA). The United States had already designated Sudan as a State Sponsor of Terrorism. Sanctions were meant to increase U.S. leverage in advancing its foreign policy objectives and pushing the government to cooperate more on counterterrorism issues. The sanctions caused economic collapse and hyperinflation, and the human impact has been severe: poverty, unemployment, limited access to information, and more. Over the years, some of these sanctions have been expanded, and others curtailed. The actual targets of the sanctions have largely managed to use their wealth and power to avoid its effects, and the Sudanese government continues to demonize the United States and its allies, only revealing their powerlessness and inability to act.

The effects of these sanctions on education seem minor in comparison to the damage they have done in other sectors, but they do have a profound effect on the academic community. In an age when education is by nature open and collaborative, the lack of access to information by Sudanese citizens is unacceptable. Online educational websites like Khan Academy remain blocked. Some have reported that when they do manage to access online courses, obtaining a certificate remains a dead end.

Isolation of academics from their international peers is another major by-product of the sanctions. Limited access to international financial institutions, and the need to operate in cash, mean that many researchers have not been able to be present at international conferences and meetings. Universities are unable to pay for necessary services, technology, and subscriptions, leaving their faculty deprived of access to scientific journals and databases such as Scopus, Science Direct and sometimes Google Scholar. This global isolation has made it impossible for professors to advance their careers at Sudanese universities and has led to a brain drain of highly educated individuals, who have left in search of a less tense sanctuary.

In April 2013, there was a partial lifting of sanctions related to educational exchange. Some interesting activities that were authorized included providing teaching services in the humanities, social sciences, environmental sciences, agriculture, public works, public health, law, or business at the Sudanese academic institutions by U.S. individuals. In addition, professional certificate examinations and university entrance examinations were allowed to be administered in Sudan, and U.S. financial institutions were permitted, under certain conditions, to accept payments for tuition, scholarship, admission fees and other expenses from Sudanese citizens. In addition, tax-exempt organizations and not-for-profit research and academic institutions were allowed to carry out seminars in Sudan on topics such as environmental sustainability, teacher training, public health, humanitarian activities and democracy building.

Some local chapters and sections of international scientific organizations and institutions, such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and Arab Women in Computing, are operating in Sudan. They seem to be walking on eggshells and cautiously knocking down barriers. IEEE Sudan has achieved noticeable leaps, organizing international conferences and competitions. But still, IEEE members in Sudan struggle to enjoy the full benefits of their membership.

I spoke with researchers at the University of Khartoum Cube Satellite project. Also known as CubeSat, this international program promotes and develops the skills necessary to launch small satellites for purposes of research and space exploration. The researchers expressed their vexation, saying they aren’t able to apply to many of the launch opportunities that are available to educational institutions. Most free software products that are used for satellite simulations are also blocked. And Sudanese researchers have trouble getting adequate equipment and components, also due to the sanctions.

The organizing committee of the annual Electrical and Electronics Engineering Students Exhibition at the University of Khartoum has experienced similar challenges. Taking part in these exhibitions, I learned about the exhausting process of establishing complicated routes through multiple continents to arrange the delivery of the electronic components that students need in order to implement their projects. Yet each year the exhibition attracts many students, researchers and industry professionals, who acknowledge the students’ achievements in innovation despite all the barriers they face. The exhibition is a strong act of defiance against local and international pressure.

The common use of “informality” in Africa — where people leapfrog across sloppy formal systems and create their own “informal” systems to keep up with the ever-increasing needs of a rising consumer class — is much in evidence among the Sudanese, both locally and in the diaspora. People can’t wait for the government to fix their problems. Some of the informal systems that have emerged to get around the sanctions include money transactions through third parties, other countries, word of mouth, or close and distant relatives. Kickstarter and other crowd-funding platforms are prohibited in Sudan, so funding is usually crowd-sourced by individuals in the diaspora, with the money then transferred to Sudan through travelers.

That is what Anwar Dafalla, an assistant professor at King Faisal University and an advocate, seeks to do through the Sudanese Researchers’ Initiative, which is dedicated to working around the sanctions, in part using the power of technology and social media, to help create more fluidity and mobilization among Sudanese researchers locally and abroad.  Some of the initiative’s objectives are to establish a database of Sudanese researchers all around the world and connect them; provide a platform for peer support; and encourage Sudanese people to engage in research and hence contribute to the development of their nation. The researchers’ initiative has organized workshops, webinars and conferences related to all disciplines.

In a recent paper, Shadi Mehrabi of the University of Alberta examines the efficiency of economic sanctions as a tool of foreign policy. Taking Iran as a case study, he writes that sanctions “affect access to and the quality of higher education in the targeted country.” Recent reports from the U.S. State Department indicate some compliance on the part of the Sudanese government with sanctions, on counterterrorism and internal conflict resolution. Many diplomats and political observers insist that the sanctions have outlived their purpose and that the U.S. government should take immediate tangible steps to revisit its policy toward Sudan. Others have questioned the United States’ commitment to principles of human rights, considering the serious and negative impact of sanctions on Sudanese society. But so far, there has been no movement toward a further easing of the sanctions.


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