ARAB STATES: Obama and G8 back university links

In response to the Arab uprisings, US president Barack Obama and leaders of the G8 nations have renewed their commitment to promoting investment in innovation and higher education, and supporting university-industry partnerships, across the Middle East and North Africa.

The G8 declared last week that it would facilitate links as part of its agenda to support the growth of freedom and democracy in the wake of the Arab Spring. "We will encourage student mobility and foster greater educational and research linkages between our universities and those in the MENA region," the declaration said.

This followed a speech by US president in Washington on 19 May when he said the greatest untapped resource in the Middle East and North Africa was the talent of its people: "We on our efforts to broaden our engagement beyond elites, so that we reach the people who will shape the future - particularly young people.

"We will continue to make good on the commitments that I made in Cairo - to build networks of entrepreneurs and expand exchanges in education, to foster cooperation in science and technology, and combat disease."

A US plan to support university-industry partnerships in the region and in Asia will be launched under the Global Innovation through Science and Technology (GIST) initiative at a milestone conference, "Economic Development through Science and Technology Innovation", in Rabat, Morocco, from 16-17 June.

Funded by the US Department of State and implemented by US-based CRDF Global, the initiative is a key component of Obama's outreach programmes launched in his historic 2009 address, "A new beginning", at the University of Cairo.

Under the GIST plan, programmes that institutionalise linkages between universities and businesses will be developed through industry outreach partnerships and hands-on training experiences that develop innovation leaders primed to meet industry's needs.

The plan also includes building a virtual network linking researchers, innovators, entrepreneurs and investors to enable the free exchange of ideas and promote an open innovation culture. It will help improve access to proven technologies appropriate for economic development.

In an effort to enable indigenous innovation, GIST will sponsor region-wide and country-specific start-ups and mid-stage business plan competitions that foster the entrepreneurial spirit by connecting high-potential ideas originating from universities with seed funding and mentorship including technology validation, market assessment and business plan development.

In Rabat, CRDF Global will announce a programme that will showcase opportunities for entrepreneurs and researchers to compete for funding.

Analysing the root cause of the Arab revolutions in his 19 May address, "A Moment of Opportunity", Obama said: "Politics alone has not put protesters into the streets - throughout the region, many young people have a solid education, but closed economies leave them unable to find a job. Entrepreneurs are brimming with ideas, but corruption leaves them unable to profit from them."

The G8 said it would use the Euro-Mediterranean Office for Youth as one tool for its policy of encouraging more student mobility and greater university and research links.

Mohammed Kuchari, an associate professor of microbiology at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, said that to maximise its effect on reforming MENA-based universities, these international initiatives must join forces with national and regional initiatives.

For example, the proposed virtual network should be linked to the online innovation network for the Middle East, currently under development by the Saudi Arabia-based King Abdullah University of Science and Technology.

Others were sceptical of the impact. Hassanuddeen Abd Aziz, dean of postgraduate studies at the International Islamic University in Malaysia, said it was too early to assess the impact of the commitments: "It remains to be seen whether it is going to be implemented on the ground or it is just an oral exercise in science diplomacy," Aziz told University World News.

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US-ISLAMIC STATES: Global Initiative through S&T

Embedded in President Obama's speech, there are several instances of emotional intelligence, which could appeal to the sensibility of any thinker and from such a display of intellectual competence any leader with aspiration for greatness can take as a lead.

Essentially, the fact that Obama displays a high level of understanding of the enormity of the political imbroglio in the Middle East and North Africa revalidates American's interests in promoting standards of leadership for the rest of the world. His speech also embodies some degrees of responsiveness to national and international issues that warrant urgent attention.

In this way, Obama's ability to make meaningful contributions towards the maintenance of global peace and security is not in doubt. However, his proposed interventions in those troubled countries should not be tantamount to relegation of the capacity of the people to put forward the kind of solutions that they deem fit.

It is high time that American government recognised the fact that Africans are also wise and they can solve their own problems. The intervention that would come from the US is welcome but such intervention should not be delivered outside the logic of indigenous epistemology that can create opportunities for locally grounded sustainable development ideas.

It is also necessary for Obama to correct the impression that the West should no longer be blamed for African woes. Colonialism and all the atrocities it produced constitute a major pillar of underdevelopment crisis in contemporary African societies. The past is still present and the future starts from now.

The future of Africans had been toyed with since the slave trade era. In these circumstances, all foreign assistance to African governments should be freely provided without any conditionality.

Dr Akeem Ayofe Akinwale