USAID taps into new trends on campus

The United States Agency for International Development, USAID, is taking a fresh approach to tackling major development challenges, seeking to leverage new trends on campuses in both the US and abroad to improve the efficacy and impact of its programmes and policies.

These trends include shifts in institutional structures to reflect more international work, multidisciplinary approaches, and the use of new technologies and programming.

The agency’s recently launched Higher Education Solutions Network is looking for new types of relationships with universities and research institutes, as it seeks to “create and leverage a virtual network of experts who are focused on solving distinct global development challenges”, according to the programme documentation.

The agency will fund multiple multi-million-dollar programmes to be allocated over a five-year period for building the new relationships.

It is expected that, over time, the network will help USAID “identify new solutions and by working together, will save money and improve development results”.

USAID’s intention is to achieve optimal outcomes for its development projects by “working with leading experts to develop transformative approaches, models and ideas that can be broadly shared and implemented”.

In calling for organisational applicants to the network, which was launched on 8 February, the USAID request for applications documentation encouraged applicants “to think creatively and offer new ideas that will address development challenges in a manner that can be scaled and made sustainable by local country governments in order to reduce the need for foreign assistance over time".

Except for foreign policy-restricted countries Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Syria, American and non-US public and private colleges and universities may apply for USAID funding under this initiative.

Information on applying for funding under the programme can be found here. The closing date for questions is 12 March, and for full applications it is 17 July.

“This is a radically new way of thinking about development cooperation,” Kenyan scientist Calestous Juma, director of the Science, Technology and Globalisation project at US-based Harvard University, who was at the White House for the official launch, told University World News.

“When development was viewed as technical assistance, industrialised countries relied on sending consultants. When it was viewed as relief, they funded non-governmental organisations.

“Today, it is widely accepted that innovation is the driver of economic transformation. It therefore makes a lot of sense to put knowledge-based institutions such as universities at the centre of new development cooperation approaches.”

Juma suggested that, in fact, the new approach was long overdue, having already been used with great success in agricultural cooperation.

“The approach repositions USAID as a leader in leveraging scientific and technical knowledge for development,” said Juma. Even more importantly, he concluded, the initiative would tap into the energy and creativity of students.

Speaking to University World News John Daly, a science and technology consultant and former director of the office of research at USAID, said: “This could be significant for higher education development – especially in Africa – but it will depend on the details.”

“US higher education has a lot of intellectual power to offer, as well as experience and linkages with higher education in Africa. If there are significant resources distributed according to merit, we could expect good things.”

Daly continued: “I would like to see partnership with other donors. The foundations have great experience in support of universities, and their knowledge could enhance the government's money. Similarly, European donors have a lot to offer USAID in this field.”

With reference to the effect of the network on reforming higher education in developing countries, Daly said that the will to reform had to come from the governments and educators in the countries themselves, in which case the US input could be a great help.

“Without that will, I suspect the effort will prove frustrating to the US participants and laughable to the host country folk,” Daly said.

“The key to success is to find strong collaborators on both sides, and to support their efforts. The collaborators should choose each other, and peer review is a good way to evaluate the strength of proposed collaborations.

“Some seed money for things such as participation in conferences can help potential collaborators to find each other,” Daly concluded.