Today, the urgent needs of those threatened by famine, disease and violence are immense. Understandably, governments and the people of more privileged countries focus first on delivering medical care, shelter, food and water. Beyond these immediate needs, development assistance is directed towards supporting governments and civil society in the poorer regions of the world to build basic societal infrastructure through primary and secondary education, health care systems and enhanced agricultural practices. Collectively, these efforts have made substantial progress in fulfilling the United Nations Millennial Development Goals (MDGs) – targeting extreme poverty and hunger, primary education, child mortality, maternal health, and serious disease.
What role can and do university professors play in this context? Academics Without Borders provides one example of wide-ranging efforts from academics who work in the developed world to partner with colleagues in the Global South to support capacity building initiatives.
Universities and the Sustainable Development Goals
In 2015, the UN introduced the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that turn our attention to not only ensuring survival but also enabling the world’s most disadvantaged to build communities in which they may thrive.
The 17 SDGs, which include the elimination of hunger and poverty and health promotion, also embrace access to quality education at all levels, gender equality, clean water and sanitation, work and economic growth, functional cities, and other objectives that are necessary to allow for civil, prosperous communities, societies and countries. Success in achieving these complex goals will above all require strong, innovative and committed leadership in the developing world.
Universities in these countries have a vital part to play in educating leaders in education, health, business, industry, government, and in the public and nonprofit sectors necessary to build the sustainable, inclusive, civil societies envisaged by the United Nations SDGs.
Universities in the developing world are eager to take on these roles but ill-equipped to do so. Speaking at the meetings of the Canadian Association for Studies in Development (Toronto, May, 2017), Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, Vice Chancellor, United States International University-Africa, summarized the situation as follows:
“… the challenges facing African universities can be encapsulated by the term ‘capacity’—the limited capacities of institutional supply for the continent’s bulging youth population, the fastest growing in the world; of financial and physical resources; the massive shortages of faculty; prevalence of weak institutional leadership and governance; outputs that betray mismatches between graduates and skills required by the economy and employers; and low levels of research infrastructures, cultures, and productivity.”
In Africa as well as in countries throughout Latin America and the Caribbean and much of Central, South and East Asia, universities are faced with a massive increase in enrolment demand and expectations to contribute to enhancing their countries’ health, wealth and quality of life. But they are without the capacity necessary to contribute as they wish and must. The shortages of qualified faculty, poor salaries, inadequate working conditions, and facilities are greater than can be imagined by their academic colleagues in North America and Western Europe.
The development of a doctoral school at the University of Burundi provides a recent illustration of the challenges facing such universities. According to Juma Shabani, the school’s director, the new doctoral school will provide the scientific capacity essential to sustainable development and produce readily employable and much-needed graduates. But the university does not have the qualified faculty with the strong research skills, modern research facilities and access to up-to-date scientific journals required to support PhD programs.
Capacity Building Needs
Despite these circumstances, governments and international development agencies in North America and Western Europe provide little support to capacity building in the universities in the Global South.
It is true that some programs do support the offshore education of students from the developing world, but the effectiveness of such programs is reduced because graduates often remain in the countries where they study. Another weakness of these study-abroad plans is highlighted in the comments of Nick Hopwood, Associate Professor at the University of Technology, Sydney, Australia and Extraordinary Professor at Stellenbosch University, South Africa, regarding the proposed doctoral School in Burundi:
“Doctoral education should take place on ‘home soil’. Not only will the graduates be homegrown in Burundi, but potentially the knowledge they produce, too, by fostering the production of knowledge in situ, and in ways that not only respect local knowledge, but build on and advance it.”
At the same time as governments and international development agencies turn away from enhancing university education in the less privileged countries, individual members of faculty and other professionals in Canadian and other universities in the privileged world are eager to tangibly support their colleagues elsewhere.
A Mission-Driven Organization
Academics Without Borders (AWB) was created to fill this gap – to enable qualified and willing academics to donate their time and skills to support their colleagues as they seek build the capacity of their universities to serve the pressing development needs of their communities.
The AWB model is simple:
– Partner universities in the developing world identify their needs for creating or expanding academic programs, enhancing pedagogy, building research capacity, or improving academic support services.
– AWB works with these universities to develop projects to meet these needs and identifies volunteers to implement the plans.
– Projects follow a “train-the-trainer” model avoiding short-term gap teaching and leaving behind a sustainable increase in capacity.
– Volunteers donate their time.
– Funding for travel, accommodations, meals and insurance is provided by AWB and, to whatever extent possible, contributed to by the partner university.
In the past 10 years, AWB has successfully mounted more than 90 projects involving over 100 volunteers in countries throughout the Global South. The demand for capacity-building projects far exceeds what we can support. There is never a problem finding qualified volunteers to implement the projects irrespective of the discipline or area of university services.
The reach of AWB has been extended recently with the creation of the University Network and its 21 Canadian university members. Membership in the Network is a meaningful expression of their commitment to internationalization, enabling them to directly propose projects in conjunction with partner universities in the developing world and giving preferential consideration for their faculty to serve as volunteers.
AWB is a remarkably efficient organization. Our project costs often are only 15% of their real dollar value because of the time donated by our volunteers and other in-kind contributions. Despite this cost efficiency, as with all nonprofit organizations, our limiting factor is the revenue necessary to execute more projects. Because governments and international funding agencies seldom support the enhancement of higher education in the developing world, AWB relies on contributions from individuals and private foundations.
The mission and operational model of Academics Without Borders are strong. In the coming years, we will build on these fundamentals but also look for ways that we can increase the organization’s effectiveness with our partners in the University Network. We also will explore greater collaboration with other international development agencies where AWB might strengthen a broader program through its experience and ability in university improvement
Strong universities are an essential part of building the health, wealth and wellbeing of communities around the world – communities whose people are determinedly working towards these goals despite formidable obstacles. Academics Without Borders offers a vehicle for those able and willing to contribute to this task.
By Greg Moran, Executive Director, AWB-USF
Reposted from Centre for the Study of Canadian and International Higher Education