Higher education holds the key to sustainable development in Africa

  • 2011•10•14     Tokyo

    MOU signing ceremony between UNU and partner African universities. From left: Prof. George Magoha, Vice-Chancellor, University of Nairobi; Prof. Olive Mugenda, Vice Chancellor, Kenyatta University; Prof. Konrad Osterwalder, Rector, UNU; Prof. Ernest Aryeetey, Vice Chancellor, University of Ghana; Prof. Steven Simukanga, Vice Chancellor, University of Zambia. Photo: Sean Wood/UNU.

    Despite gains made under both the Millennium Development Goals (target: 2015) and the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005–2014), Africa continues to face deep-rooted challenges to sustainable development.

    On 13 October 2011, the United Nations University Institute for Sustainability and Peace (UNU-ISP) hosted an International Symposium on the Role of Higher Education for Sustainable Development in Africa, at UNU Headquarters in Tokyo. The event was organized jointly with the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Science and Technology (MEXT) and the University of Tokyo, with support from the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA).

    The symposium brought together over fifty leading experts in education and development from Africa and Japan, including four Vice-Chancellors from leading African universities. It aimed to share lessons from UNU-ISP’s collaborative initiatives to help African universities develop postgraduate education programmes for sustainable development (ESDA).

    Since October 2008, UNU-ISP has worked with universities in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Zambia to develop postgraduate programmes on “integrated rural development”, “sustainable urban development” and “management of mineral resources”. These programmes are now one step closer to implementation, following the signing of memorandums of understanding (MOUs) with eight African universities in the margins of the symposium.

    In his welcome remarks, UNU Rector Konrad Osterwalder, said: “Education remains the key to sustainable development, and it is imperative that the youth of Africa are given the right skills to sustain a self-perpetuating paradigm of development and to respond to global issues”.

    Rector Osterwalder emphasized the uniqueness of ESDA: It is “owned” by African universities, it focuses on expanding existing knowledge and integrating indigenous knowledge, it builds on the existing postgraduate structure and it places strong emphases on field programmes.

    Innovation in African higher education

    Africa faces many challenges, but also many opportunities. “Africa is growing rapidly, and many companies are recognizing this market as the place to grow. This investment is not CSR, it is part of their business strategy. African businesses need to play the role of corporate partner”, said keynote speaker Dr. Kiyoshi Kurokawa, from the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.

    South Africa’s Ambassdor to Japan, Gert Grobler, offered an example: “Africa has massive reserves of natural resources, so the mining and minerals programme of ESDA is particularly important. We need trained professionals and skilled workers who have been educated on the continent, who are from the continent, to manage these resources.”

    Development needs to be sustainable and should consider how to incorporate Africa’s cultural richness and traditions of living in harmony with nature. Initiatives should be supported to integrate sustainable development into higher education. This requires an increase in education funding. There is also a need to reconcile current discipline-based educational structures with the transdisciplinary requirements of education for sustainable development. A new educational model is needed to develop the skills required to respond to complex social, environmental and economic change.

    While there is an accelerated increase in the number of universities, there is very little collaboration between universities. Greater collaboration is required within Africa, not just with the West, emphasized Prof. Shaukat Abdulrazak, Secretary of Kenya’s National Science and Technology Council, in his keynote speech. “It is important that Africa takes the lead in its own development. ESDA aims to promote this by playing a supporting role, leaving ownership to the network of the African universities”, he said.

    This sentiment was echoed by Mr. Mahesh Pradhan of UNEP, who said: “The hybrid model of collaboration among educational institutions across the world is developing. Africa is a diverse continent with various cultures, assets and challenges, and this type of hybrid partnership [ESDA] is an opportunity for African universities.”

    The way forward

    As demonstrated by the signing of the MOUs by the Vice-Chancellors, ownership of the ESDA programme has received top-level commitments. Support from within Africa is strong, including from the African Development Bank (ADB) and both the Kenyan and South African governments.

    “Higher education is a key area of interest for the ADB, and the ESDA programmes are perfect for ADB support”, said Dr. Boukary Savadogo of the ADB.

    Support from outside of Africa is also positive, with Bjarne Garden of the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD) expressing: “We would like to support research, capacity development and sustainability. We want to support bachelor′s, master′s, and Ph.D. level programs…. ESDA seems to be an excellent fit.”

    ESDA is now moving from the project development phase to the implementation phase. With the positive comments and constructive discussions resulting from the symposium, the outlook looks very promising. UNU is on track to achieve the target of implementing the programme by 2013.

    As Dr. Elias Ayuk, Director of UNU-INRA, said in his closing remarks, “Education is the key to unlocking the potential in people”.

    Through the symposium, UNU has come one step closer to helping Africa develop the skills to forge that key.