Achieving Agricultural Development through Capacity Building for African Higher Education

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By Peter McPherson and Daniel Bornstein

Peter McPherson is the President of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) and former USAID administrator. Daniel Bornstein is a sophomore at Dartmouth College majoring in Anthropology.

USAID administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah emphasized the pivotal role of U.S. universities in confronting global food insecurity during a speech in November before the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. There is no better way to integrate capacity building with agricultural development than by bringing African higher education to the forefront. For years, African universities have fed agriculture graduates into urban-based bureaucracies, detaching them from the urgent rural development issues facing their countries. African leaders now need to transform these universities so that they produce the knowledge and the human capacity needed to directly confront the issues of food security.

The U.S.-Africa Higher Education Initiative's efforts have resulted in USAID awarding partnerships linking U.S. and African universities . (Image credit: Higher Education for Development)

The need for action is urgent: there are nearly one billion hungry people in the world today, disproportionately in sub-Saharan Africa. Food production will have to grow by 70 percent, even in the face of the challenges of climate change, if the planet is to feed more than 9 billion people by 2050. Yet development assistance for African higher education has dropped dramatically since the 1980s.

Rekindling U.S. government support for African higher education meshes perfectly with the Feed the Future initiative, the Obama administration’s comprehensive plan for fighting global hunger. Feed the Future provides an opportunity for African universities to emerge as national bastions of research and training, well-geared to local economic and social circumstances. The coordination of research, training, and extension—which in the U.S. has been achieved over the past 150 years through land-grant universities—will be crucial to this effort.

Agricultural development is not just an African issue but directly affects Americans. Following the spike in global food prices in 2008, riots took place in more than 30 countries. Food security has become a source of international political instability and can open the way for extremists who threaten U.S. national security.

Making progress on food security will produce economic growth that expands markets for American businesses and strengthens trade relations around the world. Partnerships between U.S. and African universities align with American higher education’s goal of producing citizens with global perspective, as the two regions deepen educational and economic ties.

U.S. universities have a proud legacy of contributing to perhaps the greatest agricultural achievement of the 20th century—the development and dissemination of the high-yielding crop varieties of the Green Revolution. In the 1960s, USAID facilitated partnerships between six U.S. land-grant universities and nine agricultural universities in India, whose leaders realized that their nation’s education system was not yet equipped to tackle the agricultural challenges facing the country.

Through the partnerships, Indian university faculty received training at U.S. partner schools, U.S. professors worked on improving the teaching and research capabilities in Indian agricultural universities, and both deepened their knowledge of the challenges they faced and the solutions they sought. The outcome was transformative as India’s agricultural universities developed and deployed the high-yielding crop varieties that were the hallmark of the Green Revolution.

The Indian example illustrates the game-changing potential of university partnerships for agricultural development.  Donor institutions need to marshal the political will to take advantage of this same potential in Africa. The U.S.-Africa Higher Education Initiative, led by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, recently championed an effort that resulted in USAID awarding eleven long-term university partnerships linking U.S. and African universities (awards were made through Higher Education for Development). These partnerships are aimed at building the African institutional and human capacity to tackle food security. They have the ability not merely to improve agricultural education in African universities, but to fundamentally transform them into intellectual and scientific centers that can take on the region’s food security challenges.

President Obama has committed to global food security through the Feed the Future initiative. At the L’Aquila Food Security Summit in 2008, he was a leading force in getting G-8 leaders to pledge US$22 billion over three years for agricultural development. The U.S., by increasing its support for African higher education now, particularly through African-U.S. university partnerships, has the chance to rekindle its legacy and again lead the way in building local capacity to address the challenge of food security, one of the most pressing transnational issues before us.

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