Remarks by Assistant Administrator Eric Postel at the Annual Meeting of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU)

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Introductory Comments – Special Relationship

Good afternoon.  Thank you Peter.  Both USAID Administrator Raj Shah and I thank Peter – a former USAID administrator himself – for his counsel and advice on the topic of USAID and Universities working together in the international development arena.  

In a recent speech at Duke University, USAID Administrator Raj Shah told an audience that to provide food security for the 860 million people who go to bed hungry every night and to set communities on a path from dependency to resilience, we need new solutions and that means, quote, “not only working with long-standing research partners like Kansas State and Virginia Tech to develop new drought-tolerant seeds, but also harnessing the private sector to scale them.”

In this short quote, Administrator Shah encapsulates two important ideas – and these ideas are the backdrop for my remarks today – our relationship with institutions of higher education is long-standing, special and has been, and will continue to be, critical to global development.  But also, times are changing, the challenges are enormous, and the ever-expanding constellation of actors mandates that we approach our partnership differently.

So, with the time I have today, I want to do three things: First, explain what the USAID higher education relationship looked like when I entered USAID in 2011 to highlight a small part of the enormous amount of work we do as partners; second, talk a bit about how the world is changing and what that means for our respective organizations; and third, explain USAID’s vision for Higher Education engagement and partnership in this changing world.

Current State of USAID-Higher Education Partnership

Throughout my remarks, I will try to give specific examples of higher engagement and partnership.  As the Assistant Administrator for the Bureau of Economic Growth, Education, and Environment (E3) – and one that is very committed to these sectors – I’d like to give examples and highlight the great work E3 is doing in partnership with you.  Yet, as you likely know, this Agency does an enormous amount of work with higher education institutions across all of our sectors – particularly through our agriculture, health, and science and technology programs – and these also bear mention here today at APLU, particularly agriculture.

I started as Assistant Administrator in March 2011.  Entering USAID, I was not someone that needed convincing that higher education is important.  For one, my wife was a 15 year employee at the University of Wisconsin.  I heard about and saw the power of universities every day at our dinner table.  But, professionally, both my private sector work and my participation in the 2006 HELP Commission, gave me knowledge of and belief in the critical role that higher education plays in development.

I knew that strong tertiary education systems build the human capital and advance the knowledge and innovation critical to economic growth and national development.  I knew that Higher Education institutions can be models of good governance, beacons of hope for marginalized populations, and pillars of stability in times of rapid change, conflict, or crises.  I also knew that USAID has a long-tradition of working with higher education institutions to harness their intellectual energies, research capabilities, community connections and capacity building expertise to address tough development challenges.  

Upon my arrival, in addition to talking to Peter and many others in higher education, I also asked my staff to run the numbers.  For the 6 prior years, direct USAID funding to colleges and universities averaged $275 million a year.  By 2011, total USAID direct financial flows to institutions of higher education – both U.S. and foreign - - totaled $436 million, a 35% increase.

The vast majority of the USAID higher education funding in 2011 – a full 83% of it – went to U.S. universities.  This funding was predominantly used in health (40%), higher education capacity building (33%), and agriculture programs (12%).

<> My team also looked at the functional areas of this engagement and found that U.S. universities were engaged in: program implementation; capacity building; research; and conducting evaluations.  We found that 67% of the awards contained capacity-building components; 48% contained research components, 40% had program implementation components – for example helping distribute bed nets, train nurses, and/or doing pre-natal counseling for in health programs; and only 10% of the awards used universities in evaluation work.  


These numbers I just outlined don’t tell the entire story because there is also funding going to universities as “sub-grantees” under larger awards – for example, the great work Rutgers is doing in Liberia and the Philippines in STEM education under a prime award to Research Triangle International. 

These numbers also don’t include other – non-award relationships, such as the support that APLU provides for the Board for International Food and Agricultural Development (BIFAD). 

These 2011 numbers also cannot capture the full history of our relationship – the significant exchange programs and participant training work in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.  For example, the AFGRAD and ATLAS programs that trained over 3,000 of Africa’s current leaders, and the SEED program that has partnered with Georgetown University and a network of community colleges to bring marginalized students from Latin America to the U.S. for the last 25 years. 

In looking at these numbers, I was amazed by the breadth and the size of what we were doing together.  However, as Dr. Shah astutely understood, our respective landscapes were changing – indeed had changed – and the way we approached our relationship needed to also change.     

Our worlds are changing

The contribution of higher education to globalization and the impact of globalization on higher education is a topic that is well documented and better covered by others at this meeting.  There is, of course, immense pressure on higher education institutions to graduate students with 21st century skills and global perspectives for shifting and increasingly competitive job markets; to forge international partnerships and recruit foreign students; to contribute basic and applied research to help solve challenges that know no borders and are different today than they were five years ago, and to do all of this in an environment of shrinking public dollars and increasing accountability regimes. 

But I don’t need to tell you that.  I also don’t need to tell you about the importance of MOOCs and their potential to change the enterprise of higher education all together. 

I also don’t need to tell your students that the world is changing.  U.S. students are studying abroad in massive numbers – at Duke, for example, more than 50% of a graduating class will have studied overseas.  Students are also concerned about global issues while on campus – I am told the most subscribed class at Berkeley these days is the global development course.  Indeed, UW-Madison’s common reading selection this fall was chosen because their theme was “Global Connections.”

Similarly, USAID’s work is also changing.  One way to view this change is through the percentage of U.S. financial flows to developing countries that are from the public sector.  In the 1960s, of the $23 billion in U.S. resource flows going to the developing world – three-quarters of it was public and only a quarter private.  By 2010, the total financial flow from the U.S. was 10 times higher – just over $200 billion – and the public to private portion had reversed with public flows now only accounting for 14% of the total. 

USAID is no longer the only game in town either – NGOs, churches, private businesses, higher education institutions, and civic organizations like the Lions Club are leading American assistance in all corners of the world.  USAID is a part of a constellation of actors working to impact development outcomes in this this new world.

A second force for change in the nature of USAID’s work is the so-called “Paris Declaration” of 2005 and the “Accra Action Agenda” of 2008 – global compacts and commitments to reform aid effectiveness.  Many of you will know of our so-called USAID Forward reforms that are in the spirit of these accords.  They tackle tough issues like procurement reform, better monitoring & evaluation, and increased funding through country systems and local organizations, including local universities. 

USAID believes that for our work to be of optimal effectiveness and to be truly sustainable, it must be locally-owned and led.  This dynamic has changed the way we look at program design, procurement and relationships among our various partners.  For example, for the first time, we are partnering directly with Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital in Kenya to support the treatment of more than 150,000 people living with HIV – AIDS.  Long-time partner Indiana University now serves as a sub-grantee to the Kenyan hospital – inverting the traditional partnership model and helping prepare the program for the day when we’re no longer needed.

A third factor impacting USAID’s work is changing demographics.  In 1990 the world’s middle class numbered $1.8 billion people and was largely concentrated in North America, Europe, and Japan.  By 2025 the global middle class is expected to number $4.2 billion, 80% of whom will live in countries.  These 4.2 billion producers, consumers, and increasingly mobile people represent both enormous challenges and opportunities – for which our systems and programs must account. 

These are just three examples of the change we see, experience, and shape – there are many more examples.

Ideas for more and better engagement

So, our worlds have changed, and are changing.  But what does that mean for our partnership?

In USAID’s Office of Science and Technology, we have launched the most significant USAID investment in the power of higher education to solve complex development solutions in a generation.  The Higher Education Solutions Network – launched last year – is a partnership among USAID and seven top universities (5 of them APLU schools!) designed to harness the ingenuity and passion of university students, researchers, and faculty to deliver the greatest impact and develop the most innovative solutions to global development challenges.  Breaking new ground, HESN also seeks to change the culture at USAID and universities simultaneously – with USAID being more receptive to and adept at using data, research, and evidence – integrating innovations into our program cycles, and welcoming students and faculty into our structures.  Similarly, HESN seeks to break down silos on campuses and catalyze interdisciplinary centers and approaches.

While HESN gets a lot of deserved attention, there are other programs that also represent a new way of doing business, of partnering.  For example, there is PEER – Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Researchers, where by NSF and NIH funded investigators on your campus are connected to more than 100 USAID-funded investigators on developing country

USAID is also leading the US Government in the recruitment of AAAS fellows – with more than 50 new fellows coming to us each year – far outpacing other US Government departments and agencies.  We are deploying these fellows – many of them recent graduates from your campuses – to work on difficult problem sets in food security, water, climate change, global health, and energy that require scientific inquiry, rigorous methods, innovative approaches, and grounding in evidence and data.

In our sector-based programs, there are examples right from my own E3 Bureau.  In environment, Arizona State University is building the local capacity of engineers and technicians to install, operate, and maintain solar panel systems in the Pacific Islands.  ASU – by the way - is also training engineers in Vietnam, teachers in India, and women leaders in Armenia.  North Dakota State University and Makerere University are developing a surveillance system to enable the reduction of diseases that endanger food security, trade and human productivity in Uganda.  In economic growth – Michigan State is working with our private enterprise team to collect and understand data on agriculture markets and value chains in Africa.  In Education – Columbia University is partnering with Indonesia universities to improve STEM education.  In Water, the University of Connecticut and USAID have been working together for a long time.  And very recently, we launched a Wildlife Trafficking Tech Challenge, for which we requested university researchers and students to bring innovative ideas to the fight against this global scourge.

And in Agriculture and Nutrition we have vastly increased our investments.  Julie Howard from USAID will describe this in greater detail in a few minutes.

We are proud of these partnerships with higher education – and we should do more of them.  We want to do them more directly with universities themselves, particularly local universities, and not through intermediaries.  We hope to engage students and young people more – both to work with them on their own development initiatives and so as to train the next generation of development professionals.  We want to work with data and make it better data, and more open.  We want to support publications, post-docs, fellows, and interns.  And we have some ideas for how to do this.

Concrete Ideas Moving Forward

This past year Dr. Shah asked me to convene a high level internal task force to look at more and better avenues for Agency engagement with higher education.  The task force made a number of recommendations to the Administrator, all of which were approved and are now being moved forward.

First, we hope to hear soon about a White House appointment of a Senior Higher Education Coordinator for the Agency.  This person – hopefully a former senior leader of U.S. higher education institution – will be the front door for university engagement with the Agency - meeting with you and/or your staff.  She or he will also be an internal champion for doing more and better work with higher education.  This Coordinator will not only know who our partners are, what their landscapes look like and what the Agency is doing with them, but will also help extend our higher education engagement vision.

Second, we are developing a new solicitation for higher education engagement.  We envision this solicitation as a 365 day a year open call for ideas for work that can be done in the development of higher education and in higher education for development.  This solicitation will likely have windows for engagement that reflect Administration priorities, as well as USAID reforms like local solutions and local ownership. 

Third, in the area of MOOCs and Open Education Resources, USAID is looking at several possible areas of engagement.  These include ways to integrate MOOCs and other distance education opportunities into our capacity development and participant training programs to provide value for money and increase the scope and scale of these programs.  It is also includes working on a partnership with a MOOC aggregator website to extend the reach and legibility of the wide, growing, and somewhat complicated MOOC universe to developing country populations and to development professionals.

We will continue to keep thinking all this through, and we invite your feedback and your ideas.


In closing – the point I want to leave you with is that opportunities are expanding – both in the size and dollar amount of our partnership – but also in the diversity of it, from person to person connections to larger laboratories and centers.  Our partnership is stronger today than it was four years ago and we see that growth continuing.  If we can marry the innovation, rigor and passion on campus, with the scaling, financing and sustainability of the private sector and NGOs with the policy and convening capabilities of USAID, I’m confident we can make some big contributions to international development.

So now, I am particularly pleased that Julie Howard is here from the USAID Bureau of Food Security.  Many changes in that Bureau’s engagement with higher education are due to Julie’s leadership. 

Thank you very much!  I look forward to the panel discussion. 

Last updated: October 11, 2017

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