Columbia opens latest Global Center in Nairobi

Columbia University in the United States has launched a new Global Center in Nairobi for the African continent, to serve as a regional hub for research and collaboration as part of the institution’s strategy to achieve a global presence.

The Nairobi centre – which has 35 staff members and is based in a large, modern building – will also host initiatives such as the Millennium Villages Project (MVP) founded by the university’s Earth Institute and headed by celebrated economist Jeffrey Sachs.

Launched last week by Kenya’s President Mwai Kibaki in a ceremony also attended by Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, the centre will be a focal point for African scholarly and research initiatives and will seek collaborations with higher education institutions, governments, NGOs and civil society.

It is the latest in a chain of seven other centres opened across the world, including in Santiago (Chile), Amman (Jordan), Paris (France), Beijing (China), Istanbul (Turkey) and Mumbai (India).

Columbia University President Lee C Bollinger said during the event that the Nairobi hub would link with other global centres to complete the global character pursued by the university in its bid to respond to challenges of globalisation.

“Each opening of a Columbia Global Center holds great promise, not only for new academic partnerships in the host nation and the region, but also for the continuing reinvention of Columbia’s home campuses in New York City, where our scholarly mission demands a global presence”, Bollinger said.

Nairobi, he added, was chosen to host the centre in Africa because of its location, availability of infrastructure, cost-effective research, international connectivity and willingness of the government to embrace and support the initiative.

The Nairobi centre, he said, would promote and facilitate international collaborations, research projects, academic programming and study abroad for certain categories of students, enhancing the university’s commitment to global scholarship.

It will MVP, aimed at helping poor communities meet United Nations development goals, will provide “technical backstopping” for the initiative, and will offer masters students in international development at the School of International and Public Affairs three-month placements in countries where the MVP is being implemented.

Also to be hosted by the centre are the Drylands Initiative – a programme across six East African countries aimed at finding ways to boost the survival of communities in drought-prone areas – and the Africa Soil Information Service funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is expected to commence this year and continue until 2017.

Research projects in the fields of solar energy, soils, e-health and e-agriculture, engineering and architecture, in collaboration with ‘mother schools’ in New York, will also be coordinated from Nairobi.

Kenya’s Higher Education Minister Margaret Kamar called on local and regional universities to waste no time in pursuing areas of research collaboration. “Don't just sit and wait to be invited. Just invite yourselves, with proposals in hand, and link yourselves to this vast body of knowledge, which is something that has been missing in Africa.”

Sachs said the Columbia Global Center in Nairobi would seek to deepen links with governments, civil society and academia to provide solutions to the continent's development needs.

He noted that Africa faced momentous development challenges, exacerbated by a fast-growing population and climate change, even as it continued to enjoy home-grown technological advances that were helping people escape poverty.

“This centre should be able to work towards solving some of these problems, and serve as a true resource hub for meeting the development challenges of our times,” Sachs said, adding that the Nairobi hub would work with regional bodies including the East African Community to find lasting, sustainable solutions to underdevelopment through research.

Columbia had opted to use a different model of establishing a global presence, said the university’s vice-president for the global centres, Safwan Masri. The global centres, while not degree-granting, provided Columbia students with an opportunity to do hands-on research and service-learning abroad.

“Some universities in the United States have built branches and campuses and degree-granting schools abroad. Columbia University is taking a different path. Our global centres provide flexible regional hubs for a wide range of activities and resources intended to enhance the quality of research and learning at the university,” Masri said.

Each centre focused research in areas of greatest interest to the region and host country. The Amman centre, for example, was concentrating on education and curriculum development.

The centres, said Masri, were built on the belief that establishing interactive relationships across geographical boundaries could help address complex challenges by bringing together students, public officials, private enterprise and innovators from different fields.