CARIBBEAN: Active role for universities in development

Universities are playing an active role in helping to achieve Millennium Development Goals in the Caribbean, where targets have been raised to make the goals more regionally relevant. Rural campuses, advocacy for gender equality, HIV-Aids research and environmental sustainability programmes are just some of the ways in which universities are contributing.

With its chain of small islands surrounding the Caribbean Sea, the region has a relatively high level of development, but with pockets of poverty. Barbados and the Bahamas rank among the top 75 countries in the United Nations Human Development Index, with Barbados scoring 37th place in 2009 and the Bahamas 52.

Given this and its unique status as a collection of politically and culturally diverse states, the Caribbean has aimed higher and approached the MDGs merely as a baseline marker, making modifications and additions where necessary.

"We've raised the bar higher than what exists in the MDGs," said Professor Andrew Downes, director of the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies at the University of the West Indies, at the annual Association of Commonwealth Universities conference in Cape Town last week.

For example in goal two the region expanded achieving universal primary education to also include achieving universal secondary education, and in goal three - promote gender equality and empower women - it added the target to reduce all forms of gender-based violence by 2015.

By engaging in national development research, training students for the labour market and providing outreach services to government and the community, the nine main tertiary institutions in the region have had a significant impact on the region's MDG achievement.

"The role of universities in developing countries is to enhance the human capital base, so they need to focus on development problems in their regions," said Downes.

Caribbean universities have contributed to the MDGs through a variety of initiatives.

The region is on track to eradicating extreme poverty and hunger (goal one), but those living below the poverty line is still high, ranging from 9% in the Bahamas in 2001 to 39% in Dominica in 2002 (the most recent data available).

Through extensive research, the University of the West Indies and the University of Guyana found that education and training played a major role in reducing poverty. Campuses have therefore been established in rural areas in Guyana, Jamaica and Belize to educate the region's poor. A continuing education unit at West Indies offers the community short courses in basic skills such as computing and secretarial and office skills.

The region is on track with goal three, thanks largely to research conducted by universities on gender relations. UWI houses the Institute for Gender and Development Studies, providing research and outreach on women and gender issues in Caribbean society.

Researchers have also looked at the issue of male-underachievement, which is pervasive in the Caribbean. Although females are under-represented in politics, they far surpass males in the classroom. The enrollment rate of women in Caribbean universities is twice that of men, and at UWI females make up 70% of the student body.

"It's the issue of the marginalisation of males," said Downes. "We're trying to get behind the problem, and look at the reasons why males are under-achieving."

Strides have been made in reducing child mortality and improving material health (goals four and five) and in combating HIV-Aids, malaria and other diseases (goal six), though public education and stigma are still big problems. Universities across the region have put HIV-Aids high on the agenda.

The University of the West Indies' HIV-Aids Response Programme is a cross-faculty team of staff and students that conducts research, updates the university's HIV-Aids policy and spearheads public awareness campaigns.

Its Chronic Disease Research Centre studies obesity, diabetes, hypertension and other chronic diseases, and the Tropical Medical Research Unit looks into major problems impacting on the health of the Caribbean population. Further, the University of Technology and University of Guyana have been developing programmes to help boost the number of doctors and nurses in the region.

One area where the region is showing lackluster performance is environmental protection, with deforestation rampant in Belize, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, and climate change affecting coastlines.

To ensure environmental sustainability (goal seven), four universities have created research groups to monitor environmental change, and the University of the West Indies has also been advocating for environmental sustainability at a regional and international level.

The Caribbean is also limping along in achieving goal eight - the development of a global partnership - due to a lack of political will. But universities are doing what they can.

Downes said universities were looking beyond just achieving the MDGs by developing, for example, a coordinated monitoring system, setting new goals for the future and extending research on the relationships between the goals.

"The MDGs are not the beginning and end of life," said Downes. "You as a country or region have to forge your own goals."