US-AFRICA: Universities for development partnerships

Poverty alleviation and economic stimulation on the world's poorest continent are problems the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and Higher Education for Development intend to help solve. Last month the agencies announced strategic capacity-building partnerships between 22 universities in Africa and the US.

With the backing of up to $1.1 million each, detailed five-year strategic plans and comprehensive 10-year visions, the goal is to assist the realisation of Sub-Saharan initiatives for national and regional development through higher educational investment. The institutions will tackle issues ranging from food security and health to natural resource and climate management, energy and education in Africa.

One such partnership initiative is currently being brokered with the Sudan, a country recovering from nearly 50 years of civil war and where 95% of the population relies on subsistence farming.

Two symposia in 2008 identified ways of being able to deal with food security issues in southern Sudan through the invigoration of higher educational training in agriculture and natural resource management. At that time, collaborative efforts led by the Catholic University of the Sudan in partnership with the University of Juba, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and Virginia State University began to develop strategies.

But none of this could happen before the country's ravaged educational infrastructure was restored.

"The task of rebuilding infrastructure has been nearly beyond imagination," explains project director and acting Vice-chancellor of the Catholic University of Sudan, Friar Michael Schultheis, SJ. He adds that many of the initiatives were, in fact, begun - and subsequently abandoned - back in the early 1980s, following a lull in hostilities.

It took another 25 years, and the signing of a comprehensive peace agreement, before the country could begin the huge task of rebuilding.

Among the challenges southern Sudan faces are a myriad of environmental problems ranging from water pollution further upstream along the Nile to wildlife extinction, deforestation and desertification. Moreover, not only did civil war kill or displace at least four million people, but extreme poverty in rural areas is matched by a literacy rate of only 30%.

All this makes the prospects for developing a workable higher education mandate seem insurmountable. But Schultheis and his partners remain confident.

Along with efforts to repatriate the University of Juba from its temporary residence in northern Khartoum, one of the first steps was the decision to establish the Catholic University in Juba as the national university in 2007.

A year later the faculty of arts and social science was opened, and in 2009 the faculty of agricultural and environmental sciences began offering programmes. Based in the town of Wau in the state of Western Bahr el Ghazal, the latter faculty provides a general programme of study, leading to a five-year BSc specialising in agronomy, animal science or environmental science.

So far there is a total of 260 students in both faculties of the Catholic University, with the first cohorts of BA and BSc students in their third and second years respectively.

Though they may be small steps and the road ahead not expected to be easy, Schultheis is hopeful: "The question ahead is 'What will this baby become?'"

Coming from someone who, for more than 40 years, has taught and been involved in establishing curricula at higher education institutions in Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique and Ghana, there is every reason to assume that this project will indeed mature and bear fruit.

The 10 other partnerships are similarly driven by the need to ensure that the resources and expertise of the developed world are put at the service of and are utilised by developing countries in innovative and sustainable ways.

Peter McPherson, President of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, extolled the virtues of the partnerships when he underlined the importance of higher education in building a strong Africa: "These partnerships will combine the knowledge and resources of African and US universities to solve some of the critical issues hindering economic development in African countries."

The collaborative alliances also include the following projects:

* The International Institute for Water and Environmental Engineering in Burkino Faso will be working with Tuskegee University in Alabama to improve hydrological and environmental science and technology. Future partnerships would include expertise from faculty of the University of Benin, and the University of Mines and Technology in Ghana.

* Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia and the University of Connecticut seek to lay the foundations for an integrated water resources engineering programme to train professionals capable of addressing associated development challenges.

* The College of Health Sciences at the University of Ghana in Legon, Accra, and Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, plan to establish a National Educational Centre of Excellence to create and support multidisciplinary programmes in HIV-Aids research and the training of health care providers.

* Kenyatta University in Nairobi, Kenya, and Syracuse University in New York State will be training secondary school teachers and supporting elevation of this profession in the region. Building on an existing institutional relationship, the partners intend to collaborate with other institutions in Kenya and the US.

* The University of Nairobi in Kenya and Colorado State University are spearheading a partnership among other Kenyan, Tanzanian and Malian universities to develop programmes to address the challenges of agricultural and natural resource sustainability among regional dryland communities.

* The University of Malawi in Zomba with Michigan State University and Lincoln University in Oxford, Pennsylvania, will work together to address the problems that population growth, uneven economic development and climate change are progressively wreaking on the country's physical and human environment. In establishing a centre of excellence in ecosystems science services, economic growth will be matched by poverty alleviation in a sustainable fashion for the future.

* The University of Liberia in Monrovia and Indiana University in Bloomington will be seeking to redress the shortage of life science professionals following 15 years of civil war. Assisted by the University of Massachusetts School of Medicine and the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, curricular enhancements and physical infrastructure improvements will build up a life sciences workforce able to meet the needs of the country's 3.5 million people.

* L'Université Gaston Berger in Saint-Louis, Senegal, and Ohio State University will develop a degree programme in agro-ecology to better manage the intensification of a burgeoning agricultural export industry and the potential degradation of fragile Sahelian ecosystems.

* The University of Cape Town in South Africa and the University of Cincinnati intend to explore the use of solar power energy as a means to meet the energy needs of Sub-Saharan Africa. Relying on an innovative new technology and the expertise of industrial partners in the US, the South African university will serve as a centre for training researchers to expand on these technological developments.

* Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, and North Dakota State University seek to establish centres of excellence that will oversee population health and food security issues associated with the spread of pandemic zoonotic and vector-borne diseases. The centres will coordinate responses ranging from surveillance and risk assessment to policy development and communication.