Africa’s Best and Brightest Major in Building Communities
Rahel Eshetu, Adanech Yared, and Lemlem Teweldemedhin are typical graduate students. The three young Ethiopian women wear jeans, pull their hair back in ponytails, fling messenger bags over their shoulders, and speak earnestly about their ideals. But these brilliant women do not spend their days cloistered in an ivory tower—they are far too busy interviewing their countrymen and women, studying river basins, and inspecting soil. They are not afraid to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty.
“I want to improve the water quality in my country,” Ms. Teweldemedhin said with determination. She has already done just that through her ongoing graduate research on Ethiopia’s Baro-Akobo river basin. Ms. Teweldemedhin, along with Ms. Eshetu, Ms. Yared, and 39 of Ethiopia’s best and brightest, were selected from a pool of 600 applicants to be the first students of the USAID-backed Ethiopian Institute of Water Resources graduate program in Water Resources and Engineering Management, one of several water-focused graduate programs at the Institute. Each student has three advisors: an American professor, an Ethiopian professor, and an Ethiopian water professional. The programs combine high-level academics, exchange programs, and concrete development work.
“But If You Teach a Man to Fish…”
The Institute was inaugurated by U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia Donald Booth in February 2012 and was launched through a partnership between five Ethiopian universities, the University of Connecticut, and Alabama A&M University. It was established under the auspices of the Africa-U.S. Higher Education Initiative, which USAID and the Association of Public and Land grant Universities pioneered in 2007 with implementing partner Higher Education for Development (HED).
The initiative is faced with the daunting task of addressing Africa’s multiple development priorities—unsafe drinking water, HIV, infant mortality, and food insecurity, among others—in a sustainable way that empowers Africans to solve their own problems. They have met this challenge through human and institutional capacity building at universities. In the past five years, the initiative’s partnerships have erected labs, put books on library shelves, and introduced the latest technology to campuses throughout Africa. They have also fostered partnerships to establish cutting-edge, development-oriented academic programs.
Building capacity has long been a priority of USAID, but these partnerships represent a new approach. “USAID has been investing in capacity building for many years because the Agency believes that development needs to be localized and owned by the citizens and governments of developing nations,” explained USAID/Ethiopia Education Office Chief Allyson Wainer. “Focusing on African universities will help improve education systems and research capabilities, which in turn will increase the knowledge base and skills needed
The 11 mutually beneficial partnerships between American universities and African universities focus on providing solutions to local development problems. Through exchange programs, American scholars and students learn about Africa, development, and working in the field, while African scholars get access to extensive resources and learn about the latest development ideas and methodologies.
These high-level academic programs on African soil guard against a mass exodus of the most talented African students that occurs when quality of education is low and jobs are scarce. These programs enable students to get a top-notch education while staying at home. Though there is no guarantee that they won’t migrate abroad after graduation, the programs are tailored to growing sectors with a high demand for educated professionals.
Moreover, the students’ fieldwork during graduate school ties them to their communities. Elias Tedla Shifraw, a P.h.D. candidate at the Ethiopian Institute of Water Resources said, "I have a lot of experience, and this experience should be transferred to my compatriots." Another student, Malese Terezfe said, “[The Institute] has a long-term benefit to me and my country.”
Most of the new programs actively recruit female graduate students. “There is an emphasis on improving women’s participation in training, research, communications, and curriculum development,” said HED Program Officer for Africa Teshome Alemneh. This has proven to be a challenge, but one that universities take seriously. Only four women have enrolled in graduate programs at the Institute so far. However, these four trailblazers will serve as important role models, paving the way for more women. In a country like Ethiopia, where almost two thirds of adult women are illiterate, this makes all the difference.
Upon graduation, students will be equipped to land secure jobs and to provide for their future families. The students are encouraged to go into academia and take faculty positions at the Institute or other institutions so they can teach even more people the development skills they have learned. Whether they go into academia, work in the field to foster development, or both, the students have promising futures ahead of them. Alemayehu Kasaye, a Master’s candidate at the Institute said, “I have gained knowledge which develops my life for tomorrow.”
Water Runs Through It
While the partnerships are diverse, one thing stands out: Most of them involve water. “Opportunities for economic development in the Sub-Saharan region revolve around sustainable water resources management. Water infrastructure is a driving force in many sectors, especially health, agriculture, and energy,” Ms. Wainer explained.
For example, Burkina Faso’s International Institute for Water and Environment Engineering has teamed up with Tuskegee University and Princeton University to establish a network of centers of excellence in water and environmental science. This partnership began in April 2011, and there are already plans to expand the network to Ghana and Nigeria.
Water resource management is also central to Kenya’s new Center for Sustainable Dryland Ecosystems and Societies (CSDES), which was established by a partnership between University of Nairobi and University of Colorado. Kenya’s drylands are afflicted by frequent droughts that have worsened with climate change. This threatens the pastoralists who inhabit them, forcing them to constantly uproot in search of water. Professor Jesse T. Njoka, CSDES Coordinator, said the center was “established as the hub of a web of collaborative institutions engaged in education, research, and action supporting dryland communities.” The center not only offers graduate courses and research support, but also actively recruits pastoralists, especially women, to study at the center.
Because 70 percent of Africans are employed in farming and food security is an ever-present concern there, several of the partnerships focus on agriculture. One partnership between Senegal’s Université Gaston Berger and the Ohio State University works to alleviate the “dustbowl effect” brought on by inadequate irrigation. They established a center for agricultural research and development and created degree programs in agronomy and crop production. Another partnership, between the University of Malawi and Michigan State University, addresses sustainable land and water management, in line with the Government’s recommendations for the country. This partnership develops the University of Malawi’s institutional and research capacity in agro-ecosystem services to help expand understanding of the benefits that people derive from ecosystems.
High infant mortality rates and the prevalence of HIV/AIDS are additional problems that require the attention of highly trained professionals who understand on-the-ground realities. Programs at universities in Uganda, Liberia, and Ghana train students to address public health challenges in their communities.
Building capacity can also build a country. In the fledgling state of South Sudan, a partnership between Catholic University of South Sudan, University of Juba, and Virginia Tech helps rebuild the post-conflict nation. Mr. Alemneh said this could create opportunities for and enhance the livelihoods of hundreds of South Sudanese men and women. “Through this partnership, the capacity of University of Juba in the areas of agriculture and food security will be built, which is virtually non-existent,” he said.
Communities Take Notice
USAID’s approach is already making a difference. While cultivating local talent may take more time than flying out Western experts, the rewards have a greater impact. These pioneers are more likely to stay in country and see the results of their labors over the long term. Moreover, they are better equipped to come up with solutions to their countries’ problems because they understand local situations. They have lived them.
Ms. Eshetu and Ms. Yared connected the plight of Ethiopian women like themselves with their studies during an interview with HED. “Due to climate change, women have more [of a work] load. [They have to] collect water, cook, and do everything,” Ms. Eshetu said. Ms. Yared added, “Girls lose time because they [must] fetch water and then have no time to go to school.”
This combination of brains and drive, and specialized, firsthand knowledge has proven potent. While most of the partnerships are only in their second year, they have already impacted Africa outside the campus gates. The students have been going out into their communities, talking to residents, and using their newfound skills to help their neighbors, friends, and themselves.
Communities now approach the Institute for assistance. One of these communities is Kori, a pastoralist village of 2,000 in Ethiopia’s scorching desert-engulfed Afar region. The village had two wells, but the water in them had toxic fluoride content and a temperature that exceeded 138 degrees Fahrenheit. Drinking the water gave residents fluoride poisoning that affected their teeth, bones, and internal organs and caused social and psychological problems. The regional government capped the wells, but with no alternative water source for 50 miles, residents insisted the toxic water was better than nothing. After the Institute was approached, a team of researchers took to the desert. Based on their knowledge and research, they were able to design a de-fluoridation unit for the wells, restoring safe drinking water to all of Kori.
Experiences like these are rewarding, and students have been heartened by the communities’ positive responses. “The community has a good attitude and respect for my research,” Mr. Kasaye said.
These positive experiences have inspired students to give back. Mr. Shifraw summed it up when he said, "Unless we work for our country, who will be working for us?"
Last updated: September 17, 2013